Writing this post a few hours before the US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin touches down in Delhi and begins his meeting with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. Washington has already indicated the line it will take to compel the Indian government to do what it desires, namely, cancelling the S-400 air defence system deal with Russia.
Austin will use the one-two punch — the soft left jab followed by a hard right, to use an old boxing metaphor.
In both instances — the jab and the right cross will be attributed to US Senator Robert Menendez of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who, here, is playing the villain. The soft jab is the supposed US concern with Human Rights violations in India, and Austin’s opening will be with the senator’s statement that the Defence Secretary will “raise democracy and human rights concerns in your discussions with the Indian government” and how the Indo-US “partnerhip” “is strongest when based on shared democratic values [which] the Indian government has been trending away from…”.
This has to be countered by Rajnath Singh telling Austin in as clear a language as the defence minister’s MEA minders can muster that the Biden Administration would be better advised to look inward and work on addressing the reasons for the breakdown in the democratic order in the United States — as mirrored in the insurrection by religious bigots and ideological exremists — and how this is endangering the lives of immigrant communities in America, and why the Indian government fears Indian immigrants may be next in line for such victimhood. And further — to give the dose of the same democratic medicine to the Biden Admin — that Delhi will be closely monitoring the developments in the US.
Next, Austin will use Menendez’s threat of sanctions if India does not resile from the S-400 deal, to indicate that President Biden’s hands are tied were the US Congress, in fact, to use this Russia contract as the prompt for harsh action against India. “If India chooses to go forward with its purchase of the S-400, that (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act] will clearly constitute a significant, and therefore sanctionable, transaction with the Russian defence sector under Section 231 of CAATSA. It will also limit India’s ability to work with the US on development and procurement of sensitive military technology. I expect you to make all of these challenges clear in conversations with your Indian counterparts,” Menendez apparently wrote to Austin on the eve of the latter’s visit to various Asian states.
Far from acting intimidated, Rajnath Singh, in the best Uttar Pradeshi tradition of responding to a threat with a counter threat, should tell Austin in no uncertain terms that this isn’t the Cold War period of the 1950s, and in the fight against China the US needs India as much, if not more — and stress this last — than India needs the US, and so while the US Government is free to take whatever actions it deems fit, the Indian government in service of its national interests WILL not let an external power dictate which country it wants to cultivate, or what it buys from where by way of armaments and military goods. And that Austin better understand what the exchange here is. And if the US government follows through on the CAATSA threat issued by the likes of Menendez , Washington should expect an equal and opposit reaction from India — for starters the voiding of the four foundational accords, and the potential loss of the Andaman-Nicobar staging area that the US Air Force, for one,has been eyeing with considerable interest. And that India’s Quad cooperation, that much is being made of, is also at risk.
Here Rajnath should not listen to the habitual queasy appeasers and collaborators should the S Jaishankar-led MEA advise conciliatory language. MEA have already spoiled the situation for the country vis a vis China, and if given the chance, will make India grovel before America, China and any other country that begins throwing its weight about.
The best results are obtained and respect won with the US when plain language is used, one without obuscation or any hint of mealymouthedness that could be misread by Austin and his advisers as a tendency to flinch — something they can exploit.
The trouble with Delhi has always been it doesn’t hold to the true North on a compass of national interests. Time for Rajnath and for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to understand and appreciate that the manner of correctly dealing with the Americans has not been learned by MEA or government interlocuters dealing with Americans, and to remind Austin and the Pentagon what’s at stake.
Results of the Austin trip will show if the Modi government caved in, or stood its ground.