“The US-India Moment”

(op-ed), Wall Street Journal Asia. May 22, 2009. Reprinted in Mint (India), May 25, 2009.

The return of the Congress Party-led coalition to power in New Delhi opens the door for the Obama administration to forge a more ambitious agenda with India than either Presidents Clinton or Bush envisioned. But Washington must act quickly lest the moment vanishes.

The Indian election ends several months of diplomatic stasis between India and the United States, the result of elections in both countries. Both leaders now have strong mandates. Confounding pundits who were virtually unanimous in predicting a fractured mandate, Indian voters gave Congress more seats than any single party in nearly two decades. They also weakened the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and trounced the Communists, whose seats in parliament are at a three-decade low.

These results primarily represent a vote for governance, stability and inclusive growth, but they also implicitly endorse Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s stances on economic liberalization and closer ties with Washington. Last summer Mr. Singh staked his government on a civil nuclear energy agreement with the U.S. bitterly opposed by Communists, who withdrew their parliamentary support for the government over the issue. With the Communists now politically irrelevant, the new coalition government can pursue a deeper relationship with the U.S. unencumbered by ideological baggage.

Admittedly, the timing is not exactly propitious. With the Obama administration’s first few months consumed by a financial crisis and two wars, the longer-term but no less important priorities — including India — have had to wait. Wall Street and Motor City meltdowns, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Taliban’s march within range of Islamabad, and a swine flu pandemic all require fire-fighting, whereas India is a long-term strategic play. Nonetheless, President Obama has an opening to build on the goodwill with India established by President Clinton, and cemented by President Bush, and which can now be extended to initiatives unthinkable a decade earlier. Assured a supportive partner in Mr. Singh, Mr. Obama should move swiftly to set the agenda his administration will pursue.

To begin with, building on yeoman work by previous administrations, government-to-government cooperation — in security, intelligence and trade, among others — must be deepened. But to take the relationship to a new level, both governments should leverage their best asset, the two countries’ increasingly intertwined and innovative private sectors, to tackle complex global problems like climate change or agricultural productivity, to name just two. If we dream big, the impact of this two-track cooperation will be felt throughout the world.

Take security cooperation. In recent years, Washington and New Delhi have initiated high-level dialogues and undertaken joint military exercises. Recent Indian purchases of American military aircraft, a watershed for a country whose chief arms suppliers are Russia and Israel, are a harbinger for a closer relationship. Cooperation against transnational threats such as terrorism and piracy — and on humanitarian relief operations such as those that followed the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia — are natural areas for the next phase. Thinking beyond the military, India and the U.S. should extend local-level exchanges, like the New York police’s work with counterparts after the Mumbai attacks last November.

Deepening this cooperation on security and crafting a world-class counterterror relationship depends on much greater intelligence sharing, begun since Mumbai but not even close to what the U.S. enjoys with partners like Canada or Britain. Formal personnel exchanges, regular frank (even argumentative) dialogue, and the technology to share sensitive information must be expanded or put into place, with a plan that leads eventually to India’s inclusion in English-language intelligence networks that form the bedrock of our most important security relationships.

On economic policy, the global financial crisis has an unintentional upside: a fast-tracked expansion of countries involved in policy coordination, and a growing recognition that the Group of 20 has more relevance than the anachronistic Group of Eight. No major economic challenge can be addressed without India — slated to beat the global recession by growing at 5.1% this year and 6.5% next year according to the International Monetary Fund — and Washington should do everything possible to expand all levels of economic coordination and consultation with New Delhi. On global trade, where India and the U.S. still disagree — most vehemently on agriculture markets and farmer subsidies — the lack of an agreement between our countries will hold the Doha round hostage. Cooperation is a must.

In addition, finding solutions for challenging global problems, where U.S.-India partnership offers distinct advantages, requires looking beyond government. On pressing issues such as climate change or agricultural transformation, a key to delivering millions around the world out of poverty, both countries have particular scientific and management expertise. Reducing emissions requires new energy sources and better resource management to produce less waste. Washington and New Delhi must tap their citizens’ research and development capabilities, and encourage large-scale collaboration with venture capitalists, who know how to commercialize innovation, to develop a vibrant partnership on renewable energy, emissions reduction and sustainability practices.

As during the 1960s, when American and Indian scientists together helped end India’s chronic food shortages, agriculture must be a focus for public-private partnership between our countries. Government incentives to build infrastructure such as roads and cold-chain storage can be married with private-sector expertise in supply-chain management and logistics, crop management innovation, financial services (such as insurance) for farmers and vocational skills training. As smallholder farms begin to flourish and are linked to new global markets for their produce, a second green revolution will transform the lives of one-quarter of the world’s poor. (As with most metrics in India, the scale has the power to awe.) The successes of this model can be applied throughout the developing world.

These examples only skim the surface of how the Obama administration can broaden the U.S.-India partnership. Whatever the issue, India stands out amid the greater region for its stable, plural, secular democracy, with solid economic growth, private sector dynamism, and a world-class knowledge sector. Unlike during the Cold War, when India flirted with socialism and the Soviet bloc, Washington and New Delhi now share compatible values and a convergent vision of the world. This is the time to embark upon an ambitious agenda for the relationship. With big ambition and a focus on outcomes important to both countries, India and the U.S. can at last begin to realize the promise their relationship has long held.

Ms. Ayres is director for India & South Asia at McLarty Associates in Washington D.C., and served recently as director of the Asia Society’s Task Force on U.S. Policy toward India.