FPJ Analysis: Joe Biden’s ‘no’ is haunting US-India relations

FPJ Analysis: Joe Biden’s ‘no’ is haunting US-India relations

Restoring the balance in the bilateral relationship is not going to be easy by the looks of things. Among other geopolitical factors, the thaw in China-America relations is bound to devalue India in Washington’s eyes

SNM AbdiUpdated: Monday, December 25, 2023, 10:04 PM IST
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Joe Biden at the G20 summit in September. | File Photo

The timing of my last column, ‘Will Joe Biden attend the Republic Day Parade?’ (Dec 12), was bang on. Within a few hours of its publication, the White House formally informed New Delhi that the US President won’t be attending. It was no doubt a rebuff but it put the Indian government out of its misery. On my part, I owe readers an explanation for how I got it right.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had invited Biden to be the chief guest at the January 26 event to boost his Bharatiya Janata Party’s prospects in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls, but it wasn’t to be. Although the invitation was sent well in time, the world’s most powerful leader deliberately kept India waiting before finally saying “No”.

The sense that I got from the cracks in the India-America equation, after US authorities filed a criminal case against an Indian national and a top Indian security official for plotting the murder of Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, was that Biden would simply stay away to demonstrate that he stood with US agencies which foiled the alleged assassination bid on an American national on American soil. And my assessment turned out to be correct.

India, on the rebound, approached French President Emmanuel Macron to do the honours on Republic Day and he agreed. His consent is not surprising considering the huge profits Paris reaps annually by selling us weapons. But the whole affair appears to be jinxed. The news of Macron accepting Modi’s invitation coincided with French authorities nabbing more than 300 illegal Indian immigrants en route to US-Canada via Nicaragua.

The detention of so many of our countrymen at Vatry airport, 150 km from Paris, paints a very pathetic picture of India and demolishes at one stroke all claims by the Modi government of our economy growing by leaps and bounds and the entire world envying our success.

There are many shades of the Pannun episode. Bu what is most evident is that the trust component in US-India relations has suddenly gone out of the window. And, of all people, Pakistan army chief Asim Munir gleefully made the most of it. He landed in America the very same day (December 12) that Biden jolted the Indian government by turning down the invitation. And over the next 10 days he met the who’s who of the US diplomatic and defence-security establishments behind closed doors. In that sense, Munir hit pay dirt!

It will be downright foolish to underestimate the significance of Munir’s serial meetings with US movers and shakers — Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Central Intelligence Agency chief William Burns — at a time when New Delhi-Washington ties have suddenly nosedived.

Modi’s insistence while speaking to the Financial Times last week that “a few incidents” would not affect relations between India and America is not logical or reasonable. There is no doubt that we are on the defensive today, while America is on the offensive badly straining the bilateral equation. And, to be honest, restoring the balance in the bilateral relationship is not going to be easy by the looks of things. Among other geopolitical factors, the thaw in China-America relations is bound to devalue India in Washington’s eyes.

An interesting sidelight is worth mentioning. India has not hesitated to summon the high commissioners of the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada for a dressing down over the activities of Khalistani separatists in those countries. But the Modi government treats the Ambassador of America as a holy cow; we somehow desist from summoning him to South Block. US Ambassador Eric Garcetti was not summoned even after the Swaminarayan Hindu temple in California was vandalised as recently as last week.

I fail to understand why we still treat Garcetti with kid gloves when he is solely responsible for the loss of face India suffered internationally due to Biden turning down Modi’s invitation. Modi had quietly extended the invitation to Biden during the G-20 Summit in early September; the invite was kept under wraps, and was not mentioned in any official statement, written or verbal, for the simple reason that no country publicises such invites until the invitee confirms attendance.

But Garcetti let the cat out of the bag. On September 20, he told an Indian journalist on record that Modi had invited Biden to be the chief guest at the Republic Day Parade. He effectively told the whole world that Modi had extended the US President an invitation, and triggered speculation over Biden’s response. Garcetti’s loose tongue put Modi and India in a very embarrassing and awkward position as Biden ultimately decided to turn down the invitation. New Delhi would have been spared the blushes if Garcetti had not spoken out of turn.

Why is India — which claims to be the Vishwaguru, or Teacher to the World — so overawed by the US? Why do we allow the US to walk all over us? Why do we never look Uncle Sam in the eye? Garcetti should have been fixed in July itself when he offered US mediation to resolve the Manipur crisis. He had spoken with a forked tongue; calling Manipur India’s internal matter even as he spoke of Washington’s desire to play peacemaker.

If our Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra or silver-tongued S Jaishankar had rapped Garcetti hard on the knuckles for his atrocious Manipur remarks, he wouldn’t have dared to expose India to such global ridicule by blabbering about Modi’s invitation to Biden. Once beaten, twice shy.


The author is an independent, Pegasused reporter and commentator on foreign policy and domestic politics

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