PM Modi and his advisers must carefully balance India’s permanent national interests
As the rhetoric about India-US ties soars sky high on the eve of Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington, some might recall the Cold War era joke about a Polish citizen applying for a passport because he wanted to attend Ronald Reagan’s funeral. Told that far from being dead, Reagan was hale and hearty, the man explained that he would rather wait in New York for the event.
This variant of the “Yankee Go Home, But Take Me with You” chant from the protracted agony of the Vietnam war also applies to Indians. What it means is that Prime Minister Modi and his advisers must carefully balance India’s permanent national interests against the private ambitions of bureaucrats and businessmen with a vested interest in cultivating the land of hope and glory.
“When I call on Cabinet ministers, the President, or governors, they all love to talk about their sons, sons-in-law and daughters in the United States and how well they’re doing and how well they like things,” mused William B. Saxbe, US ambassador in the 1970s. “The next day I read in the newspapers the very same people are denouncing the United States as a totally different kind of country.” There was also Kolkata’s one-time Communist mayor who wanted his city twinned with San Francisco. Reminded by the American consul-general that Kolkata was already twinned with Odessa, the mayor replied that his son was studying in California. He needed a politically correct reason for American holidays.
How could Americans ever take seriously the moralising of an Indian minister whose son was angling for a Green Card? Or the strictures of an Indian diplomat who pulled every string to extend his Washington posting? It is no secret that many of our bureaucrats are secretly committed to the US even while they spout ideological cliches about India’s autonomy. America stands for the good life; the Green Card is the passport to material success.
Such personal considerations have never shaped American assessments of the relationship. There is duplicity there too but it is for the country’s benefit.
As the probably apocryphal tale about Franklin D. Roosevelt saying of Nicaragua’s dictator “Somoza may be a son of a bitch… but he’s our son of a bitch” showed, ideology is subject to national interest. Closer home, America’s championship of democracy prompted it to supply F-16 fighter jets to successive Pakistani military rulers.
Idealism does, however, exist at one level. “Our common interest in democracy and righteousness will enable your countrymen and mine to make common cause against a common enemy,” was President Franklin Roosevelt’s flattering comment to Mahatma Gandhi during the Second World War. Striking a historic civilian nuclear deal with Dr Manmohan Singh in 2005, President George W. Bush declared India’s democratic system made the two countries “natural partners” united “by deeply held values”.
Some might even trace Mr Modi’s visit to President Joe Biden saying in 2006: “My dream is that in 2020, the two closest nations in the world will be India and the United States.” Mr Biden was then visiting New Delhi as a senator who had run unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 and would do so again in 2008. As the 46th POTUS, he is doing everything to realise his dream by drawing the two countries closer economically, militarily and strategically.
What India’s response must take into account is that the US is not offering anything qualitatively new. A new Cold War is being waged, and the sole superpower is pitted against a rising new adversary. Needing as many allies as possible to reinforce its role in the Indo-Pacific region, it is making a concerted effort to persuade India to slide off the fence. Perhaps Washington envisages a more active Indian role in the Quad. Perhaps it also hopes to conclude significant defence deals with India. Given China’s encroachments in Ladakh, and the reported encirclement of Indian positions at sea, these may seem reasonable expectations. But India’s response sometimes seems far from reasonable.
It was the same in the 1950s when Americans were bewildered by Indian ambivalence over many of the actions of the old Soviet Union. Mr Modi seems to be even more circumspect in his utterances on China than Jawaharlal Nehru was about the Soviet Union’s aggression in Hungary or Czechosl-ovakia. The global situation has changed since Nehru’s time, so have India’s rights and duties.
India is even more a contradiction now than it was in the 1950s. It is still huge but its democracy is less firmly ensconced while its capitalism is running amok. At the same time, India remains poor, populist and as dismissive as ever of the American-led Western order. It seems to be moving closer to the US but India under Nehru or Indira Gandhi was in reality far less anti-American than public posturing suggested. The friendship often looked transactional then as it also does now — “more business than brotherhood”, as London’s Economist put it with appropriate cynicism.
India’s assets now are that the world’s most populous country also boasts the world’s fifth-biggest economy and an economically buoyant global diaspora. It has a Prime Minister who easily captures the imagination of the multitude. He knows what matters most to people, especially the poor — their identity — and how to tap into it. Hinduism, the religion and way of life of the overwhelming majority of 1.4 billion Indians, has never had a more vigorous and articulate champion. Many Hindus, who felt neglected under the sophisticated secular Nehru, now feel they have at last come into their own in the land of their birth. It does not matter to them that India’s democratic rankings appear to be slipping.
Nor do Indians care if in the West, India has become notorious for sustaining Vladimir Putin and Russia’s war economy more effectively than any other country save China. Ukraine means no more than one brand of Russians killing another.
What does matter is that India’s pride is also its disgrace. India would not have boasted an 18 million-strong diaspora, the world’s biggest and richest, if the acute shortage of jobs and the absence of many of the welfare services that developed nations take for granted had not forced more and more Indians to seek a livelihood abroad every year. The distinguished lawyer and some time ambassador to the US, Nani Palkhivala, would say that abroad an Indian can buy from a Scotsman and sell to a Jew and still make a profit. That innate ability is crushed at home. Foreign policy, like charity, must begin at home to be effective.
The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author