John Kerry's passage to India. Why is he going now?

The US top diplomat isn't facing a war in his visit to the world's largest democracy. But he's got some serious repair work in the area of trust and cooperation, Indian analysts say. 

Adnan Abidi/REUTERS
US Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) shakes hands with India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj before the start of their meeting in New Delhi July 31, 2014.

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to New Delhi looks at first glance to be a diplomatic breather.

After a bruising week of shuttle diplomacy that failed to broker a cease-fire to the Gaza conflict, Mr. Kerry landed yesterday in India for two days of talks with the new Narendra Modi government.

It’s the first visit of a high ranking US official to India since Prime Minister Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to a landslide victory in May, and is designed to pave the way for the Indian leader's visit to the United States in September. 

But Kerry’s India trip has its tricky diplomatic challenges, analysts from India warn. In their view, Kerry will need to break the ice with Modi, who before his election was banned from entering the US for nearly a decade. He will need to assuage hurt feelings over revelations that the NSA spied on the BJP, and also press India over its holdup of new global trade regulations.

“The catechism of an 'indispensable partnership' with India that US Secretary of State John Kerry repeated during [a speech before he arrived in New Delhi] cannot cover up the loss of faith that has crept into the relationship between the two countries,” wrote Siddharth Varadarajan, a senior fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs in New Delhi in a column in India’s NDTV.

For the past two decades, “the world’s two largest democracies have described themselves as natural allies, sharing similar concerns over China’s rise and Islamic extremism,” the Times of India writes, but then notes that there is 'lingering resentment' in the relationship:

Relations took a sharp turn for the worse when US authorities in December arrested an Indian diplomat on allegations of mistreating her servant, leading New Delhi to retaliate against US personnel. 
Modi has little reason for gratitude toward the United States. In 2005, Washington refused him a visa over allegations of turning a blind eye to anti-Muslim riots as chief minister of Gujarat. 
Allegations that Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had been the target of surveillance operations by the US national security agency while it was in opposition have added to the sense of grievance. 
Foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said Wednesday that Kerry's visit was an opportunity "to explore transformative initiatives that can move the relationship to the next level" but he also said that concerns over cyber security would be raised. 
"There is a considerable disquiet in India about the authorization provided to American agencies in terms of contravening the privacy of individuals, entities and government of India," he told reporters. 

Kerry will be navigating those sticking points, while he also presses India on a new stumbling block: its hesitancy to sign a global trade facilitation deal agreed to at a World Trade Organization summit in December. India is the only WTO member refusing to sign the agreement, in a dispute over how tightly countries must restrict farmer subsidies and stockpiling food. 

While perhaps seen as a technical issue, the delay on the trade agreement does carry political consequences for the US-India relationship, the Council on Foreign Relation’s Alyssa Ayres writes.

“New Delhi’s stance not only puts up a roadblock on global trade, but will effectively halt any efforts to envision a larger ambition for the U.S.-India economic relationship – which badly needs one – by signaling that India at present does not want to stand with the global free and open trading system.”

In the view of some in Washington, the US has targeted India as a strategic priority – a possible hedge against Chinese ambition in Asia – and the market potential of its 1.2  billion population has an appeal to American businesses. That triggered President Obama's statement early in his presidency that "India is not just a rising power, it has already risen." 

Kerry sought to play up that importance before his visit. “The long-standing partnership between the US and India is on the cusp of an historic transformation,” Kerry and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, also in Delhi, wrote in India’s Economic Times yesterday. The column advocated for greater business and defense partnerships. 

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