If being on board for revitalised relationship with the US makes sense today going overboard in wanting this would be a mistake. If much good can flow in many areas from improved ties with the US, conversely its policies can also harm our interests.
President Obama’s visit to India was undoubtedly a success and the positive momentum generated by it should of course be maintained, but we should no allow our minds to be flooded by the euphoria surrounding the visit and drown out our common sense. The barriers in our thinking towards the US should be lowered but not all our mental defences.
Many are celebrating Obama’s visit as a moment when India discarded the shibboleths of the past associated with Non-Alignment, as also its pernicious obsession with strategic autonomy that was depriving it of a seat at the high table chaperoned by the US. That after the Cold War, India failed to join rank with a unilateralist US and refuse active participation in upholding the US-built world order as a rising power must was viewed as an instance of a fence-sitting nation failing to jump on the right side and missing the road to greatness.
The document embodying this strategic shift in India’s foreign policy is the US-India joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region issued during Obama’s visit. By this India, it is believed, has become strategically relevant to the US and is no longer coy about exhibiting this. The question whether the US in return has become more strategically relevant to India in dealing, for instance, with challenges to our land frontiers or extremist religious ideologies unleashed by US policies in our region and in West Asia has not been asked.
The breakthrough understanding on the liability issue is also being applauded by those who have long pressed India to rectify its self-defeating position on the subject. Their guiding belief has been that by lifting nuclear sanctions on India the US acted generously, but that India was ungrateful in enacting a nuclear liability law that denies US supplier nuclear business in India. Such pliant thinking has crippled us politically in dealing with the US on outstanding nuclear issues, as it overlooks long year of US-led sanctions aimed at permanently smothering India strategically not to mention continuing denial of enrichment and reprocessing technologies persistent spotlight on nuclear instability in South Asia with a view to constricting India’s remaining nuclear freedom – carved out from the India-US nuclear deal; and making India’s quest for membership of the National Security Guard and other technology control cartels dependent on US patronage.
Rhetoric has its place in diplomacy fo softening public sentiment, not for influencin hard-headed policy makers. President Obama can call US and India “natural partners”, but how so when the US and Indian policies towards Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Taliban differ? We question the wisdom of US military interventions in West Asia, its draconian sanctions on Iran that disrupt our energy security, and the policy of geopolitically weakening Russia to China’s advantage.
The US blocks a greater role by countries like India in international political and financial institutions, which as natural partner it should facilitate. On WTO and climate change issues our views diverge because we look at the from a developing country perspective whereas the US seeks solutions that maximise its interests with minimum concessions. We can, and should, bridge differences on all these issues, but no because of any “natural partnership”.
Hyping-up our relations with the US reduces our political space to criticise its actions when we disagree. We become obliged to mute our opposition so that claims of diplomatic success in achieving breakthroughs are not discredited. Case in point is Obama’s objectionable lecture to us at Siri Fort on religious freedom and his pointed reference to Article 25 of our Constitution around which the current controversy over religious conversion has erupted. That he should as us to “look beyond any differences in religion” because “nowhere in the world is it going to more necessary for tha foundational value to be upheld” than in India, is plain nonsense that expose remarkable ignorance of Hindu religious traditions.
To say that “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered around religious lines” dramatises a non-existent dange when India’s principal challenges are those of economic growth and poverty elimination. Reminding us of three national icons belonging only to minority religions – when their mass adulation is unconnected to their faith – is it actually encourage religiously fissure thinking in our society.
In reality, Obama was speaking up fo the Christian community and the right to convert on behalf of aggressive US evangelist groups. On return to Washington he has pursued his offensive line of exaggerating incidents of religious intolerance in India. On cue, a sanctimonious editorial has also appeared in the New York Times. The government could not attack Obama for his well-crafted parting kick at Siri Fort so as not to dim the halo of successful visit and therefore pretended that it was not directed at the Modi team. The Opposition, instead of deprecating Obama’s remarks, wanted to politically exploit them against Modi. Some Obama-adoring Indians, unencumbered by notions of self-respect, have actually hailed his leave-taking salvo.
When the US gives a gratuitous lesson on religious tolerance to the wrong country and announces one billion dollar civil and military support to another – that splintered from a united India because of religious intolerance in 1947 and is decimating its minorities – it puts us on guard about Obama’s claims that the US can be India’s “best partner”. It can certainly be, but only in select areas where our interests meet, and those could be explored unreservedly.