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  Opinion   Columnists  18 Jun 2023  Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr | Could India get all it wants from US, not give anything?

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr | Could India get all it wants from US, not give anything?

The author is a Delhi-based commentator and analyst
Published : Jun 19, 2023, 12:04 am IST
Updated : Jun 19, 2023, 12:04 am IST

No none has paused to ask what is it that the United States is looking for in India as its strategic partner.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Photo: PTI)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Photo: PTI)

There is much excitement across the Indian media and in the strategic pundit community about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States in the coming week, at the invitation of President Joe Biden, and how some key agreements in the fields of armaments, AI and semiconductor technologies are due to be signed, making India a special partner of the United States. The buzz has been created by US national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s recent visit to New Delhi where he held talks with India’s NSA Ajit Doval as well as external affairs minister S. Jaishankar, and it is believed that key breakthroughs have been achieved and which will be formalised by Mr Modi and Mr Biden in their White House meetings. There is also the additional icing to the visit as Mr Modi will join a select band of foreign leaders to address the US Congress twice.

But everyone in India, especially among the experts, seem to have forgotten the simple phrase of market economics -- and all the experts are devotees of the market economy -- that there are no free lunches. No none has paused to ask what is it that the United States is looking for in India as its strategic partner. Why will the US bestow favours on India? Is it because India is a vibrant democracy like America, and the US finds India as the right partner to fight the autocracies of China and Russia? What are the American expectations from India? Many informed Indians seem to believe that India has everything in its favour, and that America needs India in Asia more than India needs America in managing the global strategic balance, and that India does not have to give anything and it has everything to gain. This is indeed unbridled optimism which has characterised the last nine years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overweening confidence.

India has so far held its own against pressures by the US and European Union countries on the issue of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, and India has imported crude oil from Russia in the face of Western sanctions. Washington is now reconciled to the fact that India will not cut off relations with Russia, and the EU too is coming around to accepting India’s position. And the West is willing to look away from India’s oil imports from Russia even as the US and European countries import India-refined Russian crude. There is not, however, much expectation from India that it could be the peacemaker between Russia and Ukraine.

Why are Americans betting on India? They must be seeing mainly business, and equally strategic, opportunities in India, and that it only goes to show that India has attained a position of importance which is based on its inherent strengths. This is indeed an exaggerated view of Indians of India.

There is no doubt that Americans are looking for strategic partners to fight their battles of global supremacy. During the Cold War, they used Pakistan as a prop though the offer was initially made to India. Pakistan has fallen off the map, as it were, and a liberalised India offers an attractive possibility of a partner. But India’s commitment to stand up for democracy in other parts of the world, at least in terms of rhetoric, is shaky. India is not ideologically committed to democracy like America and Europe, whatever their hypocrisies may be in practice.

It is believed in India that the Americans are now willing to share dual-technology products, and that Americans are willing to sell critical armaments to counter Chinese military aggression on the India-China Line of Actual Control. India cannot feel too reassured that to counter China it becomes dependent on American military support.

The argument that India provides an ideal alternative to American investments and manufacturing in China remains faulty, though it has become the favoured theme in Indian circles. Americans have multiple alternatives in Southeast Asia as well as in South Korea. And what the Indian software sector provides to contribute to the American economy, from India as well as in America, is valuable enough but India is still not the big stakeholder in the American economy. The Indian economy is much too small to make an impact, though we get reports of Indian enterprises in America are creating tens of thousands of jobs for the Americans and creating hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of goods and services.

More important, India is not willing to be a part of any military alliance with the US and others. The Americans, Japanese and Australians would have been only too willing to change the Quad into a military grouping but for India’s reluctance. The key question that arises is whether India can enjoy the advantages of being part of the Western democratic club without accepting any military responsibility.

If the Americans are willing to share critical and emerging technologies with India, they are also looking for business and strategic advantages. India will have to play along if it wants the many things it expects from America. Of course, Indian’s leaders can keep under wraps the many commitments that India is asked to make to the US, and the strategy experts can explain away, rationalise, whatever India is forced to give in return for US investments and technology. But it becomes necessary for the people of India to demand to know the commitments India is making to the US as part of the strategic partnership. India’s leaders and pundits cannot pretend that India is getting whatever it needs from America and there are no price strings attached to it. There is nothing dishonourable for India to make its commitments in return for strategic technology. But it has to be in the open. Secrecy will be unfair to the people of America as well as to the people of India.

Western countries have played the game of giving to aid to developing countries as a goodwill gesture and nothing more, which was a lie. It is a give-and-take game. All that we are asking is that the terms should be fair and the terms should be in the open. Diplomatic fluff has to be cut out, and there should be straight talk about the advantages each side gains from any bargain or deal. Of course, the change is not going to happen easily. Popular pressure needs to be exerted on governments to be open. This is especially so when two democratic governments like India and the US join hands.

Tags: prime minister narendra modi, modi us visit, eam jaishankar