The real clout of a country in foreign affairs doesn’t come from being able to check or pressure adversaries and buy friends through trade and aid. It comes from the ability to assimilate their interests into your own in such a way that you can shape their policy. Indeed, to go a step further, to get into their minds.
Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the United States has, perhaps for the first time, given us a glimpse of how we could achieve this with the country which has actually pioneered this model. Till now, prime ministerial visits came in several preset categories whose main purpose was transactional, ceremonial, or when it came to the US, to kowtow to the global hegemon. In setting the NRI pot to boil, Modi has pointed to the potential India has of changing the India-America discourse. Skillfully exploited, it could help India to some day match the UKUSA ties, or the clout of its 51st state, Israel.
The implications of the Madison Square show should not be oversold. What is needed now is systematic work to work out ways and means of exploiting the opportunities that our Indian American community in the US offers. Pic/AFP
India has never possessed any resource that the US deemed vital, like oil. There was a time in the 19th century, before the invention of cordite, when saltpetre exports from Bihar were important for US military requirements. Nor has it been an exporter of ideologies of communism or jihad. In the economic field, too, indolent India has not emerged as an economic powerhouse, like Japan was and China is, to unsettle the US. In short, it has not been, and is not likely to be, a threat, to American interests.
India has offered up another resource which has gained salience in recent times — human capital. Beginning in the 1950s, US aid to India modernised our educational system through aid which seeded new institutions like what became the NCERT, subsidised science text books, reset syllabi of various disciplines and transformed our agriculture through the introduction of new technologies as well as helping new land-grant type agricultural universities to come up. Hundreds of US experts were embedded in Indian institutions and thousands of teachers and engineers were trained and upgraded by them.
The US played a crucial role in India’s space and nuclear programmes as well. They provided the heavy water for the CIRUS (Canada-India Reactor-US) reactor, built the first nuclear power plant in Tarapur and trained an entire generation of Indian nuclear physicists in the US. In space it was equally dramatic, beginning with tracking stations for satellites in the 1950s, to sounding rockets, it graduated to space launch vehicles and communications satellites.
Along with these developments was the migration of many of the highly qualified Indians to the US and the emergence of the Indian American community which may, today, be less than one per cent in size, but is growing rapidly. In unique feature is its profile — 70 per cent have a college degree where the national average is around 25 per cent. Indian immigrants have founded one-third of Silicon Valley start ups in the past five years and have played key roles in most of them. Indian entrepreneurs have specialised in engineering and technology firms in other areas as well.
Equally significant is the increasing role Indian Americans are playing in American politics, both in seeking office or funding those who do. Unlike, say, the Chinese or the Vietnamese, Indians love politics and are ready to jump into the fray at the local, state or national level. Today, there is one US Congressman of Indian origin, Ami Bera, two governors Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal, several state and local level politicians and scores of political appointees in the federal, state and local governments.
Till now relations between the US and India have had a tutelary character about them. What we have been witnessing in the last two and half decades is the turbulence that comes with a shift from the mentor-mentee relationship towards a partnership model. If there has been any faltering on this, it has been on India’s part, when it has simply failed to live up to the expectations of its potential. It has not been able to significantly reform its educational sector to promote innovation or create a manufacturing base to generate exports to offset its permanent need for oil imports. Indeed, if anything, the quality of India’s education has actually declined.
In part, this has been the result of the lack of political stability, manifested by coalition governments in the states and the centre. But with the new Modi government, we could change the state of affairs, provided there is an awareness of the challenges, especially in the educational sector, and provided there is political leadership to effect change.
To come back to the American connection. In the 1990s, the Indian embassy got a software to match Indian first names and surnames across the US with the mandatory database of political contributors. This generated a list of politically influential Indian Americans and their targeted politicians. Every Indian-American cold-called, was ready to help when asked to do so. However, another poorly managed operation, led a high-flying Indian American politician, Lalit Gadia, to jail for campaign fraud.
One swallow does not make a summer, and the implications of the Madison Square show should not be oversold. What is needed now is systematic work to work out ways and means of exploiting the opportunities that our Indian American community in the US offers. The new generation challenge for our diplomats and policy makers today is to capture the American mindspace. This is a task that requires subtlety, but its crucial asset is the human capital connect that we have established with the US. This, as most observers agree, has today become a two-way street with as much talent and investment coming in, as going out. But it needs to intensified and taken to a much higher level of educational, science and technology, business and people to people ties.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi