NEW DELHI: Nothing perhaps better demonstrated the exit mode of the Obama Administration than the decision of his Secretary of State John Kerry to spend an extra two days in Delhi with little to do except shop and rest.

This, for one of the busiest men in the world, who has covered 88 countries with some multiple visits since Feburuary 2013---is unusual, to say the least. And while he is supposed to have made up at the G20 summit with crucial side meetings, the fact remains that the ground now is being set for the new President with elections just around the corner.

Kerry left India with no assurances. Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated India’s plea for a seat at the United Nations Security Council and at the high table of the National Suppliers Group. On the first it was made clear to India that the process is complicated and no early decision can be expected. On the second it remained a “let me see” response. Instead Kerry raised the issue of US NGO Compassion International being taken off the Indian government’s watch list, in what constituted a particularly high level intervention from Washington.

And this after Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar signed the Logisitics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US last week. And thereby opened India’s military bases to extend logistical support to US miltiary vessels and aircraft in what is projected as a bilateral arrangement, but all in the strategic establishment know, that it will actually benefit only the US that has its wars and interests strictly placed in this region, and this part of the world.

The Congress under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had tried to get this agreement throug, but it was resisted by Defence Minister A.K.Antony and the Left parties that were initially in alliance with the Congress government. Significantly, the agreement signed has still not been made public with only a press statement having been released. Parrikar and US defence secretary Ashton Carter made a few remarks and both insisted that it was not a military pact.

The agreement was always viewed by the Left and sections of the Congress party, including Antony, as being lopsided. As was pointed at meetings at the time, there was no possibility of India availing of US logistics support as its area of operation remained restricted to the region, including of course the South China seas now. Conversely, given the fact that the US theatre of war and intervention is around the Indian Ocean, and in its vicinity the agreement would vastly benefit the US military in search of ports and military airfields for this crucial support.

At the time when former PM Singh was pushing the agreement, the officials had made out that logistics did not cover military operations---just as being made out now---and the support,supplies and services is restricted to transportation, food, water, clothing, communication and medica services, port services and so on. It was clear then,as it is now, that the services are to refurbish vessels and aircraft of war with India thereby giving the logistics support necessary to the US fleets deployed in this region.

Kerry’s visit, interestingly, has punctured some of the euphoria created by the establishment and the media around this agreement, that was being justified as opening a whole new vista in US-India relations. While it is true that it will greatly benefited the US military and its plans in this region, it is also now clear that it is not seen by Washington necessarily as a stepping stone for India to the UNSC or for that matter even the NSG.

At least not at the moment, with the issues being left now for the new President of the United States to take up afresh. That usually in political language means a long haul.

The definition of logistics support is unexceptionable, but it is the unexceptionable that sometimes becomes the unthinkable. ‘Logistics Support, Supplies and Services’ is defined to include food, water, billeting, transportation, petroleum, oils, lubricants, clothing, communication services, medical services, storage services, training services, spare parts and components, repair and maintenance services, calibration services, and port services. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with that list. How will it be applied in practice is the million-dollar question.

Take, for example, ‘billeting’. The dictionary meaning of the word is “a place where troops are lodged”. Then there are services like communication services, storage services, training services, repair and maintenance services and calibration services. Will US troops be lodged in India? Is it likely that the logistics services will be allowed to be provided by Indians to US defence services such as warships, combat aircraft, US Marines or Navy Seals? Will not the US demand that Americans (usually defence personnel) be allowed to enter India to provide these services to their men and equipment? If that happens, will it not be the first time that India would have allowed foreign defence personnel to be stationed on Indian soil (maybe temporarily)?

The other part of the agreement is the ‘may be undertaken’ part. According to the press release, “logistics support for any other cooperative efforts shall only be provided on a case-by-case basis”. So far, so good, but the two countries appear to have tacitly agreed to enlarge the cooperation between the defence forces of the two countries.

More than handshake

Sure, LEMOA is not a military pact. Nevertheless, it is a fair conclusion that it is more than a handshake between the two countries, they have embraced each other! The world is watching, especially Russia, which has been our main supplier so far, and China. LEMOA will certainly be seen as an Indian endorsement of the US policy of ‘pivot to Asia’.

That is why editorials and commentators have cautioned that enhanced defence cooperation—following the designation of India by the US as a ‘major defence partner’—should not affect India’s strategic military neutrality or ability to pursue an independent foreign policy. The exhortations are valid because the US is keen to sign two more ‘foundational agreements’—the Communications Interoperability & Security Memorandum of Agreement and the Basic Exchange & Cooperation Agreement.

If the government believes that LEMOA is indeed reciprocal—not merely in its words but in the benefits that will accrue to both countries—it should make the document public and invite a public debate.