Contrary to what Atal Behari Vajpayee claimed and George Bush now repeats, India and the US are not natural allies. They are, however, natural partners. The distinction is important.
India cannot be an ally for because, in its current mood, the USA dos not want allies. Consider Bush’s fury when France and Germany, old NATO allies, disagreed with his Iraq invasion. US politicians renamed French fries as “freedom fries”. Cartoonists showed bored US troops saying there was no point in invading Iraq a second time—been there, done that– so let’s do France instead.
The fact is that 9/11 has transformed the US ability to act for the global good. Earlier, the US could proudly claim to have spearheaded the defeat of the two greatest tyrannies of the 20th century, fascism and communism. But this then made the US the only superpower. All power corrupts, and super-power corrupts superlatively. After 9/11, the US asserted the right to bomb or invade any country it judged to be evil, without the concurrence of NATO allies or the UN. Such a country wants camp followers, not allies.
So, India and the US are not natural allies. But they are natural partners. This has little to do with governmental relations. During the Cold War India was a Soviet quasi-ally, yet the US was by far India’s largest trading partner. Top Indian decision-makers (including rabid anti-American ones) sent their children to US universities, not Soviet. By the end of the Cold War over a million Indians were US residents, against virtually zero in the USSR. Indians loved American movies, music, literature, and the cultural ethos now called “soft power” by foreign policy theorists. Virtually no Indians were interested in Soviet films or music, or the Cossack dance.
Indian corporates opted for Western, not Soviet technology. Many Indian public sector units began with Soviet technology, but later went to western sources for upgradation. BHEL, for instance, became a much stronger company when it switched to German technology. The ONGC, set up with Soviet help, found that the Soviets lacked the technology for Bombay High, and so went to the West.
In sum, friendly government ties can have remarkably little to do with building a partnership. Even when India and the US were diplomatically at loggerheads, Indo-US relations galloped upwards at several levels—academic, cultural, commercial, and person-to-person exchanges. Relations between people mattered more than relations between governments. The two governments are finally catching up with the people.
Nehru built the IITs to serve the Indian public sector. But the same IITs sparked the Indian invasion of Silicon Valley, and later the creation of a world-class software and BPO industry in India. Today, the vast majority of Fortune 500 US firms are in India. Indeed, if a US company lacks an India plan, Wall Street will downgrade it. Partnership with India has become an economic imperative for US firms seeking to lower costs and improve R&D. Almost a million jobs have been outsourced, and many US politicians are paranoid about the trend. Yet the underlying economic logic is strong that not even the powerful US politicians can stop it.
The biggest foreign investors in India are American. They have not come because of governmental friendship. They have come because, with India growing fast and opening up, no MNC can afford not to be in India.
On the economic side, Americans need India no less than India needs the US. This is totally missed by ideologues who complain that India will be America’s junior partner. India was a junior partner of the USSR too, but somehow they call that an “independent foreign policy”!
Economics, culture and academics have laid the foundation of Indo-US partnership. The breakthrough came when Indian students in the US graduated and revolutionized Silicon Valley, spurring the software revolution. Indian economic opening-up in the 1990s created new opportunities for all countries and not just the US. This reform made India a world-class power in services. This strength has now created strategic interest in the US. Civilian nuclear co-operation is an offshoot of the growing partnership, not its basis.
Too much is made of the US helping India counter-balance China. Such opportunism is a poor basis for partnership. Nor can a partnership be built simply on shared democratic values: democracy is about the right to disagree. Leftists worry that “shared democratic values” means India will join the US in bombing Iran. Nonense, says Ashish Nandy, it simply means that India will send Buta Singh to teach China democracy.
India’s reservations about autocracy did not stop it from building a partnership with the USSR. Nor should its reservations about American bullying stop it from building a partnership with the US. India’s Parliament unanimously deplored the Iraq invasion. So, we cannot be allies. But we can forge a rather impressive partnership, whose foreign policy implications should not be exaggerated.