1971: At the height of the India-Pakistan War, the US sends in its nuclear-armed Seventh Fleet menacingly towards Kolkata, while a British flotilla steams in with Mumbai as its target. US president Richard Nixon phones secretary of state Henry Kissinger, saying he wants to “piss on the Indians”; the latter agrees Indians are “such bastards”. The intervention of the Russian Pacific Fleet, which sails in from Vladivostok, prevents a joint USBritish assault on India.
1974: In response to India’s atomic bomb test, the US forms the Nuclear Suppliers Group — which includes every western country — to block India’s access to nuclear technology and fuel. (No such cartel was created in response to China’s nuclear test in 1964.)
1992: Under pressure from the US, Russian president Boris Yeltsin cancels a highoctane deal between Glavkosmos and the Indian Space Research Organisation to develop an Indian cryogenic engine (required for manned space missions), thereby delaying India’s deep space programme by decades.
2012: Following the Indian Air Force’s rejection of American jets in the $10 billion Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft competition, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton orders the CIA to open India’s Khalistan file, with a view to restart the terrorist movement in Punjab.
2013: Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, is arrested, handcuffed, and put through strip and cavity searches, procedures normally used for criminals. (She was not the first; in June 2003, former defence minister George Fernandes was strip-searched in Washington.)
You get the picture — these are not the acts of a friendly country. The history of India-US relations is littered with many such rocky episodes that would have irreparably damaged relations but for the fact that Indians have short memories and an easily forgiving nature.
In fact, India-US ties got off to a bad start in the backdrop of the Cold War. First up, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru failed to develop a rapport with the Americans. Former US diplomat Dennis Kux writes about Nehru in India and the United States: Estranged Democracies (1992): “The Indian leader had a considerable bias that seemed to combine the anti-American social prejudices of the British elite and the anti-American policy views of the left-wing of the British Labour Party.”
In 1949, when Nehru visited the US, one particular incident reinforced his belief that the Americans were crass and uncouth. American historian Robert Beisner writes in Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War (2006) that a White House secretary pointed towards Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, mocking “these foreigners who come over here and take our money away from us”.
India was also put off by the importance given in the US to racists such as secretary of state John Foster Dulles, who advocated the creation of a purer white race through genetic research.
In 1950, annoyed by the warm welcome given in the US to Pakistani prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, Nehru wrote to his sister Vijaylakshmi Pandit, the Indian ambassador in Washington: “The Americans are either very naive or singularly lacking in intelligence. They go through the same routine whether it is Nehru or Liaquat Ali. It does appear that there is a concerted attempt to build up Pakistan and build down, if I may say, India. It surprises me how immature in their political thinking the Americans are! In their dealings with Asia, they show a lack of understanding, which is surprising.”
At the same time, the Americans thought Nehru was too full of himself. Secretary of state Dean Acheson wrote: “I was convinced that Nehru and I were not destined to have a pleasant personal relationship. He was so important to India’s survival and India’s survival so important to all of us that if he did not exist — as Voltaire said of God — he would have to be invented. Nevertheless, he was one of the most difficult men I have ever had to deal with.”
Nehru also made a strategic blunder by spurning the US offer to give China’s permanent seat in the UN Security Council — and the veto power — to India. Since he was beginning to tilt towards socialism and refused to join the anti-Soviet bloc, the Americans decided to strike a Faustian bargain with suicidal Pakistani generals rather than deal with a lotus-eating, day-dreaming idealist.
The big thaw
Since the early 1990s when India opened up to the world, starry-eyed Washington think-tanks have hyped up India’s potential as a force multiplier on the US chessboard. Mostly they prescribe a transactional relationship where the US helps India grow into a global power on the condition New Delhi helps the US to “manage” China’s rise. This is exactly what the warlords in Washington have offered the likes of Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic countries for “countering” Russia.
There are two problems with this approach. One, most Indians are too proud to compromise their autonomy and become America’s sidekick in Asia. Secondly, even if the economic and strategic benefits of such a subservient role are generous, the Indian bureaucratic and political classes are too diffident to take on China. Sinophobia has atrophied India’s strategic decision-making, and only very recently (for instance, by offering military support to Vietnam) has New Delhi come out of it.
India, therefore, finds itself in a straitjacket regarding strategic matters concerning China. So, it is safe to assume that the US has very little use for India if not as a bulwark against Beijing.
In this backdrop, there should be no expectations from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US visit. For, the trip is really about the Americans wanting to atone for foolishly banning Modi, and the prime minister wanting to show his critics how little they count.
