Shaking the 'foreign hand': a view from India


India has had a complicated relationship with the United States for most of its independent history. Things are better now - but Indians still do watch the election closely, fearing a return to old tensions.

Antara Dev Sen
6 November 2012

In India, we are fascinated by all things American – including the elaborately inscrutable US presidential elections. But I feel this time our interest has dipped. Probably because we don’t have much to gain – or lose – either way. The President may change, but the Indo-US relationship cannot change very much. And unlike Barack Obama, a Black candidate for the White House, Mitt Romney isn't exactly a challenger who would make your heart race as you watch history being made. So yes, we are not as deeply interested in this year’s US elections as we were last time. But that is not because we have lost interest in the US.

There was a time when our fascination for the United States of America was a bit like a child’s amazement with ants – we keenly followed its every move but still had no clue what it was up to or how it got to be the way it is. I grew up in an India which often believed that everything was being surreptitiously monitored by the wicked CIA. In the frenzied bipolar world, we were aligned to the other pole, and everything that went wrong was blamed on the American ‘foreign hand’. It was a country where Indira Gandhi was the only Gandhi after the Mahatma, and probably the only Prime Minister that Richard Nixon thought of as “the old witch”, a lady who was openly critical of the US and its generous gift of arms and support to Pakistan. It was a land where over time and overuse the evil ‘foreign hand’ went from being feared to loathed to pitilessly lampooned.

Today, the world has changed. Russia has disintegrated. India and Pakistan have come clean and flashed their nukes. And Indo-US ties are warm, cordial and somewhat trusting. In fact, the Indo-US relationship was so hot about four years ago that in a moment of closeness in the White House India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a man of distressingly few words, said to US President George W. Bush: “The people of India deeply love you.” 

Bush had indeed been “a great friend of India” as Singh pointed out, by changing US policy opposing nuclear cooperation with India and ending 34 years of India’s isolation in nuclear research and commerce. By pushing through the Indo-US nuclear deal, Bush had effectively acknowledged India as an important superpower, and a trusted ally. He had broken the curious convention of treating Pakistan and India at par, while treating China with far more respect. On his part, Singh had risked his government for the nuclear deal, and survived by the skin of his teeth the no confidence motion in Parliament against him. After decades of slow and steady improvement in Indo-US ties, such huge political investments by President Bush and Prime Minister Singh made sure that the relationship between Washington and Delhi would not easily slide back to the horror years of the 1970s and 1980s.

In fact, though traditionally India’s intellectuals favour Democrats, the political establishment is generally more comfortable with the Republicans. The Republicans don’t beat around the bush (no pun intended), they are pragmatic, avoid troubled waters and focus on useful stuff. On the other hand, the Democrats annoyingly watch our every move, brood over our human rights records, and focus on liberal values that we may not wish to follow. And of course both the Republicans and the Democrats pamper Pakistan with arms and funds – apparently for fighting terrorism – that they know will shore up terror attacks on India. 

But a change of guard in America will not really make much of a difference for India right now. The very fact that the Presidential debate on foreign policy did not mention India while deliberating at length on its nuclear neighbours, would perhaps suggest that Romney and Obama don’t differ too much in their views about India. But India is somewhat worried about US foreign policy. India differs strongly with the US on Iran, for example, a country that would gain further importance for India after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In fact, India is particularly worried about the consequences of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. If Obama is re-elected and sticks to his word of exiting Afghanistan by 2014, it could mark – among several other worrying possibilities – the end of India’s temporary relief over the current peace in Kashmir. At the risk of sounding cynical, one must recognize that being busy on its western border with Afghanistan keeps Pakistan away from its eastern border with India, which has helped in stalling cross-border terrorism in Kashmir. Add to it the Democrats’ abiding interest in an intervention in Kashmir (which, I must admit, Obama seems to have overcome) and you have a bit of a problem in the otherwise warm Indo-US friendship.

On the other hand, a Republican President would have to withdraw from Afghanistan as well, and not much later either – since that is what the American people want. And the Republicans’ intimacy with the Pakistani army is well documented. Yet, the Republicans may be good to Indians as well, especially when they look the other way in case the tricky issues of nuclear research and proliferation come up.

Then there are US domestic interests. Interests that have curbed outsourcing to India as well as severely reduced US work visas for Indians, for example. And this situation is unlikely to be reversed dramatically by any President, either Democrat or Republican, who will be struggling to boost the sagging economy and find jobs for Americans.

In short, India is watching the US Presidential elections with much interest, but very little passion. Life is not perfect but it is less stressful now that we have the ‘foreign hand’ in a firm handshake.

This article is part of the 'How it looks from here' openDemocracy feature on the 2012 US elections. For more worldwide perspectives on the presidential race, click here.

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