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India & US: Haunting Past & Beckoning Future

(Written at the request of an Italian journal, which is bringing out a special issue on the US later this month)

The US will continue to be a pre-eminent power of the world. Despite its growing economic and military strength, China will not be able to challenge the pre-eminence of the US. The pre-eminence of a nation is not derived only from its GDP growth rate, foreign trade and military modernization. It is also derived from its intellectual, technological, moral and cultural strength and its ability to constantly innovate and evolve. China is nowhere near the US in respect of these factors. It is unlikely to be in the short and medium terms.

2. The biggest asset of the US is not its armed forces. It is its educational system—its schools, colleges and universities of excellence. It is its democratic system, its multi-cultural ambiance and its ability to harmonise and profit from cultural influences from different parts of the world. China is yet to build for itself a comparable educational system. Its one-party State is not conducive to a robust intellectual debate without which the intellectual prowess of a State and civil society will remain stunted.

3. Stalin and his successors built up the USSR into what they thought was the equal of the US as a super power. Large parts of the world looked upon the USSR as the equal of the US. Nikita Khrushchev even talked of the USSR overtaking the US and “burying the US capitalist system.” Look at what happened to the USSR and who was buried. The US had the last laugh.

4. India is the only country in Asia, which can evolve into a power comparable to the USA. Its democratic and educational systems, its pluralistic civil society and its pervasive cultural influence are strong foundations for its emergence as a power to be reckoned with not only economically and militarily, but also intellectually and culturally. India’s growing hard power as measured by its economic and military strength still lags behind that of China, but its soft power from which arises the ability to influence the hearts and minds of people is far ahead of that of China.

5. China is a distrusted power. Even its perceived allies do not feel quite comfortable in its embrace. There is hardly any distrust of India across the world— except in Pakistan.

6.Whether one likes it or not, the US influence will continue to count in the years to come. Its economy will recover faster than one imagines. Its military strength and stamina will remain intact whatever be the outcome of its “war” against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the Af-Pak region. There can be no meaningful challenge to its political influence. The stamp of its political influence will be found in all major developments of the world, whatever be the region. To talk of a world without US influence or even with a reduced US influence will be illusory.

7. India has two options—- either continue to be inhibited in its policies towards the US because of the negative experiences of the past or get out of the stranglehold of these negative memories and work for a new relationship with the US, which will be mutually beneficial. The negative experiences and memories are still strong and many. One can mention as examples the US attempt to initimidate India during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971, its building-up the military strength of Pakistan, its closing its eyes to Pakistan’s misuse of this military strength given for fighting communism for fighting India and to Pakistan’s use of terrorism as a weapon against India, its encouragement of the Pakistani machinations on Kashmir , its refusal to sell modern technologies to India, its placing India for nearly three decades in a nuclear dog house after the Indian nuclear test of 1974 etc etc .

8.An attempt to get out of these negative experiences was made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India and Barack Obama’s predecessor George Bush. The credit for visualizing India’s potential as an emerging power of Asia capable of considerable benign influence across Asia should go to Bush and his Secretary of State Condolleezza Rice. They were impressed by the strength of India’s pluralism which had kept Al Qaeda out of its Muslim community, the second largest in the world after that of Indonesia. They were equally impressed by the strength of India’s democracy and its soft power. They wanted India to emerge as a pole of attraction for the rest of Asia to counter the influence of China.

9. The foundations for a new strategic relationship between India and the US were laid even during the presidency of Bill Clinton. During his visit to India in 2000, Clinton and Atal Behari Vajpayee, the then Indian Prime Minister, agreed on a new vision document to govern bilateral relations. The first six years of the Clinton Presidency (1993 to 1999) were wasted years so far as Indo-US relations were concerned. India’s nuclear tests of May 1998, and the strong US reactions to them and its joining hands with China during Clinton’s visit to China shortly after the tests in opposing India’s legitimate nuclear aspirations added to India’s negative vibrations towards the US. The Clinton Administration’s support to India during India’s Kargil conflict with Pakistan in 1999 saw a turning point in the US policy-formulation towards India. Clinton’s successful visit to India in 2000 gave a further momentum to the attempted move of the relations in a positive direction, but in the few months left before he completed his term of office, Clinton could not give concrete shape to the new vision.