For after the song and dance routine is over, it is going to be business as usual. And that is exactly what India should focus on — business and technology. The US is a leader in many areas and is a vast storehouse of technology — especially futuristic. For instance, while India has no semiconductor — or computer chips — industry worth the name, the US is on the verge of quantum computing.
India should emulate China, which has become a superpower after 40 years of technology transfers and big-ticket investments from US multinationals. There is hardly an American company that does not have a manufacturing base in China.
The US is a relatively declining power and will be keen to have a large country like India on its side. What India should insist on is for the US to give us the crown jewels of its industry — advanced electronics, as well as defence and space technology. For instance, the Moon Mineralogy Mapper on board India’s successful Chandrayaan-I moon probe — which discovered water on the lunar surface — came from NASA.
The inflow of cutting-edge technologies will propel India to the big league — just as it allowed China to bypass the difficult way of re-inventing the wheel.
If there is any doubt the US can swing things India’s way, just look at the India- US nuclear deal. It not only enabled Russia and France to offer reactors and Kazakhstan and Australia to offer uranium, the deal also sent the Indiabaiting Nuclear Suppliers Group hurtling towards irrelevance.
Other than democracy, India and the US have little in common. India is a largely liberal and pluralistic society whereas the US is a puritanical nation where nearly 70 percent of the population believes in Creationism, accepts the Bible as literal truth and believes Earth was created in seven days.
India, therefore, has to be on guard against the agenda of American lawmakers allied with such fundamentalist forces.
For instance, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom — the nodal government body for “religious freedom in the world” — equates the Islamic State with the RSS. On 11 September, it tweeted: “Hindu Nationalist Group Seeking to Cleanse Christian Presence From #India Is Not Unlike ISIS.”
The Christian Right in the US sees India as the last major stronghold of the pagans that Christ’s storm troopers need to bludgeon down. Any steps taken by the Indian government to stop their aggressive proselytising is enough for them to go back to their media, crying victim. And as day follows night, the likes of The Washington Post and The New York Times will play up the lie that Hindus are an intolerant people who persecute Christians and Muslims.
There are numerous lobbies in the US opposed to India for ideological, religious or geopolitical (or a blend of all three) reasons. Ahead of Modi’s visit to the US, the NYT put up a questionnaire inviting comments from Indian readers on what the visit means to them.
According to Madhav Nalapat, professor of geopolitics, Manipal University, it is highly likely the newspaper indirectly wants to showcase certain hostile views about Modi’s visit and downplay the significance of the visit. The newspaper is also “ethnically stereotyping” the event, he told news website Niti Central.
As for US President Barack Obama, for all his erudition, he seems to be just as clueless as George W Bush before him. For instance, in 2009, Obama appointed Robin Raphel to the team dealing with Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“Raphel is well-known as one of the most virulent and vitriolic critics of India in the entire US Democratic set-up,” writes Rajeev Srinivasan in Rediff. “She was, until August 2009, a registered and paid lobbyist for Pakistan. She is infamous for insisting the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India is not final, and for asserting Pakistan is the very epitome of a ‘model, modern and moderate Muslim nation’.”
India also needs to leverage its — dubious — status as the world’s largest arms importer. Last year, even as the Khobragade affair was playing out and the US illegally relocated her Indian maid Sangeeta Richard — most likely a CIA spy — and her family to the US, India inked a $1 billion deal with the US for the supply of six additional C-130J military transport aircraft.
Again, after Modi came to power, his visa ban — an affront to all right-thinking Indians — was forgotten and Boeing was awarded a no-bid $2.5 billion contract for the supply of military helicopters. (It could be argued the contract is aimed at softening up American lawmakers.)
Indians also seem to have forgotten about cia whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelation that the US sucks up more information from India than from Russia or China.
Far from seeking to make the US accountable for such hostile acts, India seems to be entering into the same dependency relationship it once had with the Soviet Union.
Clearly, despite the plentiful trade, investment and outsourcing flows happening in both directions, there is considerable mistrust between the two countries.
In this backdrop, the American Security Project, a Washington DC-based think-tank, offers a neat solution. In a report titled India in the Indian Ocean Region: Re-calibrating US Expectations, it says: “After the rapid transformations and the excitement of the past few years, the US-India bilateral relationship must now settle down. Leaders should focus on strengthening ties by embracing small, concrete opportunities to cooperate rather than target a high-profile initiative, as the relationship needs time and substance to mature.”