Much has been made of the failure of relations between India and the United States to live up to the high expectations many had in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear agreement between the two nations in 2005. Blame has been placed at the feet of US economic turbulence, India’s economic slowdown, President Barack Obama’s lack of enthusiasm, the political crisis in India’s United Progressive Alliance, ossified US policies towards Pakistan, Delhi’s nuclear liability law, and the list goes on.
None of the reasons offered for the tepid state of India-US relations are wrong. However, the lack of enthusiasm to address mutual concerns indicates deeper misgivings between Delhi and Washington. Beyond strategic and economic considerations, India cannot accept a partnership in which it is the junior member; Delhi has always been extremely sensitive about its image and more self-assured about its place in the world than the country’s achievements warrant. The enormous disparities between the United States and India in every realm prevent a real partnership and instead consign India to a dependent role in a patron-client relationship with the United States.
While India’s communists opposed close relations between India and the United States on ideological grounds, others, from left-liberals to nationalists, have hindered the betterment of relations between India and the United States with their excessive cultural smugness. Always couched in the language of national interest or security, India has clung to its own brand of exceptionalism and been unable to clear the necessary bureaucratic hurdles to actualise the benefits of even the agreements it has already signed with Washington.
India has been unable to accept the LSA, CISMOA, BECA, and other agreements due to political compulsions – fear of appearing integrated into Pentagon military operations – rather than strategic sense. Similarly, India’s nuclear civil liability code has crippled its otherwise successful nuclear deal with the United States over political rather than technical reasons and Delhi remains the international outlier on the issue at its own expense. India’s healthy self-esteem has become decidedly unhealthy.
There is something to be said for national interest, undoubtedly, but the rigid definition Delhi follows hurts the country more than it protects. The realities of India’s economy, military capabilities, and scientific-industrial base require a pragmatic approach. Delhi must calculate whether it is worth the cost to reinvent the wheel in the name of strategic autonomy. Yet for all the talk of indigenous development, the foreign component of India’s most cherished projects – the Tejas, the INS Vikrant, the INS Arihant – has been substantial, critical, and not publicly acknowledged. The national ego would not be able to accept that.
It is vital that the Indian leadership start to measure itself by achievements and delivery of services than false pride. The United States has offered to help India’s rise, and though no power wishes to create another power, the overwhelming disparity between the two countries makes the observation moot for the moment. As Philip Zelikow, Counselor of the US Department of State, said in 2005, the United States’ “goal is to help India become a major world power in the 21st century. We understand fully the implications, including military implications, of that statement.”
India will forever be stuck in its inferiority complex unless it moves to ameliorate conditions. In the short-term, the Foreign Service must recruit laterally from the pool of graduate students in history, political science, international relations, and key languages such as Russian, Chinese, Arabic, and Persian. This will allow an influx of regional studies experts into the Ministry of External Affairs to advise senior bureaucrats and ministers. Inter-ministry liaisons must be streamlined so that the MEA has a range of experts in economics, agriculture, health, and other fields at its quick disposal. Second, India must increase transparency of the political decision-making process. One hopes that study of the experience of preceding officials will inform and result in more pragmatic assessments and policies.
Longer term solutions have been offered umpteen times – transparent processes, privatisation, labour reform, legal reforms, efficient judiciary, infrastructural investment. Infrastructure will take decades to improve and cost trillions, but investor-friendly policies can reduce the cost to the government. If India seeks a partnership between equals with the United States or any other developed nation, it must raise itself first. Doing so with US assistance – few other countries can bear the economic and military burden of a country as large as India – will make the process faster and smoother.
The United States opened the international nuclear market to India had been a pariah for four decades. In response, India enacted nuclear liability legislation so toxic that no international player is willing to do business in India; the Russians have raised the price of their reactors once Delhi decided to retroactively apply the liability legislation to the 1988 agreement between itself and the Soviet Union. India has also proudly re-proclaimed its non-alignment credentials, clearly refusing to work too closely with Washington. It is difficult to see why the United States would want to engage seriously beyond small ticket trade with a country whose idea of negotiation is to spurn a hand of friendship and do nothing in return for assistance on issues of vital importance such as space, defence, and nuclear technology transfers, membership to security regimes such as the United Nations Security Council, Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime, and the Wassenaar Arrangement, and foreign policy cooperation.
As many scholars have pointed out, foreign policy has few electoral rewards. Like anywhere else, India’s politicians are inward-looking and play to domestic vote banks and interest groups. This by itself seldom prevents public discussion, but the Indian scenario further lacks a vibrant wonkosphere – foreign policy experts, access to national archives, and a multitude of independent think tanks – and therefore exacts little cost to the country’s leaders. Until this changes, India will continue to work against its own interests and remain a dilettante on the international scene.