10. The first four years of the Bush Presidency too were wasted years in Indo-US relations. The preoccupation of the Bush Administration with the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the Af-Pak region and with the war in Iraq and its dependence on the regime of Gen.Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan came in the way of any vigorous thinking on the US relations towards India. The first signs of a new thinking in Washington DC on the importance of encouraging and helping India to take up its place as a pre-eminent power of Asia, on par with China, came during the visit of Rice to India in March 2005 and the subsequent visit of Manmohan Singh to the US in July 2005.

11. The Indo-US agreement on civilian nuclear co-operation signed during Manmohan Singh’s visit to the US in July 2005 marked the beginning of the process of discarding the past and moving to the future which was beckoning the two countries. India was taken out of the nuclear dog house. The promises made by the Clinton Administration to transfer dual-use technologies to India on a case-by-case basis, which had remained unfulfilled, were taken up once again with greater seriousness of purpose. Indian policy-makers were in a mood to consider weapon purchases from the US, ridding themselves of past fears that the US would be an undependable supplier of spare parts which could be stopped for political reasons. Fears of US undependability remained strong, but there was a realization that these fears should not be allowed to come in the way for considering new options for the future. For the first time in two decades, an attempt was made by the Bush Administration in its second term to reduce the trust deficit between India and the US and increase the mutual comfort level.

12. The one year of Barack Obama as the President has unfortunately not been a totally positive experience for India. There were hopes and dupes. What was seen as the Obama Administration’s courting of China resulted in a diminution of the importance of India as a counter to China. US economic difficulties partly accounted for this courting. There were other reasons too. The Obama Administration did not see China as a likely threat to the US influences in Asia in the same manner as the Bush Administration did. There was a feeling that the US and China could live and let live in Asia without stepping on each other’s toes.

13. The unmistakable anxiety of the Obama Administration to be attentive to China’s concerns and sensitivities resulted in the discarding of the Bush Administration’s ideas such as a democracy quadrilateral involving the US, India, Japan and Australia and the five-power naval exercises in the waters of South-East Asia involving the Navies of the US, India, Singapore, Japan and Australia.

14.India was no longer seen as a power, which should be encouraged and helped to reach an equality of status with China. The tacit US decision to recognize China’s pre-eminence in Asia was evident in the decision of Obama to legitimize a Chinese role as a benign influence in South Asia during his visit to China in November,2009. This action of the Obama Administration, more than anything else, surprised India and was strongly criticized by many Indian analysts.

15.The failure of Manmohan Singh’s talks with Obama during his State visit to Washington later in November,2009, to give a push forward to the implementation of the civilian nuclear deal added to India’s disappointments. The delay in the implementation has been attributed to the Obama Administration’s reluctance to transfer to India uranium enrichment and reprocessing technologies. Despite the flurry of spins by the advisers of Manmohan Singh it is obvious that the no-changers in the US in respect of nuclear co-operation, who are believed in India to be close to Obama, are once again influencing policy and Obama is disinclined to overrule them.

16. On Pakistan too, the past is back to haunt India. India’s hopes that Obama will take a strong line towards Pakistan and will stop the past pampering of Pakistan by different Administrations have been belied. India has been noting with unease the repeated comments from Obama and others about the need for a regional approach—-whether in relation to the restoration of normalcy in Afghanistan or the fight against jihadi terrorism emanating from the Pakistani territory.

17.Pakistani analysts such as Ahmed Rashid have been able to sell the idea to the advisers of Obama that a regional approach would have to address the concerns of the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment over what they view as the increasing Indian presence in Afghanistan. This presence is viewed by the military-intelligence establishment as detrimental to Pakistan’s historic interests in Afghanistan and its internal security, particularly in Balochistan. Till 2004, the Bush Administration was attentive to Pakistani concerns and sought to discourage an increase in the Indian presence in Afghanistan. Its policy changed thereafter due to the belief that greater interactions between India and Afghanistan could contribute to the strengthening of democracy and governance in Afghanistan.

