Foreign policy is always a matter of give and take.
Who writes Narendra Modi’s speeches?” That was one of the most frequently asked questions after the Prime Minister’s 45-minute address to the joint session of the US Congress. The one phrase that resounded with everyone was the felicitous “hesitations of history”, a good enough title for a book on India’s foreign policy. If we want to look at the phrase in the light of Indo-US relations, we could go right back to August 15, 1947 when India emerged as an independent nation. Then, and in the years that followed, Jawaharlal Nehru had the option of steering the country’s newly-liberated wheels in a westward direction.
We, of course, know he didn’t. Many of Nehru’s detractors (whose number seem to grow nowadays with the active encouragement of social media trolls), claim that India would have been a far more prosperous country today if it had rushed into a US embrace right then and there. This criticism disregards two important things. The first you can state in a single word: Pakistan. Our neighbour was unhesitant about its relationship with the United States, but where did that coziness lead it to? More prosperity (for the people, not the generals)? More stability? More freedom and a real democracy? All of us know the answers to those questions.
The other point Nehru’s critics forget is the context of India’s foreign policy: It wasn’t just our country but many others who leaned towards socialism in their economic policies. That was the prevailing wisdom of those years, whether in Europe, Britain, Latin America or, later, Africa. Capitalism was regarded with some distaste; it was perceived then (and even today is seen to be so in practice), as iniquitous and unfair to the majority of people.
Nehru’s critics also forget that countries like Pakistan became mere satellites of the United States, whereas India became the leader of the non-aligned movement. For a country to reach such an exalted position so soon after Independence was an achievement which made us hold up our heads high wherever we lived. The fact that the non-aligned movement did not live up to its principle of neutrality during the Suez War, or during the Soviet invasion of Hungary, cannot take anything away from that initial achievement.
Was the conventional wisdom of favouring a socialistic pattern for the economy responsible for India leaning towards the Soviet Union? Undoubtedly. But the “hesitations of history” are never one-sided: the hostility of the US government to non-alignment was equally responsible. (Remember then US secretary of state John Foster Dulles calling non-alignment immoral?)
Foreign policy is always a matter of give and take. For years and years, the US equated Pakistan with India, notwithstanding the relative sizes of the two countries and the fact that only one of the two was a robust democracy. It has taken the looming presence of China and the dalliance of Pakistan with terrorism that has finally made the US see that in India it has the only worthwhile partner in this part of the world.
The give-and-take now works in many ways. The strategic aspect is obviously the most important for both countries. Beyond that, the US needs India’s already large and fast-growing market in virtually every field, including defence. India, on the other hand, needs access to cutting-edge technology, which its new relationship will undoubtedly lead to. An example is the clearance for building six nuclear reactors in India by Westinghouse, something which has been hanging fire for a long time.
(A little aside here about the “hesitations of history”. The finest hour of Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership came in his first term when he staked his government on the India-US nuclear deal. Does anyone remember which party was the treaty’s most vociferous opponent? The BJP. In fact Sushma Swaraj then compared the deal to Emperor Jehangir allowing the East India Company to begin trading in our country!) Traditionally, and it’s ironical that this should be so, it has always been a Republican government which has been favourable to India rather than a Democratic one.
The trend seemed to continue with Barack Obama’s first term; if things have changed so dramatically in his second term, is it only because of Mr Modi’s many initiatives and his emphatic pronouncements that India’s economy would be further opened up and that ease of doing business would be assured? More than likely. But, surely, there could also be a sub-conscious contributory factor: How could any American leader not notice that some of the US’ largest companies like Microsoft, Google and Pepsico are headed by Indians? And that persons of Indian origin are also making an impact in running the US administration, in science and technology centres, and so on?
The ebb and flow of history provides opportunities that need to be seized. Mr Modi, the best external affairs minister in recent memory, has done just that. In his two years in office, he has circled the world, met leaders from different power blocs, worked out agreements in trade, commerce and defence to the country’s long-term advantage, but he has singled out the US for special attention, for example, inviting Mr Obama to the Republic Day celebrations last year.
That he has managed to work out a personal relationship with Mr Obama is evident from the warmth of their interactions and, although “getting along with each other” should matter in marriages and not international relations, leaders are only human and will obviously give that extra latitude to people they like. This has helped India get into the Missile Technology Control Regime and has brought it close to entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, where the stumbling block remains China.
That personal chemistry has its limits in international matters is clear from India-China relations. Mr Modi has talked often about his excellent rapport with President Xi Jinping. But China’s strategic interests have made this irrelevant as one sees from its belligerence in the South China Sea, in Arunachal Pradesh and in its steadfast support of Pakistan. Two years of Mr Modi have clearly shown that he wants to put the hesitations of history firmly behind him. They also show that he prefers the give and take of foreign diplomacy to the rough and tumble of India’s domestic problems. It’s a lop-sided approach to the prime ministership, which could be redressed by finding the right people to run government ministries. So far he has found only three, which is clearly not enough.