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Thursday, November 15, 2012
OP-ED

With Obama's victory, where does India stand?

Now that the election frenzy is over and President Barack Obama has retained his hold on the White House, attention has shifted to what the result can mean for the US and its partners across the world. During the campaign, India barely made a blip: outsourcing and visas earned a passing mention but neither candidate brought the India-US relationship anywhere near the centre of his electoral concerns.

The relationship is a key one and it has come to transcend partisan considerations, so India was able to witness the electoral show without feeling tied to one candidate or the other.

Even so, there was considerable satisfaction at Obama's victory. India regards him as a well-disposed leader and there has already been a substantial upgrading of relations in his first term, as seen in the plethora of inter-governmental committees and joint initiatives, which will no doubt be expanded and taken further in the coming years.

Personalities keep changing, of course, and many prominent officials, including the secretary of state herself, are to leave the scene. However, there will be enough of a carryover to sustain the easy contact that has been established between senior officials, and even though Clinton will be replaced, the president and the prime minister will remain where they are. They have done much together and have taken every opportunity to stress the importance they attach to India-US ties, and they will surely try to take the relationship further in the new phase that has just commenced.

With all the goodwill, however, it is unlikely to be simply a matter of picking up the threads and resuming normal business. The promise of change was a leitmotif of Obama's campaign, and we must expect to see fresh issues and new priorities that will affect the US' relations with the world. Nor will the world grant much breathing space, for there are many pressing issues demanding immediate attention. One of the earliest is withdrawal of US and other foreign forces from Afghanistan.

It has already been made known that these troops will be effectively withdrawn by 2014, which is now close at hand, but there is still uncertainty about what withdrawal entails, how complete it will be, and whether some military presence will remain over the longer term.

These are issues that are bound to concern India deeply for it cannot escape the long-term consequences of the Afghan endgame.

Already, India is a major party in the international action plan for the rehabilitation of Afghanistan. What shape its future commitment to that effort should take needs careful discussion and consideration, both internally and between India and its strategic partners, of which the US is the most prominent.

The "AfPak" approach that Obama adopted at the start of his presidency proved a failure, there has been a steep decline in US-Pak ties, the Afghan insurgency is as threatening as ever, and the world is still groping for answers. The Afghan war has become very unpopular in the US, so rapid reduction of US military commitment looks certain.

That could mean enhanced regional uncertainty, perhaps even revival of the disarray that made room for the Taliban two decades ago. As disorder is not to be confined and affects the entire region, there is a need for an alternative way of trying to bring about stability and render needed support to the Afghan government.

President Karzai has just been in India where he presented his country as a good prospect for foreign investment, and he looked especially to India which he said would be made very welcome when it took up projects to develop the enormous unexploited mineral resources of Afghanistan. For some time now, the theme of encouraging regional initiatives to underpin stability and progress in Afghanistan has had many adherents, especially as Western intervention is coming to an end with much less achieved than had been hoped.

Outsiders from distant parts may depart but the regional entities will stay perforce and could be critical to the international effort that will still be required after the current phase comes to an end.

Afghanistan's neighbours are divided among themselves and some of them have acute differences with Kabul, so putting together a regional initiative of any real value could be hard going. Yet the effort may now be necessary and requires early international attention.

Looking back to the promise of Obama's inauguration four years ago, it seemed as if some striking new initiatives to address lingering international problems were on the way, with the Middle East and nuclear disarmament prominent among them. In the event, Obama was not able to do much in the Middle East -- if anything, hopes for progress have receded and war drums continue to be beaten over Iran.

US policy on Iran is significantly at odds with that of strategic partners like India that have a different perception and different interests.

Ambiguities about Iran's adherence to the IAEA-mandated inspection regime for its nuclear facilities and the ever tighter sanctions have created problems not for Iran alone but also for its trading partners, including India. Nor can Iran's role in Afghanistan be ignored for it has much to contribute to the restoration of peace in that country, which is its close neighbour. India now needs to be more active in seeking a way out of the present dilemmas about Iran.

On global nuclear disarmament, Obama did succeed in pushing the theme forward though without decisive results. Maybe there will be a renewed drive in the second term. India has traditionally been in the forefront of the disarmament effort and will no doubt take its usual active part when the matter comes up again for international discussion, notwithstanding the fact that its greater preoccupation today is to consolidate and safeguard its deterrent capacity.

To be noted, too, is what Obama indicated in his acceptance speech about greater thrust on environmental issues. Super storm Sandy had something to do with it, showing as it did that the US was not immune from the devastating impact of climate change. Climate issues have been on the international agenda for the last forty years, but US commitment has been held back by strong domestic lobbies decrying the need for global action; that seems set to change and developing countries like India may need to rethink some of their positions on the subject.

Even a cursory look will show that in Obama's next term a number of fresh issues will have to be taken up within the ambit of the regular consultations between India and the US. The relationship between them is currently good and there are many constructive possibilities in meeting the new challenges ahead.

The writer is India's former foreign secretary.

The Statesman (India). All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with Asia News Network.

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