Failure of US leadership wrecking bilateral relationship

By Shastri Ramachandaran

By Shastri Ramachandaran

With India-US ties hitting a nadir, Shastri Ramachandaran takes a look at what went wrong in big power diplomacy

The world’s two largest democracies may have much in common. But far from common interests prevailing over contentious issues, India-US relations are in for an uncommon spell of stresses and strains. These are unlikely to ease any time soon in an election year, regardless of Washington’s about-turn in cosying up to Narendra Modi.

Political changes in India cannot banish overnight the causes and conditions in the US responsible for the souring of what was, until recently, toasted as the “defining relationship” of the 21st century.

Devyani Khobragade’s arrest and strip-search drove India-US relationship to its lowest point in 15 years. Not since the 1998 nuclear test, when the US-led “international community” imposed sanctions, has the relationship between the two been so bad.

Yet, in the aftermath of the crisis triggered by the Khobragade issue, the US, instead of picking up the pieces to mend relations, is bent upon provoking another crisis by imposing trade “enforcement action” (meaning “sanctions”). This retaliatory strike — on behalf of US business, especially Big Pharma — against India’s position on patents is the latest in a string of actions that can only worsen the already-damaged bilateral ties.

US Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman, evidently under pressure from US business, wants to arm-twist India into undoing its patent regime to enable US multinationals to make a killing in the domestic market here and block Indian pharma companies from succeeding in the US. Hence, the threatened trade-related sanctions on the basis of the dubious Special 301 Report.

The spectre of India being put on the 301 List is nothing new. In 1991-92, then USTR Carla Hills had threatened similar action without the fluff of intellectual property rights or legalese about investment climate. She declared that the US would “use Section 301 as a crowbar to prise open the Indian market” for American business. Shorn of the verbiage based on voluminous reports of the US Chamber of Commerce, Froman is now attempting exactly what Carla Hills had tried — and failed — to accomplish. India had refused to succumb to pressure then, and the US was forced to withdraw India from the 301 List.

Although the US has no justifiable basis to challenge the Indian patent regime, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court, the issue is not the merits of the case. Washington is always quick to punish countries when their conditions go against US business interests. The issue here is how such action impacts bilateral ties and why the US keeps picking new bones for contention at a juncture when the need is for positive inputs.

The USTR’s pressure tactics come even as US Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA) commissioner Margaret Hamburg is in New Delhi and has been told of India’s concern over attempts to cripple Indian pharma companies and drive their drugs out of the US market. Recently, the FDA harshly penalised Ranbaxy and Wockhardt. Close on the heels of the FDA’s punitive strikes, the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) downgraded India’s air safety ratings. Since India-US relations are in a “strictly-reciprocal” phase, the directorate general of civil aviation lost no time in announcing safety checks for foreign aircraft flying into India.

By their actions, the USTR, FDA and FAA are scuttling efforts to strengthen ties, such as the January visit of US energy secretary Ernesto Munoz being rescheduled after Khobragade’s ill-treatment. The way these various arms of the US government are pursuing different agendas is no different from how the state department and other agencies worked themselves into a hole against Khobragade.

This is the way the US government works, said former foreign secretary and ambassador to the US Lalit Mansingh. “There is no conspiracy. Nor any attempt to send a message to India,” Mansingh told dna when asked to comment on the imminent US trade action against India. “This is the disjointed manner in which the US government works.”

Why? Because the political leadership is not hands on with India-US relations. “This failure of the political leadership,” said Mansingh, “is keeping our relationship in a state of crisis.”

In other words, India does not figure as a priority in president Obama’s scheme of things. If India-US relations were politically important, then Obama, like president Bush, would have taken greater interest to ensure that such avoidable irritants did not keep recurring. He would have made the various arms of his administration fall in line and work in tandem towards diluting negative sentiments and healing a wounded strategic partnership. At the least, Obama should ask his officials to put away the crowbar. It has no place in international relations.

(The writer is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator and long-time TFF Associate)

This article was originally published here

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