India and the United States: Why the twain shall never meet
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India and the United States: Why the twain shall never meet

THE month-long drama, which ended last week with the recall of Devyani Khobragade – the Indian consular official who was indicted on two counts of visa fraud and making false statements in a New York court – laid bare the fundamentally distrustful nature of relationship between the United States and India, which was for long deliberately glossed over by both countries for reasons of strategic and economic expediency.

A deep chill has set in U.S.-India relations, the likes of which was not felt even during the Nixon administration, widely considered to be the lowest point in the relationship. On Monday, when a reporter asked if there were any efforts afoot to repair relations after this incident, a U.S. State Department spokesman said “…we will now take significant steps with the Indian government to improve our relationship and return it to a more constructive place.” That’s how chilly things are.

Independent of the merits of the New York incident, which has many moving parts and does not lend itself to categorical conclusions, what begs the attention is the response of the Indian officials that were ludicrously disproportionate to the actual import of the incident. Doesn’t the so-called “strategic partnership” account for anything – at least make it obligatory to resolve unexpected and/or inadvertent crises without playing to the galleries?

The Indian argument that by withdrawing special privileges of American diplomats stationed in India, it was merely reinstating reciprocity in bilateral relations that were skewed in favor U.S., does not wash. There is rarely equal footing in any relationship – the U.S. enjoys special privileges in a host of countries because it is a pre-eminent power with greater bargaining leverage. Besides, India could not have accorded special privileges all these years without a quid pro quo, even if it is never spelled out on paper. For instance, it is not without reason that thousands of children and relatives of Indian politicians, diplomats and officials manage to immigrate to the U.S. with greater ease than average Indians.

Then what accounts for New Delhi’s visceral reaction that, as The New York Times put it, revealed “a troubling level of Indian animosity toward the United States”?

“War with France,” Otto von Bismarck said, “lies in the logic of history.” The events leading up to the Unification of Germany proved the 19th century Prussian chancellor right. So, is there really some “logic of history” that makes the India-U.S. estrangement inevitable? Are there any “historical forces” that make sure the twain shall never meet?

It was only a decade ago when New Delhi seemed such an attractive proposition that Washington swallowed the bitter pill of India’s incontestably defiant underground nuclear tests of 1998 and quickly moved to strengthen its economic and strategic ties with a country whose growth potential seemed both inevitable and limitless. The U.S. effort was to create a new balance of power in a region characterized by the exponential growth and influence of China, an unreliable entente with Russia and a dangerously volatile situation in the AfPak region.

But for India, the United States was the bitter pill that it had to swallow, following the unceremonious collapse of its ally, the Soviet Union, and its economy teetering toward a collapse in the early 1990s. Strategically orphaned and financially beleaguered, India ever so cautiously and often reluctantly opened up its “license Raj” to Western capitalism. Following the first Gulf War which established America as the sole Super Power, India quickly adjusted to the new world order by abandoning nonalignment, the bedrock of its foreign policy till then, and as a consequence disabused itself of the long-held delusions of grandeur on the international stage. But even as it embraced the so-called globalization and tacitly reconciled to America’s global hegemony, New Delhi sought to jealously guard its sovereignty by taking a leaf out of the old playbook.

It may be recalled that India’s first nuclear tests in 1974 came three years after it signed a Treaty of Friendship with the Soviet Union in what may be considered trying circumstances of war with Pakistan which had the tacit backing of Washington and Beijing. Historians agree the Pokharan I tests were as much Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s way of signalling to Moscow that India remains its own master despite its “Special Relationship” with the Soviet Union, as they were to ward off China and the U.S. from fishing in the troubled waters of the subcontinent.

Similarly, India’s second nuclear tests (Pokharan II), during the throes economic liberalization, can be seen as a pre-emptive assertion of India’s sovereignty in circumstances of unequal partnerships and dependencies.

Indians never bought into the popular mythology that India and the United States are natural allies by virtue of their common (political) values and beliefs and (economic) interests. At best, they regard their non-formal alliance as marriage of convenience for mutual benefit. And India’s deeply embedded anti-Americanism (a dominant strain of the essentially anti-Western disposition) is presaged on a perceived sense of civilizational and cultural superiority, which is unfortunately perched on the thin ice of political, economic and military realities.

The discrepancy between the country’s self-image and ground realities is at the root of the passive-aggressive postures of Indian officials in bilateral and multilateral forums. But the habitually supercilious Indian officials were so far held in check by the rigors of bureaucratic hierarchy – which never let push come to shove. That is why it came as a surprise when over the past one month India decided to wash all kinds of linen in full view of the global audience, knowing full well that the Khobragade drama will be a sold-out show in Islamabad and Beijing.

By going for the jugular, India seemed to have decided that it was more important to assuage the feelings of misplaced national pride than serve its national interests – confirming that estrangement with America lies in the logic of history.

Sunil Adam is the editor of News India Times, a New York-based newspaper. The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily that of the newspaper.