The Obama White House’s first state guest was the Indian Prime Minister, which was not surprising given that India is the big success story of the post-Cold war era that appears destined for an increasingly important global role.


Dr. Manmohan Singh represents a democracy of over a billion people, but having to point this out betrayed the underlying unease with which Delhi views the Obama Administration. Also his claim that both countries share common values that include a strong attachment to human rights must surely be seen against the well documented atrocities that half a million Indian troops have been committing in Kashmir.

For India, it was important to know where exactly it stood on Obama’s radar screen of foreign policy priorities, especially after the Bush Administration’s romance, which was driven primarily by the Neocon ideologues who saw in India an ideal partner to contain China and to confront what they referred to as “Islamo-Fascism  Such was the Bush Administration’s ardor for India that it went about trashing its own laws and arm-twisting Nucdlear Suppliers Group members to approve sale of civilian nuclear technology. In doing so, it failed to recognize that it was not only damaging the carefully crafted global non-proliferation edifice, but also upsetting the strategic balance in South Asia, while weakening the morality of its opposition to the Iranian nuclear program.

For the US, the visit was an opportunity to inject an element of realism in its relations with India, for Obama appreciates that far from “containing” China, the US is becoming increasingly dependent on close and cooperative ties with the Peoples’ Republic, from where it expects continuing investment to ensure its gradual emergence from the country’s worst economic crisis.  Washington also recognizes that in any resolution to its Afghan engagement, it is not India, but Pakistan, whose role and contribution would be critical.

Washington may be concerned about the less than satisfactory state of governance in Islamabad, but it cannot ignore that Pakistan is now a democracy, where national consensus has encouraged the Army to perform undeniably well in confronting the militants. There is now no reason why Washington should not be more appreciative of Pakistan’s importance to peace in the region, but this can only be meaningful if the US plays a quiet but effective role in nudging India back to result-oriented talks on Kashmir and other contentious issues that divide them. This alone will enable Pakistan to devote its energies and resources to the war on terror, as was articulated by Obama in his election speeches.

It is this that worries India, for it views everything through the lens of regional hegemon, but fails to appreciate that it cannot play this role, while failing to befriend its neighbors.  This explains its insistence on “bilateralism” in India-Pakistan relations and its annoyance with a mere mention of Sino-American interest in peace in South Asia. And yet, it does not hesitate to rush to foreign capitals with entreaties to join it in pressuring Pakistan—a constant refrain of Singh  in Washington as well.

India wants the region to be left to its “disposal”, but does nothing to show sensitivity to the concerns of its smaller neighbors. In fact, it also wants to have a critical say in determining the kind and extent of US assistance to Pakistan but not allow Ambassador Richard Holbrooke even the courtesy of a visit to Delhi.  It refuses to accept Pakistan’s repeated offers to share intelligence and coordinate positions on terrorism, but wants to enhance its cooperation with the US on anti-terrorism, to have another platform from where to “beat-up’ on Pakistan.

Another important Indian objective was to nudge the Obama Administration to operationalize the Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, especially after hints to the effect that Washington was viewing it as incongruous with Obama’s publicly proclaimed goal of a nuclear weapon free world. Singh, who had staked his and the Party’s future on this agreement, does not want it to become a victim to what he believes are the misplaced dreams of the non-proliferationists in the US.

Manmohan Singh must have been pleased to hear India being described as “indispensable”, but this carries responsibilities, including an ability to live at peace with your neighbors. The US too has to recognize that if it wishes to promote genuine peace in South Asia, it has to base its relations on shared interests and not be led by fanciful expectations.  Pakistan has not only a democratic dispensation (though fledgling) but also a strong national consensus that favors genuinely cordial and cooperative relations with India, which would do well to respond to these aspirations, with the US contributing to this process.

Ambassador Tariq Fatemi is a retired member of the Pakistan Foreign Service, who has served in Moscow, New York, Washington and Beijing.  He was an Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Jordan, the U.S., Belgium and the European Union.  Currently he is teaching at various institutions and writes for the daily Dawn and other publications.