Why Does Parrikar Keep Downplaying A Landmark Military Deal With US?

Published: September 01, 2016 16:58 IST
From the howls and wails that accompanied the news that India and US had come an agreement over military logistics, you'd imagine that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had officially turned the keys of 7, Race Course Road over to Barack Obama. 

Consider, for example, the reaction from the party of the nuclear deal. The Congress warned darkly that it was the end of India's strategic autonomy. "It raises a genuine and grave apprehension regarding India being unwarrantedly drawn into an operational military design in Asia Pacific Region and Middle East...jeopardising India's National, geo global and strategic interests." About the only good thing that can be said for this statement is that, given the random capitals, dropped articles, and clumsy wording ("geo global"?), it was highly unlikely that Mani Shankar Aiyar had anything to do with it. 

The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which is a diluted Logistics Supply Agreement, which is a watered-down Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement or ACSA of the kind that the US has with, say, Sri Lanka, is not exactly the end of the world. The US has signed an ACSA-type agreement with 80 or 90 countries at last count. And no, these 90 countries have not all been "unwarrantedly drawn into an operational military design in Asia Pacific Region and Middle East".

The Congress' laughable attempt at a statement doubly deserves to be singled out for ridicule because LEMOA emerged eventually from the Strategic Partnership document that was signed on George W Bush's visit to India in March 2006, which was the first official statement that India and the US would soon sign an agreement on mutual logistics support for each other's militaries. This was over 10 years ago, but I can still dimly recollect that a turbaned Congressman was the other person to sign. Clearly, the Congress' own memory is even shorter than mine. 

Of course the LSA then went nowhere for 10-plus years, given that the story of much of the UPA was "Manmohan proposes, party disposes". You can't even blame the Left, which was supporting UPA-I, for this one. The most that they managed was whiny editorials in People's Democracy. No, the saboteur was within: A K Antony, the most Left-wing anti-American to emerge from Kerala politics, which is quite an achievement given that the state is overrun by communists and Islamists. Antony, whose chosen brief as Defence Minister was "oppose everything", was last heard from in April calling the LEMOA "suicidal". 

The idea that mutual logistical support somehow means that you are permanently on the US "side" doesn't stand up to a moment's real thought. Certainly, if LSA forced Sri Lanka to be on the US' side, for example, then it had a funny way of showing it, by allowing Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo while actual US ally Shinzo Abe was visiting. It is constantly puzzling how Indian political and bureaucratic brains short-circuit and fail to use elementary logic the moment the US is involved. 

So much for India's useless Opposition. Let us now turn to India's government. US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, at the press conference with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar after the signing of LEMOA, said that he had spent more time with Mr Parrikar than with any other of his counterparts. That's not really a compliment; it reflects how much persuasion and work the US has needed to put in even for something as much in our mutual interest as this agreement. It has taken the Modi government over two years to sign this agreement, after leaking to the press on about three different occasions that it was almost done. And even now, the most noticeable feature of the press conference was Parrikar furiously underplaying the significance of the agreement.

It still doesn't want to sign the other two "foundational" agreements, one of which allows for communications interoperability, and the other which provides mapping data for targeting and navigation. India is convinced that the US will use the first to eavesdrop on it and then run and tell the Pakistanis; nobody is quite certain what the objection is to the second. 

One would hope that this is the beginning of a sensible reorientation of India's world-view towards a somewhat more rational balance between the various poles of an increasingly multipolar world. But that would require some deeper thought, and a more transparent explanation, of what India believes its future geopolitical strategy is. This is the kind of exercise that most countries conduct routinely. But here's where the Modi government's relentless tom-tomming of the PM's "personal diplomacy" gets in the way. If your entire foreign policy narrative rests on the idea that the leader is so very charming and persuasive that foreign countries just fall into line with whatever he says, then there is no need for a clear strategy, right? 

In any event, I suspect we will look back on the past seven or eight years as largely wasted. When successive US governments made various efforts to co-operate, we were sniffy and aloof. We are terrified of the idea of publicly agreeing to the "joint patrols" the US keeps talking about, for example - preferring the delightful notion that because occasionally our ships happen to be going in the same direction on maneuvers as US ships, and naturally they will talk to each other then,  one must be polite. 

In the process, we missed our window. Bush and Obama were, to different degrees, committed to Asia and thus to wooing India. The next President may not. If it's Trump, because he doesn't want to; if it's Clinton, because the Democratic Party's base is now ever more inward-focused and suspects her of being a warmonger anyway. 

We've grown accustomed to a world in which the US pushes and pushes us into trying to do something together, and we worry about doing anything together. What we should perhaps start worrying about now is a world in which the US no longer cares enough to keep pushing. 

(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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