For as long as I can remember, two distinct emotions have characterised the educated Indian’s response to foreign policy. The first is deep affection for American democracy and way of life. Even when relations between India and the US have hit diplomatic lows, nothing has dented the warmth with which American popular culture is regarded in India. We watch American movies, we wear American clothes, we follow American trends and we want to educate our kids in America.
The second emotion is a keenly developed sense of national pride. Few countries are as fiercely patriotic as India is. (Well, actually, perhaps America is too.) It could be the centuries of colonial subjugation that are responsible but Indians watch out keenly for our national interest and respond angrily to the merest slight or perceived injury to our country. We are nobody’s satellite and demand to be treated with respect.
Sometimes, these two emotions are in conflict with each other. In 1971, we felt that the US had ‘tilted’ unfairly towards Pakistan, and had turned a blind eye to the genocide in that country’s eastern wing. Though this did not necessarily reduce our affection for American popular culture, it made a whole generation of Indians suspicious of US foreign policy priorities.
We are still quite far from the 1971 situation but I have a terrible feeling that once again, those two emotions are colliding. Our regard for America is once again in conflict with our national pride. It may be too early to sound the alarm yet but I think that a) America is regarded with much less affection than it was two years ago and b) if things do not change quite substantially in the near future, any Indian government that seeks to further the India-US partnership will face considerable public opposition and deep suspicion.
There are two traditional irritants in the relationship between Washington and Delhi. The first is what India sees as America’s desire to order the world according to its own best interests. For instance, in the 1950s, when Washington asked each country to take sides in the Cold War, the Indian establishment reacted with anger: why should India be forced to get involved in somebody else’s war?
The second is Pakistan, a small country of no great consequence that has always made itself valuable to Washington by serving US interests in third countries. In the 1950s and 1960s, it served as a base for US spy planes as America kept a watch on Russia. In the 1970s, it was America’s gateway to China. (The reason for the Nixon-Kissinger ‘tilt’ towards Islamabad in 1971.) In the 1980s, it became a virtual American aircraft carrier in the battle to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. And so on.
Both irritants have come into play once again. Rightly or wrongly, a perception has developed among educated Indians that America expects India to toe the Washington line on key global issues. For instance, the sub-text to the recent climate change controversy (over which key Indian officials resigned) is the suspicion that India is under pressure to overturn our long-standing policies to suit Washington’s own interests.
Similarly, much of the opposition to the new Nuclear Liability Bill is predicated on the belief (hotly denied by the government) that the legislation is being enacted to insulate large American companies from liability even when the equipment they have supplied costs Indian lives.
There are many other examples of perceived US pressure on the government. Many fears may well be misconceived but they derive their power from a fresh development: a shift in America’s foreign policy to favour Pakistan.
Once again, Pakistan has offered itself as a route to a third country. The US finds itself in a war it cannot win in Afghanistan. The only way it can extricate itself from that mess is by coming to an understanding with the very people that it has been fighting: the Taliban.
It is no secret that the original Taliban was the creation of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and it is widely believed that Pakistan still has leverage with Taliban leaders. Now that US policy is to seek some sort of accommodation with ‘good Taliban’ (whatever that means), Pakistan has two uses. One: it can facilitate an understanding with Taliban leaders and offer some guarantees of stability once the US moves out or scales down its presence in Afghanistan. And two: it can crack down on ‘bad Taliban’ (such as the Pakistan Taliban and those Afghan leaders opposed to Islamabad’s Taliban friends) within Pakistan’s own borders.
In recent months, Pakistan has performed both tasks. Back channel negotiations with ‘good Taliban’ are in progress and the Pakistani army has launched a massive operation against the Taliban while denying safe haven to many of those who are fighting the US in Afghanistan.
From an American perspective, this is invaluable. Not only is the Pakistani government facilitating a face-saving exit from a deeply unpopular war but the Pakistani military seems at last to have found the will to take on Islamists. This accounts for the US’s current love for Pakistan, for the pictures of Hilary Clinton posing cosily with Mehmood Qureshi and for Washington’s praise of Pakistan’s army.
Naturally Islamabad wants payment in return: an India-style nuclear deal, arms to use against India, an ejection of Indians from Afghanistan, some resolution of the Kashmir dispute etc. Washington cannot give the Pakistanis everything they want. But equally, Pakistan has to get something as payment. And that will be at India’s expense.
When you consider President Obama’s options dispassionately you can see why he needs to court Pakistan. But, equally, Washington needs to do something to reassure New Delhi. Instead, America gives the impression that it takes India for granted. The refusal to extradite David Headley and the repeated flip-flops over allowing Indian investigators to question him suggest a complete insensitivity to Indian public sentiment.
In the light of what America is doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it rather seems as though Washington has had a change of heart: why fight a war on terror when you can simply do deals with the terrorists?
It is hard to see why Washington is letting the goodwill it has enjoyed in India over the last few years slip through its fingers. Public suspicion of the US in India has now reached the stage where no matter what the government does — talk to Pakistan, for instance — it is accused of following orders from Washington. These suspicions extend to the ruling party: even Congressmen fear that America has too much leverage over India.
In the short-run, Pakistan and Afghanistan are important to Washington. But in the long-run it is India that America will need if it is to counter China. Washington’s behaviour suggests that it has forgotten that national pride and patriotism are non-negotiable for Indians.
No matter how much affection Indians have for American culture, India is too large and too important to be taken for granted. And Indians have long memories. No snub is ever forgotten.
The views expressed by the author are personal