Salience of US ties

The ambivalence and hypocrisy of many Indians’ attitude towards the US can’t be summed up more tellingly than the way Jairam Ramesh, currently minister for rural development, once did while speaking at the Chicago Council of Foreign Relations. He said that very often you come across an Indian who would shout from the rooftop, “Uncle Sam, go home!” but, after a pause, will whisper, “and take me with you!” Post-Emergency Congress electoral debacle, a prominent Indian politician, member of the Socialist International for decades, who made fiery speeches in support of trade union strikes, was catapulted to the position of Union commerce minister. He is best remembered for having thrown out global beverage giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi from India as symbols of capitalist exploitation. So, I was a bit surprised when he, in his later avatar as the defence minister in the NDA government, arrived in Chicago in 2001, ostensibly to attend the graduation of his son from the Graduate School of Business, University of Chicago. I wondered whether the US had ceased to be the citadel of capitalism or if he was no more a socialist. Perhaps he was ahead of his time. In the wake of the financial meltdown in the US, US President Barack Obama resorted to measures to bail out the finance and automobile sectors, which, to some, smelt of socialism.
On the other hand, China, still clinging to Communism, has been following for three decades a heady cocktail that it calls “Socialist Capitalism”, producing an enviable economic transformation. We live in changing times. A political party that initiated discussions with the US while in power, exploring cooperation in civil nuclear energy, strongly opposed efforts in this direction by the government that succeeded it. However, as WikiLeaks revealed, the same party, in private, told the US government that their Opposition in Parliament should not be taken at face value. A decade ago, heading a coalition of 24 parties, this party had proposed 100 per cent FDI in retail; subsequently scaled down to 26 per cent. But now it opposes FDI in retail as anti-people.
Though the Congress doesn’t see a foreign hand or CIA conspiracy behind its failed projects any more, some political parties still raise the bogey of invasion by American MNCs and allege that major economic policies of India are not drafted in North and South Block but at the White House or at the World Bank and IMF headquarters.
China is the world’s second biggest economy, the largest manufacturer and largest exporter. Its economic and political clout in Asia, Africa and Latin America has increased exponentially; its trade with Asia has overtaken its trade with the US or the EU. India is feeling China’s heat in her backyard — Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. China’s influence in Pakistan and Burma has been a reality for decades. But what causes concern among China’s neighbours is its increasing assertiveness about the South China Sea and its island territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and others. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh referred to this phenomenon but China has issued veiled warnings to both India and Vietnam to keep off those areas of the South China Sea that fall in China’s declared maritime interests. Is India capable of countering the Chinese assertiveness on its own?
According to some confidential intelligence reports, China would surpass the US as the largest economy by 2030. But Barry Buzan, former professor of the London School of Economics, feels the single superpower era has ended so it won’t be the Asian century but a global century (multi-polar world). China has emerged as India’s largest trading partner. But it can’t offer what the US can in scientific and technological innovation, space research, super-technology, greater accessibility to its own market, collaboration in the fields of IT, agriculture, infrastructure, green energy, education and cooperation in international/regional forums in the fight against terrorism.
Given the democratic form of governments, faith in the rule of law, human rights, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, pluralistic and secular societies, though these are not the only factors which weigh on the US policy formulators, India must overcome its reservations and hold the hand of strategic partnership extended by the US tightly. India is too big in size, population, resources, talent pool and entrepreneurial skills and too proud of its cultural heritage to be any country’s stooge. It should take a leap of faith in its tryst with destiny. Notwithstanding possible pressures from the sagging superpower, India should have the confidence to decide each issue on merit and in the light of its overriding national interests. We do have differences with the US on Iran, Syria, the nuclear liability bill, climate change and the Doha round of talks etc. So what? The oldest and the largest democracies can’t agree on everything under the sun. Our perceptions of Iran and Pakistan are bound to be different, conditioned by our respective experiences. We have huge areas, from booming defence trade and space research to higher technology, trade and investment and regional and international issues, in which to collaborate and benefit. When all the pluses far outweigh the negatives, the relationship is worth nurturing.
While the Indian politicians and media ought to be less sensitive to criticism and less suspicious of every American move treating it as pressure, the US administration should stop making public noises about the BPOs; they know it benefits their business more than Indian companies. Pursuing conventional, quiet diplomacy might be more productive. A simple gesture can make the US the darling in India overnight: committing publicly to make India a permanent member of the UNSC with full veto power during President Obama’s second term. Are they ready to bite the bullet?

The writer is a former secretary in the ministry of external affairs

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