India and America: An Uncertain Friendship

America finds India an unreliable ally, to its surprise. 

George W Bush will be remembered for his many misadventures in Foreign Policy, but he claimed a legacy in this one important aspect - attempting to usher in a new American engagement in Asia through a deepening friendship with India. This hope was perhaps reciprocated at the time: India's outgoing Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, cites India's Nuclear Power cooperation with America as the biggest achievement of his ten years in power. At the time, the American engagement with India was hailed with an expectation to be as momentous as Nixon's engagement with China.

However, this shift was contentious in America as in India. For Americans, it was some sort of a balancing act after decades of Pro-Pakistan stance after the inevitable seeding of democracy and street politics in that country. It is rather ironic that it was democracy that was cited as the reason for favouring India ever so suddenly: For Indians were bewildered why Americans discovered Indian democracy so late in the day. 

For Indians, though the friendship with America is the most convenient thing to do in the post-Cold War era, America was not to be trusted. Indians knew America for its committed support to Pakistani foreign policy, particularly during particular events such as the Bangladesh Liberation War, which has shaped the psyche and society in India in a certain way. The late love of the Bush administration was immediately seen as what it was - an invitation to India to become America's foot soldier against China - and therefore, appeared quite unappetising.

Obama's Asia pivot - though it was not so much of a pivot after the Administration got so bogged down with the Arab Spring and everything else - came in this setting. Obama Administration's disengagement from the world affairs, or at least evident reversal of Bush Administration's activism, allowed some perspectives to emerge. And, the perspective is perhaps that how difficult it is for America to maintain the Cold War era client state structure into the emerging new reality of regional fragmentation of global politics: Obama's confusion may be due to the fact that the era of grand narratives in Foreign Policy, even one engaged into by the Bush administration, is well and truly over.

Which means that the presupposition of America as a benign and benevolent global empire, a global policeman for democracy and free markets, needs to be rethought in the context of emerging regional realities. And, instead of thinking in terms of grand rivalries between America and China caught in the inevitable Thucydides Trap, the ground reality may suggest a preeminence of economic and cultural cooperation and imperatives over and above the nation-state priorities, creating cross-cutting configurations that the strategists in the Oval Office or Pentagon may not necessarily visualise.

It is these sorts of forces and priorities that are going to shape India's foreign policy. India has been ruled by a narrow elite, mostly from its Northwestern regions, for years since Independence. This elite, which was formed through a coalition of several interests, was pandered by American policy-makers in the recent years. However, India's internal politics is increasingly challenging the hold of this elite in 'national matters', creating the necessity and fuelling the rise of various regional interests and parties. 

This reconfiguration of India's politics is likely to have impact on India's foreign policy as well. The elite that ruled India craved for global recognition. The alignment with 'non-aligned' nations, and eventual 'friendship' with USSR was forged on the basis of this quest for a global role. However, this came at a cost of disengagement with India's immediate neighbourhood: India did not become a global power, but it did manage to become a local bully, fixated with its 'big power' pretensions and oblivious of its local and cultural ties. Not only its foreign policy was defined by its animosity with Pakistan, but it managed to alienate even Bangladesh, the country it helped create, Nepal, its Hindu neighbour, and Sri Lanka, with age-old cultural bonds. However, the reconfiguration of India's politics, which was in the making for almost two decades now, and comes to a head in its election in 2014 more forcefully than ever, may lead a new realism in its foreign policy, a deeper regional engagement and a more realistic global aspiration. This may, in short, lead to India's own pivot to the East.

I shall argue that this realignment of India's foreign policy is inevitable, and beneficial for its people. The sort of inclusive economic prosperity that is needed to keep India a viable state will demand this new kind of politics, and this new kind of politics will eventually recognise the preeminent necessity of regional peace and cooperation. So, engagement with the democratic Pakistani administration, neutrality and commitment to Bangladesh's and Nepal's economic prosperity and democratic processes, re-engagement with Sri Lanka and help it overcome its authoritarian trajectory, etc., will become matters of greater importance of India's foreign policy than winning a permanent seat at the United Nations: Forging a wide-ranging free trade area with ASEAN and China would eventually become the objective of Indian world view.

America, which eventually carried on the British imperial design of dominance through conflict in Asia, also needs to readjust its priorities, at least by acknowledging the limitations of American power. Such limitation is not one of Military power: America will remain World's foremost military power for several decades to come. However, the limit of military power is that it only guarantees American dominance over dead people, which may amount to nothing. If the American world-view is shaped by its need to guarantee continuing prosperity of its people in the face of climatic constraints and localisation of global terror, it must adjust to this new regional globality, adjusting to a benign role not just in words but in deeds. India may find itself to be a natural ally to such an America: But otherwise, it will remain only a friend of convenience of the United States, as United States will remain one of India.


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