US shift towards India is not sudden. While it is surprising that this engagement between “natural allies” actually took so long to happen, what people tend to forget is that India and United States has a chequered past. Both nations lost a major opportunity to share an entwined future during the 1962 Indo-Chinese border war, and then the forces of geo-politics and economics landed both the countries in opposing blocs, with the USS Enterprise in Bay of Bengal during the 1971 Indo-Pak war being the lowest point of the graph. The early economic liberalization during the nineties, to the sloppy sanctions after 1998 nuclear blasts, it took a path breaking and visionary turn with President Bush’s Nuclear deal…changing a quarter century old foreign policy. President Obama continued with the engagement with India, with the back to back visits by Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta being the latest development in the tale of two biggest democracies of the World, much to the discomfort of China and Pakistan.
However, the knowledge about ground realities in India in USA is still frightfully low, compared to China, Middle-East or Af-Pak. If USA is really serious about the pivot to Asia with India being a balance point, here are a few things analysts and think tanks in Washington should keep in mind, while formulating future policies.
Acknowledge the Exceptionalism
India and China, both are proud countries, two of the oldest civilizations, each with more than three thousand years of history. That is one of the reasons why these two powers try for Asia influence, not only because of economic or military reasons, but the mindset of the policy persons, bureaucrats and think tanks in both countries are prejudiced by their civilisational exceptionalism, with both countries thinking they are culturally superior than the other, and therefore destined to influence the Indo-China region, which is confluence point of Indo-Sinic civilisations. From Chanakya to Sun Tzu, a rich Realist tradition is also shared by the two countries. And both are historically pacifist countries from early to medieval era. Even now, since the advent of modern nuclear age, these are the only two countries with a declared official “no first use policy” of nuclear weapons. Even while being one of the largest English speaking country and a closer root to Anglo-Saxon culture than many perceive, which was subjected to a forced amnesia during the fifties and sixties, India is still traditionally suffering from the lost moral uppityness of the Non-Alignment era. India still suffers from the mindset of the messiah of the developing world.
If however Washington tries to portray India as a direct frontline ally against China, or as one of the point of its Asia Pivot, the plan might not be successful, might backfire with anti-US backlash from the left intelligentsia, and ultimately be counterproductive. No wonder, Leon Panetta’s speech in New Delhi got a lukewarm and shy response from the Indian side. While it might baffle policy makers in Washington, it absolutely makes sense, as the Politician class in India is skeptical about the changing dynamics of World power politics, and is skeptical of openly aligning with any bloc, which they won’t be able to justify or explain to their population and electorate incase some sudden and random upheaval occurs in World order. What Washington needs to understand is the need for subtlety, understanding the sensitivities of have more people to people, and organizations based engagement, and rely on soft power rather than direct influence. Starting up India centric scholarships and competitions, to engaging directly with the ruling elites based in the Indian metros in all four corner of country, even starting up branches of notable US think tanks to promote flow of ideas would be a reasonable start. The US must introspect why it is losing the pro-US influence, and soft power in the sub-continent, which was at its peak among the urban middle class during NDA era in India. The potentials of people to people engagement are infinite and comparatively easy to tap in to.
Washington should also try to coax India to engage more in “peace keeping” and “peace enforcing” operations abroad. The Military in India is willing and capable of handling some tough situations, but the civilian policy makers are notoriously inept, slow and unwilling to commit. The United States should also try to get India acquire some foreign naval or air force bases, or man some joint bases, which will put India on a roughly equal footing with China, and help in having a buffering effect, being theoretically the first line of defense against and improbable but potential Chinese aggression. Finally, with time, United States should try to formalize and legalize some sort of organization or alignment, if not a fully military pact with Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, and Philippines, not unlike the “League of democracy” ideated and discarded during the early years of Bush administration.
Start up study groups about India
As mentioned before, India study in USA is shockingly superficial and low, and the policy makers, bureaucrats and diplomats are generally clueless about the ground realities. For example, the mainstream (the ones taking part in elections, not the ultra left Naxalite rebels) Communist Parties in India, with its vicious anti-US and anti-imperialism rhetoric, was in practice more like Fabian socialists, who tried to open up to foreign investment, and supported nuclear reactors. When they lost elections, there was a massive sense of relief among business community in India and US, as there was paranoia about the term communists.
However, the parties which won defeating the traditional and increasingly revisionist and pragmatic left, especially in the state of Bengal, are now the biggest populist political party in the country, and the prime opposing force to Foreign Direct Investment, thereby ruining American business opportunities and retail chains. When Hillary Clinton recently met the Chief Minister of the state of Bengal, and congratulated her on ending over 35 years of leftist rule, what she didn’t realize was the party now ruling is the biggest opponent of nuclear power, land acquisition for industrialization, and FDI. In short, the party now ruling is redder than the Reds, more populist than any other regional party in India, and being a coalition partner in the center government, is being one of the major hindrances towards a pro-US foreign policy. Therefore raw ground based intelligence and database is needed about various political parties, lobby groups, Universities which are hotbeds of leftist radicalism, on the basis of their action, and not just the names, which will allow US to understand the pulse of the country.
Also, the political atmosphere in India is increasingly getting fragmented. Even a decade back, while there were still coalition politics, atleast the political atmosphere was divided in roughly three blocs, the Rightist pro-US NDA, the Centrist but still pro-free market UPA, and the traditional left. In recent days however there are more divisions, with ideologies getting blurred, decision process getting more cumbersome and corrupt, with an ever increasing rise of leftist and populist trend among the civil society, celebrities and intelligentsia, and even among the ruling UPA government. The US policy makers must study these phenomena, and act accordingly to counter, if not neutralize these trends. A careful monitoring of Indian social networking might give some clues about the veins of this country.
Don’t expect overnight change
US engagement in South Asia, especially in the Af-Pak region was on and off for half a century. And traditionally half of the Indian populace and most of the bureaucracy and civil service professionals suffers from a Soviet nostalgic hangover and is suspicious of US intentions. So it would be naïve to expect a radical, overnight change in perspective. There is definitely a very favourable impression of the US among the youth and ever growing middle class, which US needs to utilize. Gradually with time, and hopefully without much drum-beating, US could rely on India to ease off the burden from its shoulders, and Leon Panetta’s speech of India being the “linchpin” for US pivot to Asia might indeed be successful and true.