Unlike so many of my compatriots, I am not much exercised about the fate of the Indo-US nuclear agreement. Whether it falls through or goes ahead, it will have a marginal impact on the Indian economy. For nuclear energy is more expensive than other forms of energy, and more hazardous to the environment and to human life. At present, it contributes a mere 3 per cent of our energy needs; with the deal fully in place, this figure is expected to go up to a niggardly 7 per cent.
In sum, nuclear energy cannot, will not, and must not meet more than a fraction of our total energy requirement. However, the controversy over the Indo-US deal might be used as a convenient peg to ponder, more broadly and widely, the relations between the world’s two most interesting countries; interesting because of their size, because of their diversity — ecological, social, religious — and because of the rich variety of their cultural and aesthetic traditions — from jazz and Hollywood on the one side to classical music and Bollywood on the other.
What were, are, and might be the relations between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies? At Indian independence, the signs were propitious. Through World War II, the Americans, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in particular, chastised Winston Churchill and the British government for not hastening the transfer of power to Indian hands. When, as Prime Minister of the newly-freed land, Jawaharlal Nehru made his first trip to the US in 1949, he went seeking, as it were, to win friends and influence people. His success in this regard was mixed. He impressed the intelligentsia and the liberal elite, but came across as arrogant and patronising to the mandarins of the State Department. Still, for the first few years of independence, India’s relations with the US were quite good, helped along with dollops of aid and the marked empathy with Indian aspirations of the American Ambassador in New Delhi, Chester Bowles.
Then, in 1953, a Republican entered the White House for the first time in two decades. On his own, President Eisenhower was not ill-disposed towards India, but his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was. Dulles was the coldest of the Cold Warriors, who demanded of America’s friends an unflinching support in its rivalry with the Soviet Union. This India was not willing to give, but Pakistan was. In 1954, Dulles signed an arms pact in Rawalpindi that signalled a decisive shift in American policy. For the next four decades, and more, Washington was much closer to Pakistan than to India. For brief periods in the early 1960s, and again in the late 1970s, there was a thawing of relations, with American Presidents and Indian Prime Ministers (Kennedy and Nehru in the first instance, Carter and Morarji Desai in the second) forging friendships. For the most part, however, Islamabad was Washington’s buddy in the subcontinent, just as India was the Soviet Union’s.
In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed; the same year, the Indian economy began to liberalise. The ideological reasons for America to suspect India had gone away; meanwhile, strong material reasons for it to embrace India had arisen. The prospect of a growing market for American goods fostered a new-found respect for Indian democracy. Thus it was that when President Clinton came visiting in 2000, he spent five full days in India, but a mere five hours in Pakistan. The symbolism was not lost on either party. Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, has cultivated even closer ties with India. Despite the occasional blather about outsourcing, across party lines, there is a growing consensus in Washington that India must become a close ally.
American scholar Denis Kux entitled his fine study of Indo-US relations up to the year 1991, Estranged Democracies. How dated that title looks now! That India and the US are as close as they are in 2008 would have inconceivable in 1958, or 1978, or even 1998. But should they, will they, come closer still?
I was asked this question at a recent panel discussion in New York. I answered by saying that within India there were two distinct and opposed schools of thought. On the one hand, there was the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of the Communists and the fellow travellers. On the other hand, there was the blind pro-Americanism of the English-language media and the business class. I thought that both positions were untenable — for it would be as unwise to reject or oppose the US at every quarter as to meekly follow it at every turn. I then approvingly quoted the political scientist Sunil Khilnani, who argues that India is well placed to be a ‘bridging power’, which can forge stable, harmonious relations with the other major powers — the US, China, Russia and the European Union — without having to anoint any one as its most favoured friend.
I was immediately set upon by another panelist, the columnist and author Thomas Friedman.
My formulation sounded suspiciously like a warmed-up version of Nehruvian non-alignment, he said. That policy might have worked in the context of the Cold War, but now India had no alternative but to take sides. Then Friedman gave a specific example — India, he insisted, had to join the US in making sure that Iran did not acquire a nuclear weapon. For if Shia Iran had a bomb, then Sunni Saudi Arabia would also have one. How would India, and the world, cope with that?
To this question there was a quick and polemical answer — that India, and the world, lives already with a Sunni bomb (in the hands of Pakistan). But there was also a more considered answer — that good relations cannot be made contingent on a loyalty test. If the US demanded that, as proof of friendship, India follow Washington’s line on Iran, India could equally demand that the Americans take our side in the Kashmir dispute. Rather than make bilateral relations hostage to a single issue, India and the US could forge closer political and economic ties that would yet permit disagreements on matters of domestic or foreign policy.
Unfortunately, there are powerful interests within India that stand in the way of such a nuanced engagement. The Communists cannot forgive the US for having won the Cold War. Their political animosity is deepened by their economic philosophy, which maintains — in the face of much contrary evidence — that State planning is a better means to enhance welfare and productivity than the entrepreneurship and innovation of individuals and communities. On the other side, the consuming middle-classes are enamoured of the American way of life, their love and enchantment deepened by business and family ties. They hope that by cosying up to Washington, India, and Indians, will be granted membership of such select, rich men’s clubs as the G-8 and the UN Security Council.
These opposed positions are amplified by the media, which have a penchant for foregrounding extreme stances in any case. However, it is not in India’s interest for its political leadership to succumb to either extreme or — as seems presently the case — to oscillate between one extreme and the other.
For too long were India and the US indeed ‘estranged democracies’. That they no longer suspect or distrust one another is a considerable advance. But now one needs, at least on the Indian side, some cold, hard thinking on how to take the relationship forward without turning friendship into subservience.
Author, India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy