Monday, February 2, 2009

India wary of Obama’s South Asia focus

* Potential problems to US-India ties include Obama’s approaches to Kashmir dispute, terrorism
* New Delhi keeping its fingers crossed ahead of Holbrooke’s visit to region

NEW DELHI: With US President Barack Obama still in the early days of his presidency, India is keeping a wary eye on policy changes that could irritate what has become a key strategic relationship.

These include the new president’s approaches to terrorism and the Kashmir dispute. “When it came to India, (former president) Bush was exceptional. Whenever any matter on India reached him, Bush overruled his team to address Indian concerns,” said former Indian ambassador to Washington Naresh Chandra. “I don’t think we can expect that kind of personal commitment (from Obama) though all his statements are in line with whatever objectives India holds dear. One has to see how the general is translated into specifics,” he added.

New Delhi is also keeping its fingers crossed ahead of an expected South Asia visit in February by Richard Holbrooke, named special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In an interview with Time magazine, Obama, as president-elect, was quoted as saying the “most important thing we’re going to have to do with respect to Afghanistan is actually deal with Pakistan”. “We should try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that Pakistan can stay focused ... not on India but on the situation with those militants,” he added.

“It is an open secret that Holbrooke’s original brief included India,” noted Siddarth Varadarajan, strategic affairs editor of the Hindu paper, in an article last week.

However, “silent but strenuous” diplomacy, including strong signals that “any appointment which smacked of linkage with Kashmir would be seen as an unfriendly act” ensured Holbrooke’s brief finally excluded India, he added.

C Raja Mohan, professor at Singapore’s Nanyang University, agreed that it was in ‘deference’ to India that Kashmir was not part of Holbrooke’s responsibilities but “reworking the India-Pakistan relationship will be an inevitable and important component of his initiative”. “It will be a pity if India does not grasp this historic opportunity because its leaders lack either the self-assurance or the strategic imagination to leverage Obama’s South Asia initiative,” Mohan said.

New Delhi-based analyst Uday Bhaskar agreed that engaging Washington was “more of an opportunity” than a challenge. “There is a convergence (between New Delhi and Washington) that terrorism in the region has to be dealt with. The divergence lies in the fact that according to India, the Pakistan military is the problem.

“Until recently, Washington used to see it as part of the solution.

“It’s only on the Obama watch that there appears to be the beginning of a radical review of the role played by the Pakistan military in abetting terror,” he added, noting that Washington had linked aid to Pakistan with delivery on promises to crack down on militants operating on its soil. afp

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