Nearly four years ago, Barack Obama hosted the first state dinner of his presidency in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. That event, however, was soon overshadowed by the exploits of Michaele and Tareq Salahi, two Washington socialites who crashed the dinner, embarrassing the White House and dominating headlines for days.
Sadly, this wasn't so surprising: something always seems to be stealing the U.S.-India relationship's thunder. On Friday, Obama once again hosted Singh at the White House, at a time when many Indians believe their country still sits on the backburner of U.S. priorities in South Asia. Several high-level visits from U.S. officials, including Vice President Joseph Biden in July, have done little to change that perception. Secretary of State John Kerry's lackluster June trip to India, for example, prompted retired Indian ambassador K. C. Singh to warn that the current government in Washington "may have little appetite for accommodating Indian concerns." Nor did the meeting today, during which the two sides talked about Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the U.S.-India relationship, assuage concerns: Obama opened his public remarks on the subject by asking for Singh's "indulgence" and launching into a speech on Syria.
This is a far cry from the George W. Bush administration, when prominent pro-India voices like then Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill and then Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns worked fervently to deepen ties with New Delhi -- an effort that culminated in a landmark civil nuclear accord in 2008. Yet since Obama took office in 2009, and despite a roughly five-fold increase in bilateral trade over the last decade, many in the administration regard India as a complacent nation trying to punch above its weight. For its part, India resents Washington's relationship with Islamabad, fractured as it may be, and U.S. attempts to broker talks with the Afghan Taliban. The occasional gaffe hasn't helped matters either. New Delhi was infuriated by the video of a 2011 Chuck Hagel speech that surfaced this February. In the speech, given before he accepted the position of defense secretary, Hagel claimed India "financed problems" for Pakistan in Afghanistan.
So will U.S.-India relations remain second tier, like the opening cover band that never becomes a headliner? Not necessarily. Shifting strategic sands are positioning the relationship for an upgrade, and possibly even a spot on center stage. The United States is winding down its involvement in Afghanistan. The drawdown likely means Washington will spend less energy on Pakistan and redirect attention to India -- while addressing India's fears about the implications of the U.S. military withdrawal. The United States has also revised its "rebalance to Asia" strategy in ways that happen to be beneficial to India, including more maritime cooperation with Southeast Asia -- a potential hedge against China. And while Washington continues to refer to India as a "key partner" in the rebalance, it no longer suggests an alliance -- which New Delhi, with its strong legacy of nonalignment, would vigorously oppose.