From junior beggar to junior partner

The BJP and Left Front have accused Manmohan Singh of making India a junior partner of the US. Is that so bad? I suspect, they mean India has become an American puppet, but that is absurd. For many decades, India was a junior beggar, living off foreign alms. To have moved from junior beggar to junior partner is progress. Any relationship between a rich, powerful country and a poor, developing one is unequal, regardless of rhetoric about mutual interest and common values. The poorer partner receives rather than gives, and so is necessarily junior. There could never be an equal relationship between India and Nepal, or between the US and India (or USSR and India). That does not make junior a dirty word. It does not mean Nepal should shun India, or India shun the US.

What is the difference between junior beggars and junior partners? If the junior gives back some fraction of what he gets, in security or business terms, he is a partner. In NATO, European countries are junior partners, providing some security and business to the US. To a lesser extent that is true of Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. On the other hand, junior beggars are those that get a lot and give little or nothing. Many African countries are junior beggars. So too, for decades, was India. Youngsters may not know that India was once considered a bottomless pit for aid. It was by far the biggest recipient of food and financial aid from Independence till the ’90s. Notwithstanding Nehruvian rhetoric about self-sufficiency, Nehruvian planning was based on enormous inflows of foreign charity. This was not, as some claimed, compensation for colonial exploitation: that would have come from Britain alone, not from the US or other donors.

In the 1950s and 1960s, India was saved from mass starvation only by record food aid from the US. So large were India’s needs during the twin droughts of 1965-66 that the Paddock brothers wrote a famous book arguing that India was beyond saving and should be left to starve, diverting scarce food aid to countries capable of being saved. Fortunately, India dug itself out of that hole through the Green Revolution, financed by the US and World Bank. Nehru inherited huge sterling balances from the British Raj, but exhausted these with the foreign exchange crisis of 1958. The US immediately came to India’s rescue by forming the Aid India Consortium, and contributing half the Consortium’s funds. Till then World Bank President Eugene Black was dead against concessional aid, but the US arm-twisted him into blessing it. This was institutionalised in the soft-lending window of the Bank, IDA and India received fully 40% of IDA soft loans.

Euphemisms like ”development co-operation” were coined to cloak this unprecedented flow of alms to the poor and needy. India denied indignantly that it ever begged. It claimed while constantly canvassing for more aid that it was the duty of the rich to help the poor, in their self-interest. That, of course, is what all beggars tell the rich. The big Indo-US rupture came during the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Nixon cut off all aid to India. But the breach was filled by rising flows from IDA, which was financed mainly by the US. Only in the 1990s did India finally stop depending on aid.

This puts in perspective Manmohan Singh’s statement that this time he went to the US not as a supplicant but as a partner. He asked President Bush for a lot: acceptance as a nuclear power; resumption of nuclear fuel, equipment and technology; and membership of the UN Security Council. But unlike earlier Prime Ministers visiting the US, he also had something significant to offer. First, India had emerged as a rising economic power, was becoming the back-office of the world, and had attracted investment from 400 of the Fortune 500 companies. Second, 9/11 had put India and US on the same side against Al Qaeda. India had 150 million Muslims but no Al Qaeda, and that made it a force for stability in a region plagued by Islamic militancy. India was the junior in this relationship, but was now a partner, not a beggar.

Some will argue that India contributed something in Nehru’s days too. At the time colonies were becoming independent, and the US did not want them to think that Mao’s democratic experiment was more successful than Nehru’s democratic experiment. So, the argument goes, the US kept rescuing India to meet its own foreign policy aims.

Maybe so. But when one country keeps rescuing the other, can it really be called partnership? It looks more like a supplicant-saviour relationship to me. The new relationship now developing looks much more like partnership.

What do you think?