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12 Myths That Pervade India-US Relations

24/01/2015 3:01 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
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President Barack Obama shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, in the Oval Office  of the White House in Washington. President Barack Obama and India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Tuesday that "it is time to set a new agenda" between their countries, addressing concerns that the world's two largest democracies have grown apart. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

As President Obama travels to India for its Republic Day and his second summit with Prime Minister Modi, there's much talk about the way forward -- indeed, the relationship now has a slogan "Chalein Saath Saath (Forward We Go)". But, even as the future is crucial, it's worth looking back at the past as well. Why? Because there are certain myths that dominate the narrative in India and the US that continue to affect perceptions of the relationship and the other country.

1. From Estrangement to Engagement. The overall narrative of India-U.S. relations that one hears repeatedly is that the two countries were estranged for the first five decades and then the two countries started engaging each other. Yet this overlooks the periods--and not just the moments like during the 1962 China-India war--that the two countries engaged and cooperated intensively. This interaction was bilateral, regional (eg. on Nepal) and even global (eg. on Congo, Korea). And it is worth looking back at that engagement--not just to see what worked and how, but why it wasn't sustainable.

2. The Kabab Mein Haddi. The Cold War framework, specifically the US tilt towards Pakistan and India's tilt towards the Soviet Union, is seen as the cause of estrangement. India is also seen as being dragged helplessly into the conflict of the superpowers. Yet, for a number of years, it was that Cold War framework that made India important in the U.S. (and later Soviet) strategy. Without a Cold War prism, it's plausible that neither would have paid India any attention. And while Cold War dynamics did shape and bind India's options, it also created opportunities for Indian policymakers, who used the Cold War--and superpower concerns and attention--for India's benefit.

3. If Only You Understood Me Better. Another reason for the estrangement often offered is misunderstanding--that the two countries just didn't get each other's position. They did indeed have a lot to learn about each other--still do--but many a times policymakers did understand the other country's perspective; they just believed that the other perspective was wrong and theirs' was right. A focus on misunderstanding and misperceptions can cloud the fact that partners and allies don't have to agree all the time or have the same perspective on everything. If the absence of differences is going to be the standard by which the India-U.S. partnership is judged, let's all pack up and go home now. It's how the two countries handle the differences that do and will exist that is crucial and will determine the nature and strength of the partnership. In the past, when Delhi and Washington have found the other country to be important strategically, they've found a way to look past differences, manage them better and not harangue the other about them in public.

4. The Country That Shall Not be Named. The big Asian country to the north of India seems to have only appeared in the India-U.S. narrative in 2000. China, however, played a major role--and not just a bit part--in the India-US story much before that. For the first three decades of the relationship, as an actor or a factor, China was indeed always there--if not an actual presence, then lurking in American and Indian policymakers' minds. It affected how India and the US interacted with each other (at times pulling them apart, at others bringing them closer) in ways that many would find familiar today.

5. Democracies FTW! In his iconic book on US-India relations, Dennis Kux posed this question: "Why was it that these democracies seemed to have so much trouble in getting along?" The assumption implicit in the question--and in much of the discourse on the relationship--is that, as democracies, the two countries should naturally get along. But, it's crucial to remember that this element that facilitates the relationship--and is one of the reasons for it--also complicates it. The fact that both countries are democracies means that debates and differences play out publicly, negotiations take place under the gaze of a free press, and domestic politics has to be considered, navigated and negotiated.

6. India Doesn't Do Alliances. Yes it does; just with smaller countries (see Bhutan, Nepal). It has also had implicit or explicit security assurances from other countries (see US in the 1960s and the Soviet Union in the 1970s) that many would call a key component of an alliance. India also has tilted--either out of choice or necessity--toward a preferred partner. Leaders who undertook those tilts should not be chided for making that choice; they did what they thought was necessary for Indian strategic and economic interests at those times.

7. The US Has Wanted To Break Up India. No, to the contrary, the US spent the first half of the Cold War worried that India would disintegrate. It pumped billions of dollars of aid to help India succeed so that it would appear as a developing democratic model in contrast to communist China, and then to ensure that it didn't fail and take the whole idea of democracies-being-able-to-develop down with it. The US also wanted stability in India--including at the Center where it supported non-communist governments--rather than chaos.

