NEW DELHI — When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton landed for talks in India this week, she brought with her an entire retinue of U.S. security and intelligence officials.
And from her meetings with Indian leaders, one thing was clear: “Homeland security” is the new buzzword in U.S.-India relations.
Spurred by the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks and subsequent assaults — including bombings in that city just last week — India is rapidly overhauling its security apparatus, creating a gaping appetite for homeland security expertise and technology. That has American companies and diplomats salivating over the potential for billions in contracts and a chance to tighten ties between the world’s two largest democracies.
“We are allies in the fight against violent extremist networks, and homeland security is a high priority and a source of increasing partnership,” Clinton said Tuesday after meeting with top Indian ministers.
But so far, talk of collaboration has mostly remained just that.
Indian officials say a slew of hurdles often prevents or deters them from obtaining American security technology. But the biggest hurdle, they say, has been a lack of trust on both sides.
Stringent U.S. rules on security technology prevent Indians from importing many of the most advanced American systems. For India and other countries to gain access, U.S. laws demand that they sign agreements subjecting them to regular inspections and limiting how they use the equipment and whom they share it with.
Indians say their country is loath to relinquishing control over its most sensitive areas to a foreign power. Meanwhile, other countries, including Israel and several European nations with fewer restrictions, have leapt ahead in the burgeoning market.
“The problem is confidence on both sides,” said Amrit Pal Singh, an Indian army brigadier general who spent the past year in Washington studying U.S. homeland security. “The potential is so great, but the U.S. needs to loosen up and India needs to let go of its fears.”
In many ways, the two countries are primed for collaboration.
The U.S.-India relationship has warmed over the past decade, with India transforming from a target of U.S. sanctions after its nuclear test in 1998 to one of America’s closest regional allies.
The countries have also followed a strikingly similar, if tragic, narrative. Indians call the 2008 Mumbai attacks their version of Sept. 11, 2001 — an event that exposed gaping flaws in their security systems. Much like the U.S. government before Sept. 11, India’s domestic security is sprawled over multiple agencies, badly coordinated and often working with outdated technology.
During last week’s bombings in Mumbai, for example, local authorities said their mobile communications system collapsed from sheer congestion and they had to cobble together a separate wireless system.
Even as it tries to modernize, India is facing increasing domestic threats on multiple fronts, in addition to attacks on its big cities: skirmishes in the disputed territory of Kashmir, a growing Maoist insurgency in the East and several secessionist movements.
To combat them, border authorities are buying up surveillance cameras and handheld thermal imagers. Intelligence agencies are clamoring for signal intercept capabilities and cybersecurity. Contractors say there’s an increasing push to develop surveillance drones. Meanwhile, police are ordering loads of equipment, including riot gear to night-vision goggles.
There are no reliable estimates on how much this security splurge is worth — partly because of the problem of the agencies’ overlapping with national and state authorities. “It’s safe to say the opportunities we’re talking about are in the billions,” said Michael DiPaula-Coyle, director of the U.S.-India Business Council.
Authorities on both sides, however, seem eager to make the partnership work. This spring, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security launched the first of what it hopes will be an annual summit with New Delhi. And three weeks ago, Indian officials flew to Washington to meet in private with U.S. companies and officials. The burning question on their minds, according to DiPaula-Coyle, who sat in, was how Americans had managed to work through the legalities of tapping phones and intercepting e-mails.
So, on the Friday before the long Fourth of July weekend, representatives from some of the largest U.S. phone and Internet providers patiently walked through all the technicalities for more than five hours.
“There are clear areas where the Indians are genuinely looking to us for help,” DiPaula-Coyle said of the meeting.
But more often than not, Indian security contracts have gone to other countries. Indians who work in the security sector say Americans often have the best technology but the wrong approach when it comes to Indian contracts.
“Americans are sitting there in a closed room with a sign on the door saying, ‘We are the best.’ But all the business is taking place outside the room,” said one expert who works in security contracting and spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid damaging future business.
American companies are also less agile in adapting their security products to Indian needs, security experts say.
Take, for example, American systems that recognize car license plates, said Rothin Bhattacharyya, chief executive of HCL Security and chairman of a security industry committee that advises the government. “It works very well in the U.S., where everybody drives in their lanes, but can you imagine it working here on Indian roads? The U.S. just wants to sell its products and go away. We want someone who provides end-to-end support.”
As a result, other nations have crept into that gap.
According to one intelligence officer who was not authorized to speak about security matters to the news media, Israel has been particularly aggressive in pursuing the Indian market. Its companies have secured some of India’s most sensitive installations, including the nuclear command center outside New Delhi, air force bases and bomb factories, he said.
“Anytime anyone offers anything, the Israelis step in with a 50-percent-less offer to try and grab it,” the intelligence officer said.
And despite the increasingly strong alliance, doubts linger on the Indian side about just how much they can trust the Americans. “Say for an example Indians officials buy advanced GPS systems from the U.S.,” said Singh, the army general. “The whole time, the Indians will be wondering whether U.S. intelligence is accessing that information and watching where they are. “
Similarly, U.S. manufacturers, he said, would be wondering whether the Indians are appropriating and reselling their technology. “The desire is clearly there for collaboration,” Singh said. “Everyone on both sides is starting to talk about it. But the trust is something that will take time to resolve.”