The expectantly awaited US-Indian strategic partnership is no more. That, at least, is the view in the commentariat and among some on Capitol Hill and within the Obama administration. Even among those who do not hold this extreme position, there is an uneasy sense that the bilateral partnership is not going forward, only sideways. And India’s recent decision in the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) competition and its troubled nuclear liability legislation (NLL) remain the poster children that confirm the worst fears of even India’s friends that the relationship is not yielding the rewards initially imagined.
To be sure, both outcomes can be explained away. The American contenders in the MMRCA race were always long shots, and they stood their best chance only if the government of India focused on value rather than pursuing the finest flying machines that money could buy. When the Indian Air Force settled for the latter — an arguably reasonable decision — the American entrants lost out. Similarly, the NLL is undoubtedly inconsistent with the international Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage, and it undermines the ability of the American nuclear industry to do business in India. But it does not discriminate against the United States singularly. Rather, it impairs uniformly the ability of all foreign and domestic private suppliers to participate in India’s planned nuclear renaissance.
Like so much else in India, the nuclear liability law too will be eventually fixed — after many exertions, a great deal of frustration, and much pain. India, it seems, always walks straight in crooked lines. But the intervening disappointment with India in the United States, which is driven by a multiplicity of issues — the current paralysis in Indian governmental decision-making, the awkward yet strident positions taken by India in multilateral institutions on the Arab awakening, the seeming reluctance to deepen bilateral defence engagement even when it appears clearly in Indian interest, and the listless Indian pursuit of economic reforms — has raised the question of whether the American effort to cement a strategic partnership with India at the high cost borne by the United States was worth it after all.