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Indo-US Ties: Eco-Cultural Adhesive

November 2, 2010

A month ago, Delhi emerged in a new avatar: after spending many months like a woman with hair in curlers, mud-pack covered face and dressed in a shabby gown, it metamorphised into a beautiful, radiant lady, dressed in finery. Mumbai is now attempting to quickly go through the same Cinderella-like transformation. Delhi was preparing a new face for the Commonwealth Games; Mumbai is preparing itself for President Obama. Delhi spent thousands of crores, doubtless with some long-term gains, but also with make-up that sought to hide the scars of removing the warts (expelling many poor residents from their homes on the pretext of “security”). Mumbai is, apparently, a little more humane, limiting its beautification to superficial make-up to conceal its extensive blemishes.

Tidying one’s home to receive guests is an universal and justifiable activity. However, when the visitor is here to discuss business, then preparations need to go beyond the cosmetic. Fresh paint is fine, but fresh thinking is more essential: strategic thought and tactical planning need to go hand in hand to help define realistic expectations of outcome. Over the last few years, in tandem with a dramatic change in US perception about India and its role, but also thanks to orchestrated media hype, expectations have soared. Clever manipulation of the media have given the impression of US “largesse” and hugely amplified US “gives”, conveying the impression of a convergence of interest, with the US and India being natural allies. The truth lies elsewhere.

Much has been made of the nuclear deal, with the US having ostensibly ended our nuclear isolation. The fact that this “ostracism” was a voluntary choice (credit for this must go to India Gandhi and her advisors) is conveniently forgotten. Not signing the discriminatory Non-Proliferation Treaty and, later, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, were conscious decisions made in national self-interest. With the nuclear deal, the US has taken a big step towards its goal of capping and then rolling back India’s strategic nuclear programme, with India seemingly on the verge of signing not only the CTBT and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, but also the NPT: acceding, effectively, to permanent nuclear apartheid. It would, indeed, be a brave technologist who will venture the view that we can develop a nuclear arsenal without more fissile material and without any more tests. One cannot but admire the US for not only staying focused on its long-term goal (“cap and rollback”), but pulling off a communication coup by positioning this as a favour to India!

The brief honeymoon of a strategic partnership is already unraveling in crucial areas like US Af-Pak policy. Billions of dollars of US military aid to Pakistan is certainly not for guns that fire only in one direction. The complex web of intelligence gathering necessarily requires a nexus between US agencies and Pakistan’s ISI, and double agents like Headley are not unique. More Headleys and consequent spats seem inevitable.

US policy is — very rightly — determined by its perceived national interest, and its alliances with third world countries are, at best, fickle: Saddam Hussain and Gadaffi were one-time US allies. Great hopes about “shared values” mean little, in this context. US allies like Saudi Arabia are hardly the epitome of democracy; nor is progressive secularism a basis for friendship — after all, it was the US that, to counter Soviet presence in Afghanistan, created the Frankenstein of the Taliban. India, too, chooses its friends on a geo-political rather than emotional basis — be it the totalitarian Soviet Union of old, or a budding relationship with the Generals in Myanmar.

It seems clear that except for brief periods and in limited areas, an overall convergence of US and Indian strategic interests is a historical rarity, and as unlikely in the near future too. Divergence is bound to grow as the US withdraws from Afghanistan and possibly encourages an ethnic-based partition; so also in a situation of confrontation between Iran (historically a Sufi-Shia civilisation with strong historical bonds to India) and a Wahabi-fundamentalist Saudi Arabia, a longtime US ally (how much of the $60 billion US arms would find their way to Pakistan?). One sees a growing rift — rather than convergence — in the US and Indian approaches.

What, then, can link the two countries? The strongest and most enduring bond is certainly the people to people relationship. This has withstood the vicissitudes of even the worst phases of political differences (for example, during the liberation of Bangladesh). Indians are generally both liked and respected in the US, not only in the academic and technology communities, but increasingly — as evidenced in their rise in the political arena — the mainstream. Similarly, things American have long been popular in India: be it Hollywood films, jeans and Coca-Cola; Apple and Big Apple; or Newsweek and US universities.

Over the last decade or so, this relationship has bloomed further with the growing trade and economic links. Nowhere is this more evident than in the IT sector, where the partnership between Indian IT service providers and US companies has brought immense value to both, and greatly benefited the US citizen through cheaper products and better services. US IT companies have set up large operations in India — off-shoring work from US and global customers, but also tapping the growing commercial and government market in India, and for R&D. Now, US retail giants, insurance companies, aircraft makers and defence companies see immense potential in the Indian market — just as US consumer companies have grabbed a head-to-toe opportunity (from shampoos or shoes). The technological and economic gains of US-India collaboration in renewable energy, healthcare and space, leveraging the complementarities, can be truly immense for both sides. US protectionism is not going to help any of this.

Maybe, it is time for both sides to downplay attempts at strategic convergence and take the more sustainable path of economic and cultural ties. The composition of the US delegation seems indicative of recognition of this, with Obama coming here not so much as President of a superpower, but as chief marketing officer for America Inc. It may be time for US-India ties to be driven by NASSCOM rather than NSA, CII instead of CIA, General Electric rather than General Petraeus, and yoga instead of bombs.


From → India, Technology

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