Whether the sudden exit of US Ambassador Timothy Roemer from his assignment in Delhi and the government’’s decision to reject the two American bids for the MMRCA [Multi-role combat aircraft] tender are related developments is a moot point.
Indeed, MMRCA was a lucrative contract which is worth 10 billion dollars at face value but worth manifold billions of dollars in the downstream through the coming 2 or 3 decades by way of additional supplies, spare parts, servicing, etc. More than the money, the Obama administration pitched hard as the business could generate dozens of thousands of jobs in the US. In strategic terms, MMRCA relates to the weapon system that IAF will use for next few decades and constituted a window of opportunity to gain a veritable American toe-hold in the Indian armed forces. Unsurprisingly, US saw this contract as a great window of opening to surge the military cooperation with India. Thus, a robust US campaign was afoot and Obama himself pitched in by writing to the prime minister. Senior state department officials routinely began singing panygerics - almost on weekly basis - lavishing praise on India as the rising star on the planet and as the cynosure of all good things to happen to mankind. Roemer himself openly reminded the Indian leadership last month that securing the MMRCA would do a world of good to US-India global strategic partnership (read containment of China).
Frankly, the Americans themselves are to be blamed for building up this sort of completely unwarranted hype, which makes on feel red on the face with embarrassment. MMRCA is a bloody serious affair for the Indians and the IAF and Delhi cannot go emotional about it when arriving at a decision. But then, it is a characteristic feature of US (and Israeli) public diplomacy to keep puffing up hot air balloons and foisting then above the playground and make the spectators feel they are the real thing. Whereas, any close observer of the Indian policies - unless one were hopelessly marooned at the extreme wing of the ideological left or the ideologically vacuous Indian right - would have estimated all along that at the end of the day, Delhi would have no option but to assess the operational and strategic needs of its air force with clinical detachment.
Things can’t be otherwise so long as A K Antony holds the portfolio of Raksha Mantri. No matter what you may say about the ‘Mallu mafia’ in Delhi, at the end of the day, you need to admit this much that their finger nails have remained clean after all their dealings with public property. And, mind you, these are testy times when you trust just about no one in the dark. To put MMRCA matters in perspective, Antony’s refusal to be entrapped into making political commitments that he couldn’t possibly fulfil prompted him to have the US-India strategic dialogue scheduled originally for mid-April to be scuttled although Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates were all set to travel to Delhi. We all knew at that time that something was brewing in Antony’s Gandhian mind although he is a taciturn man by nature and unassuming to the point of being self-effacing. In fact, that was the first indication that Antony’s mind was working hard about judging which MMRCA offer - American, European, French, Russian, etc. - might suit India’s defence needs optimally in the long-term, and that the choice might just not necessarily fall on the two high-profile American bids merely stemming out of political compulsions.
Equally, some nasty comments by a clutch of notoriously pro-American Delhi-based commentators at around that same time gave the plot away and made one suspect that the US embassy in Delhi might be working overtime about Antony’s ‘obduracy’. Nonetheless, the proof lay in the eating of the pudding, as they say, and one kept one’s fingers crossed.
Objectively speaking, however, the Americans have been vastly exaggerating the dimensions of the so-called US-India ‘golabl’ strategic partnership - US’s ‘indispensable’ partnership of the 21st century, et al - in an attempt to hustle the Indian opinion, which is usually ill-informed, excitable and highly prone to sentimentality and moodiness. This has been a classic situation where the other guy insists on saying to whoever is listening that you are his best pal in town and this is the only game in town and you are hard-pressed to deny that is not quite the case as is being made out and that he is only one among other guys you’d like to waltz with in real life.
The danger lies in upping the threshold of hype in any relationship. When a reality check ensues, you slide into depression. Last week, a former Indian ambassador to the US claimed that it would be a ‘breach of faith’ if India didn’t facilitate nuclear business for the US. Really? He spoke as if he never heard of Fukoshima. What if Antony came to a sober conclusion that IAF needs something far better than what is on offer from the Americans? Will that, too, become a matter of ‘breach of faith’? Whose ‘faith’ are we talking about anyway? The country’s - or some moonlighting individual’s? The problem is that too many vested interests have today developed over the gravy train of US-India partnership. And these fat cats are contributing to an unnatural build-up of expectations and are arrogating the right to set the tempo of the US-India ties that are so crucial to the country’s long-term interests.
The Indian policies in the recent months ample bear out that US-India partnership is not the be-all and end-all of Delhi’s world view. The patient efforts to build content into ties with Iran (which is never an easy thing to deal with), the nuanced stance on Libya, the constructive engagement of China’s Hu Jintao by prime minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the BRICS, the far-reaching India-Kazakh strategic ties, the commendable Mohali overture to Pakistan, Delhi’s stubborn refusal to be drawn into the US-Pakistan tensions or to fall into the American trap of transfroming Afghanistan into an India-Pakistan turf war, an independent line on Sri Lanka keeping the specific Indian priorities in view - all these are to be noted carefully. Why, can’t Washington but notice that Delhi is not even doing any drum beating that an obscure American-Tibetan is bringing the torch of democracy to Dharamsala from across the Atlantic apparently of his own voition!