Indians are not expecting much from the visit of President Barack Obama this week. Rather, given the range of issues on which the two governments diverge today, they are just hoping that no new conflict arises. Neither side seems capable of the leadership that made the visit of George W. Bush in 2006 such a success.
Poor timing is part of the problem. If Mr. Obama's Democratic Party loses a significant numbers of seats in today's mid-term election, he'll lose political capital. The India trip may be perceived back home as a way to escape the immediate fallout, and Mr. Obama may be tempted to resort to the protectionist rhetoric which raised hackles in Delhi.
On India's part, the Congress Party-led government was re-elected last year but is already suffering political drift. The ruling coalition has lurched from allegations of corruption to knee-jerk policy formulation, and hasn't accomplished very much along the way. Thus Mr. Singh has been far more focused on propping up his domestic support than forming strong ties with Washington.
But the bigger problem is a paucity of political will. Starting with the Clinton administration, the U.S. has recognized India as a natural democratic partner in South Asia. When Mr. Clinton visited India in 2000, the reception was euphoric. Many Indians saw the first visit by an U.S. president after a gap of 20 years, following the economic reforms of the 1990s, as an indication of India's emergence on the global stage.
This positive momentum came despite the fact that after India exploded nuclear devices in 1998, Mr. Clinton hardly had anything tangible to offer to India. In 2006, Mr. Bush picked up the mantle and visited the country amid even more polarized conditions, receiving an effusive welcome from one side of the political spectrum and extreme hostility from the other. Indian democracy with its attendant debate, dissent and dirt were on full display.
Yet the signal was clear: America wanted to draw closer to India. Messrs. Bush and Singh went on to ink a civil nuclear deal that would see U.S. companies provide clean energy to an ally in desperate need of it. Mr. Bush pushed ahead despite the fact that he was already becoming unpopular at home because of the Iraq war. There were high decibel protests in India too.
In contrast, consider the two issues today which could take the bilateral relationship to another, higher plane. For the first time, the Indian side has agreed to consider buying U.S. fighter aircraft, a contract worth $11 billion. And for the first time in decades, the U.S. has agreed to sell offensive military equipment to India. Yet the Indian government is unable to bell the cat, unsure of the political cost.
Likewise, the U.S. administration is keen that the India's civil nuclear liability law meets the concerns of private firms, taking the India-U.S. nuclear deal to fruition. But in the aftermath of the re-ignition of the controversy over the Bhopal gas leak in 1984, the Indian government is unsure whether to risk further political capital.
Mr. Obama could surmount these problems if he had an overarching vision for the relationship. But he doesn't. This mirrors his problems at home, where his inspiring "yes we can" theme captured the imagination of voters, but never metamorphosed into a broad political agenda that united people for a common purpose. Internationally Mr. Obama's personal approval rating may still be high, but his charisma has lost a lot of shine.
In India, Mr. Obama has attracted neither welcome nor hostility. That may come as a relief after today's U.S. election outcome, but it also means the trip is likely to turn out to be a damp squib. The president is expected to make some concessions to the export-control order that restricts India's access to sensitive and dual-use technologies, something India has been seeking for a long time, but this step is likely to get lost among technical discussions. Mr. Obama may also indicate the U.S. support for India's place on the U.N. Security Council. But this is something the U.S. may not be able to deliver anytime soon.
Bilateral cooperation on international issues is no better. There, Mr. Obama has three key agenda items: Af-Pak, the yuan-dollar exchange rate and climate change. But again, he seems to have given little thought with how to integrate India into his agenda. Either his administration does not see any significant role for Delhi, as in Af-Pak, or the Indian priorities are different, as in climate change.
Ironically, a Republican victory in the Congressional election may actually provide the impetus to reassess the India-U.S. relationship. To govern meaningfully, the Democrats and Republicans will have to negotiate and compromise, and in the process India may find more space for maneuver. Mr. Obama may not have yet found any virtue in India, but he may not find any vice to oppose India's place at the table either.
During the Cold War, India and the U.S. found themselves on opposite sides of the ideological divide. It is a pity that the two democracies that have so much in common might once again fail to bond because their leaders don't have the courage to forge a common vision.