NEW DELHI–As a longtime fan of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, it’s not often that I find myself cheering for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Phillies’ rival in the state of Pennsylvania. But on July 4, 2009, I couldn’t help but enjoy the sight of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel — the first two Indians ever to play professional baseball in the United States — each take the pitcher’s mound for the very first time. The two young players, both born in Lucknow, India, had never touched — or even heard of — a baseball before being discovered by an American sports agent a year earlier and selected out of 40,000 Indian athletes to train for the American major leagues.
This month, Singh and Patel’s improbable story is getting the full Disney treatment in Million Dollar Arm, a film chronicling the search for Indians who could be trained to become Major League Baseball pitchers. It’s a heartwarming account of cross-cultural success — which, given the present state of U.S.-Indian relations, makes it a relative rarity.
In fact, observers of the chilly relationship between the world’s two largest democracies have been drawing their own baseball analogies. One of India’s largest English newspapers summed up an uneventful October 2013 White House meeting between President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with the lukewarm headline, “Singh and Obama play ‘small ball.'” Another reads, “India plays hardball with US as diplomat maid row escalates.” And Subhash Agrawal, an Indian political analyst, tells me, “the U.S. has taken its eyes off the ball” in Southeast Asia.
The results of this drift have been troubling, to say the least. The U.S. has filed several trade cases against India in the World Trade Organization, and remains frustrated by an Indian nuclear liability act that effectively limits U.S. investment in India’s energy industry. American policymakers were incensed to see India siding with Russia — which supplies 70 percent of India’s arms — over Vladimir Putin’s Crimean invasion, while Indians see the that the U.S. has previously denied a visa to Narendra Modi, likely to be the country’s next prime minister.
Then there is that “diplomat maid row,” a reference to the U.S.’s arrest, strip-search and indictment of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobrogade for lying on a visa application and underpaying her housekeeper. India retaliated by investigating American diplomats’ visas, snubbing a visiting U.S. delegation, and — most provocatively, a year after deadly attacks on the American embassy in Benghazi — removing the security barriers around the U.S. embassy in New Delhi.
The paradox is that before this string of real and perceived disagreements, U.S-India relations were on the upswing . After keeping a wary distance during the Cold War — and after the U.S. sanctioned India for conducting nuclear tests in 1998 — President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee inaugurated a new chapter of U.S.-Indian relations when Clinton visited India in 2000. The U.S. and India drew even closer under President George W. Bush, culminating in a landmark 2006 agreement to share civilian nuclear technology. By the time Obama visited India in 2010 — during which the usually reserved Singh hugged Obama around the waist–he was touting the relationship as “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”
But that was then. As India’s growth has fallen by half, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Scott Miller and Karl F. Inderfurth note, “investors are less willing to overlook… things like poor infrastructure, power outages, corruption, and bureaucratic red tape.” Meanwhile, urgent crises elsewhere have distracted U.S. policymakers. “They’re busy with Russia, Syria, the Middle East and Iran,” one senior Indian diplomat told the New York Times. “It is vital that they also pay attention to the India relationship soon, since the current drift could get much worse.”
Exacerbating this drift is the subcontinent-sized void in the Obama administration’s foreign policy — symbolized by the resignation of the U.S. Ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, in the wake of the Khobrogade incident. As Agrawal asks me incredulously, “Who is running U.S. South Asia policy? I’ve never seen the U.S. make so many strategic mistakes.” Summing up the feelings of many in Washington and New Delhi, Prabhat Shukla, Director of the Vivekananda International Foundation, tells me that this once-promising partnership is now “OK, but stagnant.”
But taken as a whole, talk of drift between the U.S. and India seems overblown. After all, bilateral trade has quintupled in the past decade, and India conducts more annual military exercises with the U.S. than with any other country. Over 100,000 Indian students study in American universities, while researchers in both countries are collaborating on everything from solar technology to low-cost medical devices . Despite the recent squabbles, Indians are nearly four times more likely to view the U.S. favorably than unfavorably, while 72 percent of Americans view India in a positive light.
“We are looking at the wood rather than the trees,” Vikram Doraiswamy, India’s Joint Secretary for the Americas, says to me. “There’s nothing to set the imagination on fire so the press is saying nothing is happening but that’s not true. We have $100 billion in trade and blue chips on both markets, joint venture on [military aircraft] and all this is not noticed. It’s a management issue I think and we are victims of our own success. We allow problems to drive the narrative rather than the good stories.”
Modi’s likely ascension to prime minister — however objectionable his outspoken Hindu nationalism and alleged culpability in a 2002 massacre of over 1,000 Muslims in his home state of Gujarat — offers a golden opportunity to reset the relationship. It was Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party that reached out to President Clinton the last time they were in power, and their pro-growth agenda makes them more likely to once again seek out foreign investment and stronger international ties.
If the U.S. does not wish to miss a similar window, there are three things it should do.
First, President Obama should be the first foreign leader to reach out to Modi after his presumptive victory. Modi may have intensely nationalistic views and a muddy human rights record, but he also may be America’s best hope to strengthen its relationship with India at a time when U.S. policy continues to shift to Asia. As analyst Deep Pal notes, far from being an inward-looking nativist during his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat, “Modi has been progressive and proactive, building ties around the world to bring more opportunities to his state.” He promises to do the same for India.
Second, the U.S. must find a professional ambassador to India. While Powell is a seasoned diplomat, the increasing complexity of the U.S.-India relationship demands more than a career civil servant — it requires a strategic thinker whose counsel is heard at the highest levels of American government. Choosing a well-respected ambassador would signal American seriousness and allow the U.S. and India to move forward on a number of thorny issues, from sorting out energy issues to resolving lingering pharmaceutical and intellectual property disputes. A good choice might be Ashton Carter, the highly-respected former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense and a longtime champion of strengthening ties with India.
Third, the business communities in both countries need to overcome their respective bureaucracies and reengage with their counterparts. Already, U.S. companies have invested upwards of $50 billion in Indian industries, while Indian companies invest $17 billion in the U.S. and employ over 80,000 Americans. A few critical improvements — India upgrading its infrastructure and modernizing its tax system, and the U.S. reforming its immigration system to allow more high-skilled workers — would go a long way towards improving the investment climate and bringing the U.S. and India closer together.
“The overall reality is that it’s a healthy relationship and heading in the right direction,” a senior Indian official says to me. “I don’t see any hang-ups at the people-to-people level between our two countries. I hope the next government can build on the work done over the past eight or so years.”
To do that, we don’t need a million-dollar arm — we just need an outstretched hand.