India’s Decision on Fighter Jets Disappoints U.S., But Should Not Surprise

By Deepa M. Ollapally

The Indian Defense Ministry’s announcement that it has shortlisted two European fighter jets, shutting out two American competitors from Lockheed Martin and Boeing, for its once in a generation purchase of 126 multi-combat aircrafts may be disappointing, but not surprising. This has as much to with what is seen as the technical superiority of the Eurofighter (UK, Spain, Italy and Germany) and Dassault’s Rafale (France), as much as New Delhi’s attempts to stay clear of perceived geopolitical undertones involved in buying Lockheed’s F-16 and Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet. Despite the very real improvement in relations between India and the U.S., India seems to have fallen back to its longstanding instinct for strategic autonomy. In a domestic context where there has been an intense debate taking place over the last five plus years about India’s new and growing role as a rising power—especially about how close is close enough to the U.S—the “safest” course of action for Manmohan Singh’s government was to do what it did.

Simply put, a purchase from Europeans is seen in purely commercial terms, while any major deal with the Americans immediately takes on strategic and political meaning in India. Prime Minister Singh had already gone out on a limb in 2008 when he put his government on the line with a vote of confidence over the US-India civil nuclear deal. This unprecedented deal with a price tag of $11 billion had led to enormous lobbying over several years by all the potential suppliers, most noticeably by the American companies. From Washington, there was an implicit, if not explicit, expectation of “payback” for the landmark U.S.-India nuclear deal. No doubt, had the government gone with Lockheed and Boeing, there would have been loud accusations at home of India caving into American “pressure.” At least since 2004, domestic voices comprising a diverse group of Nationalists and Leftists have been at the forefront in urging India to stay closer to its traditional un-aligned stand in international relations.

For all practical purposes, the metric for gauging India’s autonomy comes down to proximity to the U.S. And on this question, the decades old consensus against close ties with the U.S. has clearly eroded since the end of the Cold War, opening it to hot contestation between old and new opinion groups. Read more of this post

Obama’s India visit: Beyond strategic symbolism

By Deepa M. Ollapally

Before India’s political pundits write off President Obama’s visit as nothing more than symbolic, they would do well to consider US- India relations under the Obama administration in its entirety. But in order to do that, they need to first shed their single minded focus on strategic affairs.

There is growing apprehension in India (and among some US analysts) that Indo-US relations have reached a plateau, and that no big strategic breakthroughs are on the horizon. First of all, it is unrealistic to expect strategic transformations at every summit.

Obama’s two predecessors were able to make history after the end of the Cold War by changing the course of US-India relations from one of decades-old disaffection to solid cooperation. Obama has inherited an excellent foundation for relations between the two countries, and there is little question that the US president has embraced India. Read more of this post

Indian views on President Obama’s visit

This week, President Obama will visit India for the first time since taking office. What are commentators and experts in India saying about this historic visit?

The Rising Powers Initiative has compiled a summary of recent news and op-eds from major Indian newspapers about Indian expectations of Obama’s visit and the future of India-U.S. relations:

There is a sense of disappointment foreshadowing the visit, as it appears that the U.S. is more interested in an economic agenda rather than strengthening strategic ties with India.The Indian Express reports that a personal letter from President Barack Obama to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conveyed America’s expectations of the visit but did not mention issues important to India. Commentators lament that China and Pakistan loom larger on the U.S. radar screen, and that the official visit has an undue business focus, when the private sector will carry on with expanding India-U.S. business ties anyway.

Nevertheless, the general public likes Obama. A spring 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center found that more than 70% of Indians have confidence in the American president, and about two-thirds express a favorable opinion of the United States.

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