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ANALYSIS: India-US: Moving Toward Hubris Gone Wild? -IPS

[MISC, Thursday, 30 July 2009 13:34 No Comment]

India and the US have moved from estrangement to mutual understanding and now American policy makers would like them to glide into an even closer, globally-oriented embrace.

Hillary Clinton’s first visit to India as Secretary of State (July 17-21) was meant to launch this new strategic partnership that will help "shape the 21st century". The two countries "have developed a strong bilateral relationship and now want to go global," says Robert Blake, the new US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia.

"As broad a (bilateral) dialogue as possible," will create the basis, at least initially, for collaboration in strategic cooperation, agriculture, education, health care and science and technology. The dialogue will be broadened and deepened, no doubt, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Washington DC as President Obama’s guest on November 24.

For Obama, wanting to work in collaboration with India is an extension of the inspiration he drew from Mahatma Gandhi whose precepts and practices convinced him that change can and will come "from the people" and not from political elites. "That is why," he told an Indian magazine when he was still a Senator, "Gandhi’s portrait hangs in my Senate office."

From the Indian side, Minister of Commerce and Industry Anand Sharma, has described the two countries as "partners in progress". What kind of progress? Is it to be bilateral, multilateral, a selective mix of both, or a total meld?

The current trend of cooperation between the two countries was preceded by long stretches of contention, when the bilateral relationship was not only marked by sharp policy differences but also marred by personal animosities. For example:

We know from Robert F. Kennedy’s oral history, ‘Bobby Kennedy in His Own Words’, that "the person JFK really disliked was Nehru. He really hated Nehru. Nehru was really rude to us when we went to India in 1951…. And after JFK saw him here (the US), he said he’d gotten no better. He was ruder than he was then – opinionated, self-satisfied, stuffy. Everything had worsened. He really disliked him".

In 1967 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was appealing over the phone to President Johnson for wheat that India urgently needed to meet a food security crisis, she was clenching her fingers on the telephone, her press adviser has said, and when the call ended, "she angrily commented, ‘I don’t ever want us ever to have to beg for food again’."

Henry Kissinger, writing about India-US relations during Richard Nixon’s presidency, reported that Indira Gandhi would address Nixon "in the manner of a professor praising a slightly backward student."His comments about her after meetings "were not always printable".

President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Gandhi developed a cordial personal relationship. She impressed him when they met in Cancun, Mexico at a conference on development issues, and he wrote in his diary: "Held meetings (1 on 1) with Indira Gandhi who was not what I expected. She is tiny and seemed very reasonable and moderate."

A significant breakthrough in bilateral relations took place during President Clinton’s term, thanks mainly to a strenuous effort by Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. Their multiple negotiations sparked mutual understanding and respect which resulted in a bilateral Vision Statement which said in part: "In many ways, the character of the 21st century world will depend on the success of our co-operation for peace, prosperity, democracy and freedom. That presents us with an opportunity, but also a profound responsibility to work together. Our partnership of shared ideals leads us to seek a natural partnership of shared endeavors."

The next major event in the relationship was the completion of the India-US civilian nuclear agreement in the final months of the Bush Administration. The agreement provides the framework for economic and technical cooperation which, says Secretary Clinton, "allows us to move beyond our concerns about the status of India’s nuclear program, an issue that has dominated our relationship for much of the last decade".

The India with which the US now desires a continuing but qualitatively changed relationship is substantially different from the India that some of her predecessors experienced. Leaders in both countries have progressed a long way towards understanding each other better.

Contact among officials has helped, as have practical forms of collaboration between the private sectors of the two countries, and a strong sense of identity among civil society institutions.

With the end of the cold war, cooperation that would have been unthinkable some years ago has developed in defence and intelligence matters including action against terror financing, law enforcement, training and information sharing.

On the economic front, systemic changes introduced by Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister in the government of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao have produced rich benefits in almost all sectors. India has swept past its minuscule average annual growth rate of around 3.5 percent which the late Professor Raj Krishna called the "Hindu rate of growth". India has confronted the challenge of global recession, too, and is expected to grow at a rate of 6 percent this year.

The US and India have been partners in this transformation. Total foreign direct investment from US sources to India from 1991 to July 2008 was almost US$8 billion. Trade between the two countries, once described as being "flatter than a chappati", has doubled since 2004 and its current value is over $43 billion.

India’s investments in the US are also growing. Anand Sharma recently announced that between 2004 and 2007 Indian enterprises had contributed $105 billion to the American economy and helped to create 300,000 jobs. India remains on course to become an economic power house.

There is another and even more substantial form of contribution by NRIs (non-resident Indians, as they are known in India) that is not easy to quantify accurately: the people contribution. Scientists, doctors, researchers, information technology experts, business people, writers, producers, directors, actors, and a host of others are all well entrenched in American life. They have won respect in a way that has brought credit to their country of origin.

Whichever way you look at it, India’s achievements are substantial, and the India-US relationship is robust. This is helpful to both countries, and the achievements to-date can serve as a foundation on which an even stronger and bigger superstructure of bilateral cooperation can be built.

A recent World Bank study determined that the proportion of Indians living in poverty has declined from 60 to 42 percent. Nevertheless, oppressive poverty remains in place. Any nation in which poverty is pervasive faces great challenges of credibility when attempting to wield global influence. Support from and cooperation with the US, as well as other countries and institutions, can help India to overcome the inequities of income poverty. At the same time, the US can benefit from the collaborative trends that are growing. These realities found expression in the agreements signed during Clinton’s visit, or under continued negotiation.

But combining to reshape the world? That is something else, entirely.

An arbitrary decision by the US to choose India as its partner for this exercise, and for India to accept the role, smacks of arrogance by both countries. The decision, even if it is actually a suggestion at the moment, appears to downgrade the role of international institutions including the UN, and to ignore the leadership capacities of other nations. Is this a bad case of hubris going wild?

Domestic political considerations are likely, however, to apply the brakes on hubris. Both countries are democracies. In neither country can an individual or an institution decide on a particular course of action and unilaterally carry it out. At the very least, majority votes have to be secured to pay for collaboration.

Although India and the US have achieved a greater convergence of views than before in many areas they have not and no doubt will not achieve unanimity on all the issues that might benefit from global leadership. During the recent military upheaval in Sri Lanka, the US and India had different approaches to some of the issues and this became all too evident at a special meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. This is the kind of dissension that can threaten world-rebuilding collaboration.

Each country is well experienced in calculating its own national interests and crafting policies for their protection. What will happen to collaboration when national interests clash?

A foreign correspondent at a Washington press conference held by Blake put his finger on the kinds of clashes that could arise. He said: "You talked about climate change, non-proliferation, and trade. But those are actually three areas that have had some important sticking points between the two countries. On climate change, India said they won’t accept carbon emission caps. On trade, it was a dispute between India and the US that led to a breakdown in Doha. And on non-proliferation, India said it’s not going to sign global non-proliferation agreements unless there’s global disarmament."

The contentious nature of climate change issues came up during Clinton’s visit when India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh told her bluntly that India will not agree to any cap of emissions — a key objective of the Obama Administration — that might slow down India’s economic progress.

India has for many years cultivated what Teresita Schaffer, Director of the South Asia Program at the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies, aptly describes as "strategic autonomy". There will undoubtedly be occasions when the imperatives of strategic autonomy collide with those of strategic partnership. What then?

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