The Indian government is in crisis because of a civil nuclear deal that it can’t seem to sign with the United States. The battle to sign this agreement not only reveals flaws and fissures in India itself but also the fact that the world views the u.s. with distrusting eyes. It was ten years ago when I first got wind of a warming in Indo-u.s. ties. India had just exploded a series of nuclear devices, triggering quivering indignation from the United States. But even at that moment it was apparent that a shift was taking place in America’s understanding of India.
Dr. Richard Haass, previously a special assistant to George H. W. Bush and one of the sharpest American scholars on Asian affairs, dropped by to visit Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, where I was studying. He was speaking at a small conference room in the red-bricked School of International Studies, and a group of professors and students clustered around him. Haass was a star, but more importantly, he represented the country that we were desperately trying to understand and feeling tense about.
Bill Clinton had recently visited China and stated that the Chinese were moderators of tension in Asia. But from the perspective of Indian policymakers, the Chinese are a major destabilising force and a major reason we had gone nuclear, so we were all quite upset.
Having been closer to the Republicans, Haass was quick to distance himself from the Clinton administration. And then he told us that the u.s. was actually looking at India as a possible “junior partner.” That took us all by surprise. Throughout the long days of the Cold War the United States had been the partner of countries who were our enemies, such as Pakistan and China. In fact, during the 1971 India-Pakistan war in which Bangladesh won its independence, the u.s. sent its nuclear-armed Seventh Fleet sailing up the Bay of Bengal, bluntly threatening us with nuclear annihilation.
Given this history, it was odd to think in terms of partnership. But what really irritated certain Indian academics was the tag of “junior partner.” India has a hyper-aware sense of independence, which is not surprising in a country that won its freedom after almost two centuries of British rule. Nevertheless, what Haass was signalling at that time was that India and the United States had common interests and could be “natural allies.” It was a bold statement and one that many Indians might also have relished. At that time, tied down by sanctions and berated by the world for testing nukes, India’s ability to forge a new deal with the u.s. looked quite promising indeed.
Then came the attacks of September 11, 2001, which changed everything.
Pakistan was quicker than India to present itself as an ally in the War on Terror. General Musharraf, a military dictator who had taken power in a bloodless coup, publicly offered everything Pakistan had to help the u.s. military effort in Afghanistan. Bush, known for his snap judgements on who was friend or foe, immediately accepted the offer. This infuriated India. How could Pakistan, the state that had backed militants in Kashmir, be an ally in the War on Terror? That fury reached a fevered pitch when the Indian Parliament itself was attacked a few months after 9/11. Blaming Pakistan and Pakistani-based militant groups for the attack, India mobilised its forces on the Pakistan border, and Pakistan had to pull out a section of its military from the Afghanistan border to face the threat from India.
The move was a huge irritation to the u.s., as it endangered the hunt for Al-Qaeda, and the Bush administration used its best emissaries to try and sort things out. Even after the situation was resolved, it was clear that India had finally got America’s attention, even if doing so heightened the risk of nuclear war and racked up the mammoth expenses associated with mobilising half a million troops on the Indo-Pakistani border. In u.s. think tanks, including the Center for Strategic and International Studies where I was interning, there was a new interest in India and in resolving India and Pakistan’s conflict over Kashmir. Things looked like they were entering a new stage of engagement.
And then the u.s. decided to invade Iraq, a war whose audacious expenses and problems need no mention. As u.s. forces battled in Iraq, the lovefest between Indian and u.s. policymakers continued. But the u.s.’s image among the Indian public took a battering. The justifications for war in Iraq—“wmd,” etc.—seemed ludicrous. No Indians actually believed that Americans were feeling as threatened as they claimed. The National Democratic Alliance government then ruling India thought of sending troops to the conflict, but the mood in India was too strongly against the war for the government to be able to sell the idea to the public. Considering that India has the largest standing army in the world after the u.s. and China, and is one of the top contributing nations in u.n. peacekeeping forces, this was a large loss for the “Coalition of the Willing.”
Nevertheless, official Indian and u.s. engagement was developing rapidly, and traditional international partners such as the British were being sidelined. u.s. bureaucrats set up shop in India. As one of my friends working on the Americas desk at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs confessed, “We feel like running away to hide when we see the Americans. There are so many of them and we’re swamped.” While India has about 620 foreign service officials stationed throughout the world. America has approximately two hundred State Department officials in New Delhi alone.
Around the same time, a new Indian prosperity meant that many Indian urbanites were starting to live like their American counterparts. mtv, malls, and suvs were inundating the market. The Iraq invasion did not dampen Indians’ desire to emulate the American lifestyle. According to the Pew Global Attitude survey, India was one of the only countries where the image of the US was more positive in 2005 (71%) than in 2002 (54%). Putting the seal to all of this was supposed to be the civil nuclear deal, and when the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act was passed in 2006, many u.s. lawmakers considered it the beginning of a new strategic partnership with India.
Except it wasn’t, because the Indian government hasn’t been able to get the approval for such a collaboration. In real terms, there is little to object to in the deal. The Henry Hyde Act is basically meant to fulfill a very simple purpose. It allows India to get access to nuclear know-how from the u.s. despite not being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But there are two real troublesome issues. The most important one is that the treaty shall lapse if India conducts a nuclear test. Secondly, the Hyde Act contains guiding, non-binding clauses on how the u.s. should influence India’s foreign policy. Opponents of the deal, on both the Left and the Right, say that this would make Indian foreign policy subservient to America’s. This suspicion has been heightened by the fact that India has voted in support of UN sanctions against Iran.
The accusation that is being thrown against the nuclear deal is the fear that India will become, as Haass had suggested it might, America’s “junior partner.” The tragedy is that many Indians who were skeptical but might have been convinced about the role of the United States a decade back now positively mistrust it, echoing a pattern seen across the globe. American incompetence and increasingly ineffectual strategies have led to a position where even its former close friends have been alienated.
Across the region, there have been plenty of signs of diminishing US influence. Egypt, one of America’s main allies in the Middle East (which receives about $2 billion in u.s. funding every year), helped negotiate a ceasefire between Israel (to which the u.s. gives upwards of $3 billion) and Hamas (which the u.s. detests and has boycotted). Qatar, another key u.s. partner, brokered another deal between a u.s. ally and a group the u.s. detests—this time between the pro-u.s. Lebanese government and the Hezbollah. And even before all this, Saudi King Abdullah tried to reach out to both Hamas and Iran, despite strong u.s. disapproval.
When such old allies, with ties of dollars and weaponry, are slowly disentangling their foreign policies from Washington’s control, it would seem foolish for India to tie its own destiny to a declining power. This has linked the India-u.s. civil nuclear agreement to America’s plummeting prestige. An alliance that might have been desirable a decade ago is now suspect, and although the Indian government has worked assiduously to court the u.s., it now finds itself hamstrung by its Communist allies who have been campaigning against it on an anti-u.s. plank—not on the basis of what’s written in the deal.
This is immensely frustrating for those, including Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who believe that the deal is good for India. We can only hope that the person who becomes the 44th u.s. President is able to see the deep problems and suspicions that recent u.s. actions have engendered—because right now the world seems to be rejecting so many things American, even the good ones.
OMAIR AHMAD is a former political adviser and author of Encounters.