India has made its choice. Monday’s (August 29) signature by Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar on the dotted line of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) is a signal that the Narendra Modi-led NDA government has moved away from where Atal Behari Vajpayee-led NDA was, on the issue of basing rights for the US war machine.
In 2002, when Lal Krishna Advani, then Deputy Prime Minister, was keen that Washington be allowed to get its aircraft fuelled and its pilots refreshed on their way to Afghanistan and back, Vajpayee had taken the issue to Parliament. There, all the parties, including the main Opposition, the Congress, had nixed the potential deal. And that was the end of that episode of Indo-US courtship, much of which is still unfolding.
But by signing the LEMOA deal, the Modi government has finally made a choice – that it prefers the US more than its “special strategic partner” Russia, or its cooperative competitor, China. Never in the history of Independent India has New Delhi been so stark in terms of preferences, except when it had to sign the 20-year treaty of friendship and cooperation with the erstwhile Soviet Union. That was when USS Enterprise had entered the waters of Bay of Bengal even as Pakistan was having its nose bloodied in what turned out to be Bangladesh. So the dependence on the Russians was a matter of immediacy and - what might be termed - under duress. But this step of the Modi – did it have to be now?
Signing the LEMOA – however much Parrikar says that it certainly does not mean basing rights – is one more step in becoming an ally of the USA. The pact reportedly (it has not been released in domain yet) says that the US and India can access each other’s air force, naval and army bases for logistics replenishment, billeting and preparing for training and human assistance for disaster relief (HADR).
Washington Post reported on the agreement saying, “The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement allows for exchange of logistics support, supplies and services between the two countries’ armed forces. This includes food, water, fuel, spare parts, repair, transportation, communication and medical services.”
If the spares, maintenance crew, communication and transportation gear of US/Indian origin are not prepositioned in these bases, the benefits of the agreement become infructuous. That is common sense. And if that is not an intrinsic basic function, then what is? Of course, one can say that real estate will remain Indian, or conversely American, unlike Diego Garcia or Subic Bay.
These may also be the points that the Left parties or even the Congress Party can shout about. But there is a more real politic reason that New Delhi should have taken on board. Before that, it cannot be gainsaid that with China already becoming a continental power, India could not have run the risk of losing being the chance of becoming a maritime power.
Yet, it can be argued that did New Delhi choose the right time to get into a closer embrace with the USA. For, while the rapid decline of the US as the predominant global power has been arrested somewhat, it still is not winning all the arguments in the Asian continent or even in Europe. The line of the challengers is populated by the rising power of China and Putin’s Russia. Couldn’t India have leveraged relationships with these countries to gain more space from the USA in their spheres of influence, be it in terms of geopolitics, geoeconomics, and the like.
There is, of course, one driving argument against those who find the timing wrong. With the US presidential poll appearing to be going the Hillary Clinton way, there are fears in this side of the Suez canal that she would be more interventionist than a hobbled Barack Obama could. This Clintonian “over-reach” can come on the nuclear issues, Afghanistan, or an attempt to pose a challenge to China’s growing influence across India’s western border.
The LEMOA can be considered a hedge against such an attempt by a Clinton White House to arrest India’s space for strategic plus diplomatic manouvres in the region. On top of that, there is the growing power projection by the navy of this country in reclaiming Indian Ocean. Will USA with a Hillary Presidency agree to share power in the only ocean of the world that carries the name of a
These niggling pros and cons would continue till the new resident of the White House unpacks her/his tool box. But can LEMOA be balanced against a Russia regaining its status as the number one supplier of materiel and technology to the Indian defence forces? Critical question, I would think.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)