According to a Global Attitudes Survey, Indians lead the world for
the most favourable impression of the US -- 71 per cent of Indian
respondents approved of Washington, followed by 62 per cent Polish, 59
per cent Canadians and 55 per cent Britons.
The overwhelming pro-US sentiment among the Indian populace is
matched by a growing chorus within the country's strategic elites and
opinion-turners to cross the Rubicon and ally unequivocally with the
Policy guru K Subrahmanyam's journey from scepticism and caution to a
calculated pro-American standpoint is symptomatic of a shift in
collective consciousness that should hardly be surprising. As diplomat
Pavan Varma observes, Indians are, by psyche, collaborators with powers
that are stronger and undefeatable.
The odyssey that India as a nation and a state has made from the
Soviet bear hug of the 1970s to the American eagle's embrace is a major
transformation in world politics, a highway dotted with some crucial
milestones since 1991.
President Bill Clinton's no-nonsense admonishment of Prime Minister
Nawaz Sharif and the subsequent Pakistani withdrawal from Kargil in 1999
was a major diplomatic event that signalled new equations in the
It melted Indian Cold War-era misgivings about mala fide American
intentions and gave credence to the notion that Uncle Sam is no longer
pro-Pakistan when it comes to Kashmir. The rousing welcome Clinton got
on his landmark visit to India in 2000 contained a sizeable positive
hangover from the Kargil intercession.
No matter how repetitive the official take is on 'de-hyphenation' of
US policy towards India and Pakistan, the fact remains that the Indian
public and the security establishment are ultra-sensitive to how
Washington approaches Islamabad. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's
expression of "great disappointment" at the delivery of F-16s to
Pakistan is one recent example.
The post-Sep 11 cozying up of the US to the Pakistani military regime
and continued adherence of Washington to the idea of maintaining
"strategic balance" in the subcontinent are irritants unlikely to vanish
any time soon, irrespective of the euphoria surrounding India-US
strategic cooperation, military exercises and economic interaction.
Another unexpected hurdle that India hoped would be passé as soon as
a Republican administration came in 2001 is the nuclear technology and
fuel transfer rigmarole. With 'non-proliferation Ayatollahs' setting up
a battle royale in the US Congress over special and differential
treatment for India, separation of powers between executive and
legislature in American politics has suddenly become an onerous
challenge for New Delhi's lobbying capacity.
Killing of administration bills by the US Congress has a long
history, the most infamous one being rejection of Woodrow Wilson's
proposal to join the League of Nations. Conditionalities such as India
voting against Iran at the IAEA are being brought up as quid pro quos
that might appease the non-proliferation backers, but this moots a
classic clash of New Delhi's domestic politics with America's.
The ruling Indian coalition cannot afford to displease the Left by
voting against Iran for a second time at Vienna. In 2003, India resisted
sending troops to Iraq despite high-level US attempts at dangling
carrots of more pressure on Musharraf to halt cross-border terrorism.
Lack of domestic consensus and justifiable fears of getting entangled in
a bloody insurgency led to that decision.
Long-term energy security interests and Left pressure will likewise
constrict New Delhi's flexibility on Iran. The fact that the US is badly
embroiled in a 'Vietnamising' Iraq suggests that full-scale war on Iran
is an unfeasible scenario any time soon, even if the IAEA refers it to
the UN Security Council. A backdoor compromise among the EU3, the US and
India to the effect that war will not be on the cards could break the
Given the background of rapidly expanding popular and governmental
ties between the world's largest democracies, summit meetings have a
cementing importance. President George W Bush's scheduled tour of India
in March will be less glamorous and precedent-breaking than Clinton's
but more substantive because the latter came at the fag end of his
second term as a lame duck unable to issue or carry through commitments.
Bush has two more years to go at the helm and the timing of this
visit is more profitable in terms of the policy cycle. Counter-terrorism
and civilian nuclear technology transfer will undoubtedly be hot
potatoes on the menu of the Bush-Manmohan summit, but these do not
constitute the whole shebang.
Bush will endorse India as the regional hegemon by consulting with
its leaders on escalating violence in Nepal and Sri Lanka, a way of
publicly deferring regional security to the South Asian Big Brother.
There will be business delegations accompanying Bush to quietly notch
out bilateral agreements on the sidelines. On the cards for Bush's trip
this time is a Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture and discussions to
deepen free trade, investment and armament sales -- areas of high
priority to America Incorporated.
NATO-class sophisticated military hardware is a key to the evolving
bilateral relationship due to its implications for India as a
countervailing force to authoritarian China, one of the favourite themes
of the Republican administration.
India's long-term grand objective for competing with China will be to
secure enough traction from the US now so that there is continuity even
if pro-China Democrats regain the presidency in 2008.
The Bush state visit may be better remembered for pushing the
frontiers on these nitty-gritty topics that ultimately thicken relations
and reorder Asia's chessboard configuration.
(Sreeram Chaulia is a commentator on international affairs.)