18. Similarly, analysts such as Ahmed Rashid have been trying to convince Obama and his advisers that without a more active role by the US in facilitating a search for a solution to the Kashmir issue, there will be no incentive for Pakistan to act sincerely and effectively against the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistani territory. The Bush Administration was disinclined to follow an activist policy on Kashmir and accepted India’s stand that it was a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan in which others should have no role. Obama and his advisers seem prepared to revisit this policy, if not immediately, at least at a later date.

19. The revived drag of the past has fortunately not reversed the move towards the future. The credit for this should largely go to Manmohan Singh, who seems convinced more than any other Indian leader that periodic disappointments and misperceptions, which are inevitable in the relations between the two biggest democracies and pluralist societies of the world, should not be allowed to damage their joint vision for the future. They should keep moving forward despite such disappointments and misperceptions. That is what India has been doing.

20. All major political formations in India barring the communists and large sections of its people want closer relations with the US and the forward momentum to be maintained. The large community of Indian origin in the US, which has been in the forefront of the intellectual and managerial class of the US, are an important driving force in this regard. So too, their relatives in India. Young Indians continue to look upon the US with fascination. They have no memories of the past. They have no time and patience for the political and politicized arguments of the no-changers in India. They welcomed the changes brought about by Manmohan Singh in our perceptions of the US and want these changes to continue.

21. The forward movement, therefore, continues—-with varying velocity. And it will continue. But disappointments will continue to take place too. Such disappointments will be as much due to India as they would be due to the US. No thinking has ever been done in India as to what it expects out of a long-term strategic relationship with the US. It is often the US which decides what it will give to India and it is New Delhi which accepts. India’s expectations from the US in the past were limited to US pressure on Pakistan to stop using terrorism against India, removal of restrictions on the supply of modern dual-use technologies to India and US support for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council. They remain the same. Any strategic relationship has to be a quid pro quo relationship. Since the US has hardly any dependence on India in any matter, there is no scope for any quid pro quo.

22.India visualises itself as an Asian power on par with China. Beijing does not see it this way. China views India as a sub-regional Asian power and wants to keep its influence restricted to its immediate neighbourhood. Obama’s visit to China has uncomfortably brought out to India that there is a convergence of perceptions between China and the Obama Administration on the limited regional role of India. China’s pre-eminence has been recognised by Obama. He has re-hyphenated India-Pakistan relations and quietly relegated India to the role of a sub-regional power whose aspirations of having a status on par with China are unrealistic.

23.In geopolitical matters, there is no futuristic thinking in India. The quality of Indian thinking and analysis—-strategic and tactical—-is poor. What passes for analysis in India is often wishful-thinking. Nobody in India has realised and brought out that for the first time the US, Japan and Australia have a leadership which does not rate highly India’s potential as an emerging power. There is less and less talk of Chindia.

24. Someone once said that power and influence are not given. They are taken. China has shown how to take it. India does not have the political will and courage to fight for it and take it. It is hoping that the US will give it. Bush and Condolleezza Rice seemed inclined to bestow on India the status of an Asian power on par with China. The Obama Administration does not seem to be so inclined.

25. Policy changes in India are rarely preceded by a debate in depth on the implications of the contemplated changes. The change of policy towards the US was brought about by Manmohan Singh without a national debate in public or in the Parliament on the wisdom of the change. Whatever debate was there in the Parliament with reference to the nuclear deal tended to be more an exchange of rhetoric than an analysis of facts and figures. There is hardly any effort to bring about a national consensus on foreign policy. When changes are driven by a determined individual and not by a national debate and consensus, there is a danger of the policy being jettisoned if the disappointments continue.

23. Can that happen to the Indo-US strategic relationship? Unlikely. The large public and particularly youth support for a forward-moving Indo-US relationship is a guarantee that the forward movement will continue.

( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India , New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail: )

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