8. Reliability. Reliability. Reliability. There are two components to this. First, many in India think of the US as unreliable. American behaviour during the 1971 India-Pakistan war has had much to do with shaping this perspective. Yet, few remember the times when the US was the only reliable partner India had--for example, the 1962 war, when Moscow went missing and instead was providing intelligence to China, and when the non-aligned countries fell silent; or the 1965 India-Pakistan war when it was to Washington that Indian policymakers turned to for help when it seemed like China would jump in. The other component to this is American perplexity about India's concerns about unreliability. Yet India has found itself suddenly cut-off from promised military and economic supplies, and policymakers did go from having an implicit American security assurance vis-à-vis China to having an American president urging China to back up Pakistan in its 1971 war with India.

9. Don't You Like Us? It is true that Indian policymakers are often hesitant to talk about the closeness of the relationship with the US and the importance/utility of the US to India. The last two American presidents have indeed been more vocal about why the US is interested in India and supporting its rise. However, just in the last few years, we have seen an Indian prime minister put his government on the line for an agreement with the US, and the current prime minister call the US a "natural ally" (before he was elected) and outline why the US is important for India in an op-ed in an American newspaper. The invitation to President Obama to be Republic Day chief guest and the upcoming joint Modi-Obama radio address are, of course, path-breaking on the visibility front.

10. You Either Love Us or You Don't. In the narrative of US-India relations, there has always been a hall of fame and a hall of shame. There are the "pro-India" heroes such as President Kennedy and US ambassadors to India Chester Bowles and Robert Blackwill, and the "anti-India" villains like President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. There's a US version too--with Nehru as the "anti-US" leader, even though he was perhaps the first to use the term "natural partners" to describe the bilateral relationship, or Indira Gandhi as "pro-Soviet," ignoring instances such as her resisting for two years her advisers' entreaties to sign an India-Soviet treaty.

These depictions obscure more complex motivations and drivers of policymaking, and they can't explain change or the track records of the individuals. Nixon, for example, lobbied internally and publicly for greater economic aid to India in the 1950s; in the late 1960s, when others were pessimistic about India, he was stressing that the next century would be an Asian one, with India being one of the four "giants" that would shape its future. Bowles, in turn, might have hearted India, but what was seen as his overzealous advocacy for that country had White House officials tuning him out. This is not to say that personalities and personal relationships do not matter. They can facilitate cooperation or exacerbate conflict. They can help determine the policy option chosen. However, their role needs to be put in context.

11. Republicans have been good for India; Democrats have not. This contention can be traced to the perception that the Clinton administration, for years, emphasized non-proliferation above all else in its relations with India and to the landmark India-US nuclear deal signed under the Bush administration. Given how often one hears this assessment, it is easy to forget how recent this belief is. Historically, the opposite view was held, with many in India cheering when Democrats won. There was indeed more support for India among Democrats through the 1960s, but backing for India was not restricted to one side of the aisle. Republicans like President Eisenhower came to support India, especially in its development race against China. Republicans in the US Congress also joined Democratic presidents in passing aid legislation for India. However, in narratives, credit for any bonhomie during that time was given to Democrats. Recently, the opposite has been the case. But, for the last decade and a half, three different presidents--backed up by many on Capitol Hill--have invested in a relationship with India for US interests for at least three reasons: shared democratic values, economic interest (India as a market, and source of investment and talent) and strategic, especially vis-à-vis China and/or India's potential as a global actor.

There's a corollary to this, of course: that the BJP is good for the US; the Congress party is not. Yet, this ignores the role that Congress prime ministers Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh played in shaping the relationship, and the role that BJP leaders played in slowing the momentum of the relationship during the last few years--including through their reaction to the nuclear deal and their stalling of certain economic reforms.

12. This Relationship Is Not Transactional. Sure it is and that's alright. A bilateral relationship can be strategic, but the transactional elements are important--not the least because it involves actors (such as companies) who often have to show returns on their investment more immediately. Realistically, foreign relations are not altruistic; both sides need to derive benefit for a partnership to be sustainable. Both sides need to have and maintain constituencies who think the relationship is worth it. Of course, both sides also need to get beyond constantly asking of the other "what have you done for me lately?"

These are just a few of the myths. There are many others. It's time to take them on.

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