Is the US pro-Pak or pro-India?

Many Indians believe that the USA is determined to support Pakistan and undermine India. I keep telling them that in fact the US cares little about either country, has little interest in the quarrels of India and Pakistan, and is pre-occupied with events in other countries. Last year’s nuclear tests have scarcely raised the interest level in the sub-continent.

I now find overwhelming support for this view from an unexpected source: George W Bush, Republican front-runner in the coming US Presidential election. During a radio interview last week, he was asked whether he could name the leaders of Chechnya, Taiwan, India and Pakistan. George W, as he is popularly called, could name only one of the four — Lee Teng-Hui of Taiwan. He knew a general had taken over in Pakistan but could not name him. He could not name Atal Behari Vajpayee. George W was not defensive about this. He asked the radio interviewer to name the Foreign Minister of Mexico. The interviewer admitted he could not, but pointed out that he was not running for President. The media have laughed loudly at George W. The Washington Post is worried less about his not knowing the name of the Pakistani general than his comment that military rule might bring stability to Pakistan.

Many people in India interpret this as a pro-Pakistan position. In fact, the real message from the Bush interview is that politicians in the US know little and care less about either India or Pakistan. Nobody in the US thinks his election prospects have been jeopardised by his ignorance of the sub-continent. Indeed, the vast majority of Americans could not care less. Note another significant issue: a top American radio journalist regards the heads of Chechnya and Taiwan as comparable in importance to the heads of India and Pakistan. Finally, note that the man who will probably be future President of the US regards the Foreign Minister of Mexico as comparable with the heads of India and Pakistan. That really sums up the situation. And yet Indian newspapers regularly carry big headlines about the statement of every junior official in the USA about India and Pakistan, and make all sorts of detailed interpretations into a phrase here and a sentence there.

This is quite unwarranted. The main American reaction to India and Pakistan is a big yawn, not preference for one side or another. To drive this home, let me mention another incident when Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minister of Pakistan, on a visit to the USA. At one function, Senator Jesse Helms, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, kept referring to her as the Prime Minister of India. He was discreetly informed that in fact she was the Prime Minister of Pakistan. “Really?” said Helms ? “Then why does she keep going on about India?”

Much fun was made of Jesse Helms at the time. Yet the incident carried a deeper message: India and Pakistan matter so little in Washington that the head of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee does not know who leads which country, and does not much care either.

The simple truth is that the USA is neither pro-Pakistan nor pro-India but pro-USA. During the Cold War, Pakistan was a military ally of the US while India stayed non-aligned, and naturally the military ally got some special attention. Indians love to keep quoting John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of State under Eisenhower, who once said “Those who are not with us are against us.” This is seen as evidence of the US being against India, or at least against Nehru. Yet the same Dulles saved India and Nehru repeatedly in times of need. Nehru’s socialist policies emptied India’s foreign exchange reserves rapidly in the 1950s, and the country was virtually bust in 1958. Far from gloating, the USA organised the Aid India Consortium to rescue India, contributing around 40 per cent of all aid itself. Till 1958 the World bank President, Eugene Black, had strongly opposed concessional assistance to developing countries, saying it would lead to wasteful use of money. Dulles forced him to reverse his stand.

When drought and food scarcity hit India in the Dulles era, the US provided enormous food aid, which had the additional purpose of financing India’s five-year Plans. So, regardless of what Dulles may have said on one occasion, what he actually did was not anti-India. On the contrary, he saved India from considerable pain and privation. He did so out of self-interest, not regard for Nehru or India.

A hundred colonies were about to become independent, and were watching to see whether communist China would fare better than democratic India. The US simply could not allow the Indian experiment to fail: that would have sent a message to the incipient Third World that Mao’s path was superior. So, while it was not fond of Nehru’s socialism or non-alignment, it was determined to prop him up. Military aid to Pakistan and food aid to India reflected neither a pro-Pak nor pro-India tilt, simply US self-interest.

What of the future? While neither country matters much today, India is beginning to look altogether more interesting to the US from an economic viewpoint than Pakistan. This will in due course make all the difference. As long as India sought self-sufficiency and isolation from global trade and investment, it was quite uninteresting for the US. Now that India is opening, now that it is becoming a major trader and attracting significant foreign investment, it has become more interesting for the US. The boom in Indian software exports, and the meteoric rise of Indians in Silicon Valley has added to the interest.

Suddenly Pakistan finds that it cannot compete with India for American attention. It does not have remotely the potential for trade, investment or computer software as India. Lobbying by US multinationals investing in or trading with India has greatly improved Indian influence in the US Congress, and so have campaign contributions from the new Indian millionaires of Silicon valley. Let me not exaggerate; India remains a marginal player in Washington. But it is gaining momentum, and Pakistan is not. The more India globalises, the greater will be its foreign policy edge.

What do you think?