It is not unnatural for world leaders to define their relationships with each other in grandiose terms strategic, indispensable or defining partnerships, which is the norm for American leaders looking at India. Indians are no slouches either. Atal Bihari Vajpayee described India’s relationship with the US as that of natural allies, and now Prime Minister Modi has declared that we are “natural global partners.”
Of course, the reality is somewhat different. Relations between India and America have not been good in the recent past. True, at the formal level, things are doing well. We have multiple dialogues and working groups in a range of subjects from counter-terrorism, international security, defence, science and technology, agriculture, health, energy and climate change, higher education, women’s empowerment and so on.
India and the US need a new vision for their relationship, which goes beyond the transactional ties of today. Geopolitics may provide the thread of the ties that bind. But the substance of what is to be bound can only be found in greater engagement, be it in the area of trade, investment or education
The US has played a profound role in India, something that the ahistorical Indians themselves forget. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that by the mid-1960s, the US government and foundations were often pumping as much money into Indian education as the UGC. Outdated syllabi of universities and schools were replaced with the help of exchange programmes that saw thousands of Indian teachers go to the US and American counterparts come here. The Americans helped us in not just improving science education, teacher training, enhancing the quality of regional engineering colleges across the country, but also placed subsidised modern science and technology text books in the hands of the students.
In recent times, Indo-US ties picked up, paradoxically, following their worst dip after the Indian nuclear weapons tests of 1998. The reason was geopolitical — the rise of China. The US saw, as indeed they did in the 1950s — that by virtue of its size, India is the only country that can offset China’s enormous pull. They also understood that India, after the Cold War, offered no geopolitical challenge to American interests.
Things were going swimmingly well till around 2008, culminating in the signing of the Indo-US nuclear deal. But it has been downhill since. Some people believe it has to do with the Obama administration, others say that the slow implosion of UPA II was responsible. It was probably a mix of the two.
One of the big problems in the India-US relationship is the asymmetry between the two of us. The US is rich and powerful, while over two-thirds of Indians live in abject poverty. This itself creates a divergence of goals. We often land up on the wrong side of trade, IPR and investment issues. Given our differing developmental profiles, this is, perhaps, inevitable. But what we need is the diplomatic effort to create the space for things that join us together.
The US, as the global hegemon, needs to relearn what it knew so well in the 1950s and 1960s that relations between nations is as much about symbols and gestures as about FDI and trading rules.
This is something the Chinese know well with their agitprop background. Where the US comes up with the geopolitical notion of the Indo-Pacific, the Chinese articulate the same thing as the New Maritime Silk Route. China’s trade is expanding, they say; our interests are growing, we want you to be part of this prosperity and so we will help you build your ports, railways and highways and become part of a seamless link from China to Africa and Europe. For the US, the Indo-Pacific construct seems to be confined to the strategic community and foreign policy wonks. The Chinese, on the other hand, are speaking directly to the people and about self-interest not just in the realm of security, but development.
There is a new government in place in New Delhi, one that is the first since 1989 to function on its own majority in the Lok Sabha. In other words, not subject to the buffeting the UPA I got because of its coalition partners. But the administration in Washington DC has not changed and will not for another two years.
Whatever Modi may want to do in the coming years is circumscribed by the fact that India does not have too many cards in its hands. It is not an oil-rich country, or one with some ideology to export. It is a poor country whose primary goal is to transform the lives of its people. Within limits, everything else is subordinate to that.
In the case of the US, the limits are of a different kind. Unlike China or Japan, the US government does not have investible funds in its hands. That money is in the hands of US private players who India has to attract through its policies and by easing its horribly complicated rules of setting up business. What the US government can do, and it is actually committed to doing, is to ease technology restrictions that have been part of the old regime of sanctions. But beyond that, India and the US need a new vision for their relationship which goes beyond the transactional ties of today. Geopolitics may provide the thread of the ties that bind. But the substance of what is to be bound can only be found in greater engagement, be it in the area of trade, investment, education, energy and climate change and people-to-people ties.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi