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US elections and India: An era of strategic change lies ahead

Publication Date : 16-10-2012


The four-yearly frenzy of the US presidential elections is approaching its climax. The contest becomes tighter day by day and at this stage there is no predicting the outcome.

In India, some commentators take the view that in recent times it is the Republicans who have been more sympathetic to Indian causes, while others remind us that historically it is the Democrats who have invested most in the India-US relationship. Such judgments, apart from indicating the predilections of the individual concerned, offer little guidance for what the post-election future could hold.

Ties with India have barely been invoked in the campaign and there is nothing to suggest that the outcome, whatever it may be, will greatly advance or retard India-US ties.

The relationship between the two used to be a complicated and uncertain one, but it has now stabilised and matured. There is wide support for India in the US Congress where the India caucus is one of the largest, and India’s bipartisan support will no doubt remain after the election is over.

There may be some nagging issues that are yet to be satisfactorily settled, like the matter of long-term visas for skilled Indian manpower, but these are not of a dimension to threaten the structure of the relationship. Even four years ago, when Obama was first seeking election, this was not quite the case, as the consequences of the path-breaking nuclear deal were still being absorbed and the new Administration’s commitment was yet to be tested.

This time, however, there is no single issue of comparable significance that has been highlighted and could be affected by the elections. India can expect continuity in essentials and maintenance of the basic structure of the relationship. Some shift of emphasis will be inevitable as the new team takes over, be it either Romney’s altogether new one or the somewhat changed team that will return with Obama. But there should be nothing greatly unexpected to deal with in the aftermath, no shocks to be absorbed.

This is not to suggest that the transition in US leadership will not bring fresh challenges to the relationship. During the term of the next President, profound change to US policy in South Asia can be expected. Most significantly, this will involve winding down and ending the unpopular war in Afghanistan. Already, important steps have been taken in that direction,  witness the ending of the ‘surge’ that brought large numbers of additional US troops to Afghanistan and is now over, with troop levels back at pre-"surge" levels.

In 2014, which is just around the corner, the US military engagement is expected to come to an end. Nobody expects that the Taliban’s sting will be drawn by then, so the post-withdrawal scene is bound to be complicated and to have repercussions within the entire region. Its own direct commitment now in the process of being ended--no doubt to the vast relief of its public--the US may need to contribute in other ways to support the goal of peaceful transition and maintenance of democratic and moderate governance.

For Afghanistan’s neighbours, the worst that could happen after the US withdraws would be recrudescence of the civil war that had wreaked such havoc two or three decades ago and prepared the ground for the entry of the Taliban. To guard against such an adverse development, suggestions have been made for a regional initiative that would underpin the stability of the country and support good order in Afghanistan.

Such an initiative would need wide international support, especially from the US, and also from major regional countries, including India. The difficult situation on the ground and Kabul’s inability, notwithstanding vast support from abroad, to control the insurgency have been the all enveloping preoccupations of recent times. But as the external presence tails away, there will be need for a stronger diplomatic effort to consider how far the region could act in some sort of concert to advance shared purposes.

Such a shared effort would be desirable but there is great discord within the region about the proper way to proceed. Intra-regional differences would have to be overcome before any concerted action could be contemplated. The most obvious differences are those between India and Pakistan, two countries that have a very different understanding of the Afghan situation, especially insofar as it relates to dealing with the Taliban.

The recent sharp deterioration in US-Pak ties has added to the uncertainty and has complicated the task of coordinating a possible regional initiative after US withdrawal. Some observers of South Asia are of the view that matters relating to Afghanistan are the major issue for New Delhi and Islamabad to face up to, more testing than any of the other, more familiar disputes between them.

It is argued that whatever be the doubts and suspicions between them they would both stand to lose if the situation worsens and thereby gives an opening to the Taliban, and hence they would do well to take the lead within the region and try to promote a coordinated response to the situation.

Differences between India and Pakistan are not the only impediment: the role of Iran also has to be taken into account. Iran is another close neighbour with historic, religious, and ethnic ties with Afghanistan. US policy has been to keep Iran at arm’s length and to persuade others to do the same. But that country should be recognised as an unbending foe of the Taliban, something that has been demonstrated through long years of struggle. Iran has also provided safe haven for large numbers of Afghan refugees and would wish to see them return safely to their homes.

The governments of the two adjoining countries, Iran and Afghanistan, have maintained their cooperation in many areas of mutual interest, some of which, like the road from the Iranian port of Chabahar to the Afghan town of Dilaram, are of considerable regional interest, especially to India. Any regional initiative that might emerge as the US leaves would need to build on such existing links between Afghanistan with its neighbours.

To return to the point, the US election is not likely to have any immediate impact on Indian interests. But an era of strategic change lies ahead, as the USA now approaches the end of its long involvement in Afghanistan. Repercussions within the region are to be anticipated, extending far beyond Afghanistan itself. The countries of the region will need to devise alternative ways of safeguarding regional peace and stability, for which it would be necessary to transcend current differences. It is a new set of challenges before India.

The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary.


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