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Decoding Obama's (increasingly) complex India problem
NEW DELHI — Like many countries, India was rooting hard for Barack Obama to become America's 44th president. But the enormous challenges that Obama faces in South Asia — and India's huge expectations — could make the love affair short-lived.
Since former President Bill Clinton's second term, U.S.-India ties have been growing ever closer. With the nuclear agreement signed in September, the relationship has begun to look like a strategic alliance.
But that warm embrace could turn into a cold shoulder. The rub: Obama's commitment to building a viable state from the rubble of Afghanistan, which will likely lead him to lean on Pakistan for assistance.
Indians worry that the U.S. may allow Pakistan to wriggle out of its espoused promises to arrest and prosecute the terrorists responsible for the Nov. 26 attacks in Mumbai.
"We expect the U.S. to apply the same strict standards that they have for the western border of Pakistan for Pakistan-sponsored terrorism against India," said former foreign minister Yashwant Sinha.
"The litmus test for this will be the surrender or repatriation to India of those criminals who have taken shelter in Pakistan, and no alibi by the Pakistani rulers should be allowed to stand in the way," he added.
India has banked heavily on America's ability to pressure Pakistan to bring the Mumbai culprits to justice. But the U.S. needs the Pakistani army's help in fighting the Taliban on Pakistan's western border.
If in return the U.S. allows Islamabad to skate on its promises to catch and prosecute the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack, India's love affair with Obama would come to a speedy end.
And it could well reverse the trajectory of India's increasingly U.S.-centric foreign
policy — which has seen New Delhi step back from Iran, inch closer to Israel and distance itself from the Shanghai Cooperation's Russia-China-India formulation in favor of a budding alliance with the U.S., Japan and Australia.
"President Bush has left a very strong legacy of establishing a strategic relationship between India and the United States and President Obama will have to find ways and means to consolidate that relationship and build on it," said Kanwal Sibal, a former India foreign secretary.
"However, (Obama's) thinking about Afghanistan and what the United States needs to do there — the surge strategy that is being propounded by Gen. Petraeus — will require certain tough policy decisions vis a vis Pakistan," Sibal added.
Pakistan has maneuvered U.S. intervention after the Mumbai attacks into an effort to stop India from taking action, rather than compelling Pakistan to do so, according to M.K. Bhadrakumar, a career Indian diplomat.
That has already "exposed the fallacy" of India's thinking that in the post-Cold War world it is a natural ally of the U.S., while the U.S. relationship with Pakistan is a mere marriage of convenience, said Bhadrakumar.
And when Obama takes office, the rhetoric of putting pressure on Pakistan to arrest terror suspects will likely give way to a multibillion-dollar aid package, including $300 million in annual military aid for the next five years.
"That gives Pakistan a misplaced confidence that they can get away with terrorist acts against India. That the world will watch for awhile, then remain quiet and wait for the next strike, and India will be helpless to act," Sinha said.
"Mumbai, with the kind of deep hurt it has caused to the Indian psyche, is making India increasingly unwilling to accept this situation," he added.
So far, Obama's early efforts at developing a strategy for balancing America's complex dual alliance with India and Pakistan have appeared to Indians like naive blunders that play into Pakistan's hands.
According to U.S. media reports, for instance, Obama suggested he might appoint former President Clinton as special envoy to Kashmir as part of an effort to resolve India-Pakistan tensions, freeing Pakistan to be more aggressive in fighting al-Qaida on the Afghan border.
That might sound like a good idea to non-Indian readers.
But to most Indians, the suggestion betrays either a basic ignorance or a deliberate oversight of India's point of view: that Kashmir is a bilateral issue in which it occupies the literal and the moral high ground.
India has trumpeted the fact that despite the attacks on Mumbai and a call for a boycott by separatists, more than 60 percent of eligible voters turned out for state elections held in Kashmir in November and December, and the clear majority chose pro-India parties.
Pakistan's chief argument against the legitimacy of India's dominion over Kashmir is that India has never held the plebiscite to determine who will have sovereignty over the state that the U.N. Security Council ordered as part of the original peace plan for the region in 1948.
"The inherent message that you get from this is that by appointing a special envoy, the United States would want India to make additional compromises," Sibal said.
"That is where the rub is," Sibal continued. "What additional compromises? Because we have a purely defensive strategy on Kashmir. It's Pakistan that has the offensive strategy, which wants to grab part of the territory, which wants to destabilize the situation from within, which is engaging in terrorism."
Though India remains skeptical, the latest news out of Pakistan has been relatively positive.
Under increasing U.S. pressure as the FBI progresses in its own investigation of the Mumbai attacks, Islamabad has at least acknowledged that the terrorist in Indian custody is a Pakistani national.
What remains to be seen is whether Obama's administration will be as forceful in dealing with Islamabad at the beginning of his term as Bush suddenly seemed to be in his final days in office — when he knew his successor would have to deal with the consequences.
For Indians, the answer could define the Obama presidency almost before it begins.