Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Can ‘shared values’ douse discord in India-US ties?

Mr Narendra Modi’s actions must live up to his rhetoric before he can respond to Mr Biden’s call to help suffering Ukrainians

Given the vagaries of party politics in the world’s two biggest democracies, nothing may come of President Joe Biden’s flattering assessment that its relationship with India is the most important for the US. Going far beyond Atal Behari Vajpayee’s “natural allies” comment, it recalls the verdict of Sir Olaf Caroe, a British diplomat and scholar who crafted Washington’s West Asian strategy and wrote as long ago as 1979: “It is impossible to see Gulf problems in correct perspective unless the view includes an India which, despite Partition, still stands at the centre of the ocean that bears its name.”

The politics is especially relevant because even though India looks like a rock of stability while the surrounding countries are in turmoil, it is still threatened by the cankers of majoritarianism and fundamentalism that are also and more obviously ravaging Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Pakistan, whose new ruler Shehbaz Sharif lost no time even before being sworn in on Monday night in dredging up the Kashmir dispute. Ukraine’s plight cannot but move India’s leaders and it is undoubtedly highly gratifying for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be singled out by the American President for a tete-a-tete. But the increasingly serious challenge within is something India cannot ignore. Only an India that ensures good governance, economic growth and equal justice to all its communities can think of playing the role of a global policeman.

Jagat Mehta, India’s foreign secretary from 1976 to 1979, believed that Singapore was “the only former colony to make a success of independence” largely because its strict disciplinarian first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, walked a sternly impartial line between the Chinese, Malays and Indians in a squeakily clean economy. Lee had tremendous respect, admiration and affection for Jawaharlal Nehru, but, at the end, he felt like James Cameron, the British journalist and friend of India, that Nehru “made India and lost it”. Nehru “could have done with India anything he wished, but he let it wither…”

Mr Narendra Modi’s actions must live up to his rhetoric before he can respond to Mr Biden’s call to help suffering Ukrainians whose plight may partly be blamed on competitive global power politics.

Few Indians except for stalwarts of the now defunct Swatantra Party viewed the Cold War — which the United States and Russia are continuing with additional zest — as a battle between dictatorship and the “free world”. It was and is a struggle for power in which the Asian nations on the American bandwagon (including the Shah’s Iran, Syngman Rhee’s South Korea, the erstwhile South Vietnam, Ferdinand Marcos’ Philippines and, of course, Pakistan) had little in common with the liberal humanism that is Nehru’s most significant and still not totally destroyed legacy.

Equally anxious to cozy up to America’s principal adversary, the old Soviet Union, successive Pakistani rulers saw membership of the Baghdad Pact, Cento and Seato only as an insurance against India. When US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman said the other day that the US would prefer India to “move away” from its long-term history of non-alignment (and) G-77 partnership with Russia, she appeared to visualise the future in similarly opportunistic terms. It is historically inevitable that India and the United States cannot forever remain estranged allies, but a nation whose civilisation goes back 5,000 years does not switch sides simply to ensure regular supplies of fuel or military spares and avoid uncomfortable votes at the United Nations.

Whether or not Ms Sherman is aware of it, India-US friendship boasts a more respectable provenance rooted in shared values and convictions. If this was not translated into active defence trade, it was mainly because of American phobias about Communists evident in restrictions such as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GESOMANIA) or the bureaucratic demands that held up for over 30 years implementation of the Indian plan to develop a $20 million (original cost) Light Combat Aircraft, which eventually became the Tejas, with a striking range of up to 500 km. The LCA was the symbol of all that was wrong between the two supposed natural allies. It affected the development of education, famine relief and even deployment of the cheques in payment for the PL-480 wheat. It was typical of the connection that when after years of bickering, the Reagan administration at last agreed to sell India two supercomputers (but not the advanced XMP-24 which Rajiv Gandhi sought), the senior Indian officials sent to collect the machines muddied the record by demanding commissions.

The change began in October 1981 when Indira Gandhi wangled an invitation to the two-day North-South Summit (International Meeting on Cooperation and Development) at Cancun in Mexico, where she met Ronald Reagan. The real breakthrough, however, was in July 2005 when President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement in Washington. That agreement in effect extended de facto recognition to India as a nuclear power and cleared the way for India to develop nuclear energy.

A no less significant development, but perhaps not fully appreciated at the time, was the observation by Colin Powell, then US secretary of state, during Jaswant Singh’s visit to Washington that while America’s Pakistani friends should not be neglected, he recognised that India alone had “the potential to help keep the peace in the vast Indian Ocean area and its periphery”.

This is precisely what Sir Olaf Caroe had meant all those years ago when he waxed lyrical about India’s traditional eminence in the Indian Ocean system around which more than 50 per cent of the world’s then known reserves of crude oil were located, and of the kotas and ganjas (traditional boats) of Kutch and Bombay which had sailed right up to Basra since ancient times. This was also the core of the Quad, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, between Australia, India, Japan and the US that was initiated in 2007 when Dr Singh was Prime Minister, and which China later dubbed as the “Asian Nato”. The Quad became moribund when Kevin Rudd became Australia’s Prime Minister but was revived in 2017 and may now be destined for an active role under Mr Biden.

Whether domestic politics, communal friction and an obsession with majoritarian supremacy will allow India to play a leading part is quite another matter. And whether the Quad will serve India’s principal security aims by deterring China in the Himalayas and Pakistan in sponsoring cross-border terrorism may be even more relevant.

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