Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will meet US President Barack Obama later this month to try to boost the India–US relationship. But what can realistically be achieved, with Indian elections and critical regional security challenges, and new interlocutors on the US side in the form of National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel?

To explore this question, Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, IISS Senior Fellow for South Asia, invited K.P. Nayar, chief diplomatic editor and correspondent for the Americas at India’s Telegraph newspaper, to give a talk on US–India relations last week. Nayar – who remarked that as a journalist he could not resist a snappy headline – titled it ‘Will India’s “Rice and Kerry” Diplomacy in Washington take off?’  

As Roy-Chaudhury noted, the India–US relationship has ‘undergone a paradigm shift, from a period of concern over the US role in South Asia, to one of potential strategic partnership’. The high point was the 2008 bilateral civil nuclear deal under which India agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities, and the United States agreed to work towards full civil nuclear cooperation.

An Indian initiative

Nayar agreed that the India–US relationship has been ‘one of the most transformational of our time’, but instead of ‘running the gamut’ on the subject, he preferred to share a few salient anecdotes from his years covering the beat. With this in mind he had brought not a prepared speech, but his various reporter’s notebooks.

Referring to the immediate future, Nayar observed that the forthcoming Indian prime minister’s visit on 27 September was ‘to a large extent an Indian initiative’. India is keen to kindle the relationship because, after the zenith of the 2008 nuclear deal struck with US President George W. Bush, not much has happened.

He pointed out that it was, however, a ‘testament to the relationship’ that Washington was making an exception by allowing Singh to visit so close to the time of the UN General Assembly in New York, which opened on Wednesday. The US does not normally encourage visits around this time: if they did, ‘many people would want to hop over from New York to Washington’ before or after the meeting, explained Nayar.

He said India and the US are hoping to develop their ties: ‘both sides have been looking at something, not quite on the scale of the nuclear deal, but something that would be a symbol of the relationship, and how it is going to go forward.

‘My expectation that permission to export LNG [liquefied natural gas] will be one of the elements that may come out,’ he said.

There are restrictions on the US exporting LNG to countries with which it does not have a free-trade agreement (FTA). But the US Department of Energy recently announced conditional authorisation to export LNG to non-FTA countries from a terminal in Louisiana in which the Gas Authority of India has a stake.  

Nayar thinks it is possible that export options will be developed. The other area likely to be discussed is the defence relationship; this may include a ‘unique proposal’ under which US defence equipment would be loaned to India.

Responding to a question about the extent to which China was the ‘elephant in the room’ for the bilateral relationship in both the US and India, he felt that the China–India relationship has an influence on the US–India one, but is not sure the reverse is true. He added that the issues between China and India are given a lot of weight in the media, but that ‘on-the-ground realities can be managed’; not a single shot has been fired along the India–China border in over 40 years.

Rice diplomacy

Nayar also provided some historical context on the development of Indo-US ties. Remarking again on the title of the talk, he noted that ‘Rice’ had been a crucial element: ‘In my estimation, the one person who has singularly contributed, as an individual, more than anybody else to the transformation of Indo–US relations is Condoleezza Rice,’ he said, first as national security adviser to President George W. Bush, then later as his secretary of state.

Nayar said that over the years covering the diplomatic and political beat in Washington, he observed that it is often one individual prepared to push for a relationship that results in diplomatic progress. Another example is former US Ambassador to Moscow Williams Burns, who Nayar said was the man who really pushed for the ‘reset’ between the United States and Russia.

He felt that for the remainder of Obama’s term, the person to take on this role would be Susan Rice. Remarking on her time as US permanent representative to the United Nations, he observed that: ‘it’s only the resolutions or president’s statements that people remember, but the negotiations and the lobbying talks … it’s amazing how much Susan Rice contributed to India and the US working together in the Security Council’.

Going back a few more years, he told the audience that, contrary to what people tend to think today, Indira Gandhi had sought strong US–India relations and did in fact try very hard, but was frustrated with how she was treated, by the Nixon administration in particular.

Nayar recounted that Gandhi had been so fed up with President Nixon's and [Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger's behaviour towards her, that at a White House press conference in the Rose Garden she responded to an American journalist’s questions in French.

‘There was no translator,’ said Nayar, nor had she warned anyone she would be responding in French. She was, he remarked, in some ways even more of an Iron Lady than Margaret Thatcher.

Listen to the discussion.

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