A tale of two countries?

India gained independence from Britain over six decades ago in what has been termed as the biggest non-violent transfer of power. Credit for this effort goes largely to the Indian masses and their leaders, especially Mahatma Gandhi, but there were other factors at play as well, and the United States had a rather significant, behind the scenes role.

England was exhausted and broke after the second World War. Against the wishes of it’s populace, the US had entered the fray in what essentially was an European civil war, and in 1945, it emerged the only nation in the world with a positive balance of payments. Power abhors a vacuum, and as the big powers of the day lay decimated, America rose to take the mantle of the new world leader.

One of the first orders of business was to help the sun set on the British Empire, the gem of whose crown was India. Since it had the IOU chits in pounds sterling, America was in a unique position to dictate the foreign policy of the erstwhile superpower. We would never know why Lord Mountbatten had to give over governance to the Indians in so much haste, since a slower and graduated transfer of power could have very likely averted the Partition of the subcontinent and the ensuing violence, but it is probable that the US wanted England to cede power before it got up on its knees and changed its mind.

A young India, born in the mayhem of this post-WWII world, looked around for a finger to hold. The actions of two leaders, one Indian and the other American, changed the trajectory of evolution of association between the two nations.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India (1947-1963), was a Harrow alum. He came of age when the Oxbridge institutions were veering left in intellectual thought. On his return to India, Mr. Nehru gave up his Seville Row suits for a homespun khadi attire, and envisioned a free India that was self-sufficient, secular and socialist. The British Raj was a successor to the East India Company, which was, in essence, a capitalist multi-national corporation. Nehru’s vision enmeshed with the concurrent Indian sentiment, and the idealist in him was more enchanted with the Russian model of economy than that of the United States, which was seen as another capitalist haven were the few were rich at the expense of many. The anxiety and disdain for MNCs existed in independent India for over half a century; only lately is this fear being mollified as the country sheds its centrally planned past to slide gradually into free enterprise.

Harry S. Truman was the 33rd President of the United States (1945–1953). The Truman Doctrine was to contain Communism which lead to the introduction of the Marshall Plan, creation of North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Korean War. The Truman Administration also roped in the newly created state of Pakistan to help it set up monitoring stations to eavesdrop on the USSR. To this day, Pakistan is a client state of the US, and the third largest recipient of American aid, after Israel and Egypt. It was born out of India’s bosom, and this separation had been less than amicable. The partition displaced up to 12.5 million people in the former British Indian Empire, with estimates of loss of life varying from several hundred thousand to a million, the largest in history. India was therefore hyphenated with Pakistan in the 1950s, continued to be so for the rest of the century, and relationship with either was a zero-sum game.

Consequently, India refused to take sides in the Cold War between the two superpowers, and along with Tito of Yugoslavia and Nasser of Egypt, Nehru founded the Non-Aligned Movement. This organization consisted of poor third-world countries, most of whom had been newly independent. They shared common problems and goals, and had to indulge in socialistic medicine to feed their masses. As a result, they tended to lean towards the Soviet Union and away from America, though they would officially remain non-commital. America viewed this with suspicion, and felt that if you are not with us, you’re against us. A chill settled between the two countries, and since India was of little international importance in the 1950s and 1960s, the US just chose to ignore it.

This active neglect of India, as well as active courting of Pakistan which included massive economic and military assistance, by the US further pushed India towards the USSR. In 1971, during the Bangladesh War where India helped the country gain independence from Pakistan, the stationing of the Seventh Fleet in the Bay of Bengal by the Nixon Administration won no favors with Indira Gandhi. The mutual disdain between the two leaders gave the final push to India into the waiting Russian arms. The other issue that influenced this transfer was the US support of Pakistan whenever it had an argument with India over Kashmir. The State of Jammu & Kashmir had legally seceded to India, but Pakistan felt it had been coerced to join Indian Union. There was an armed conflict in 1948 between the two nations over this and a United Nations mandated Line of Control was drawn, which divided Kashmir into a Pakistani and an Indian controlled area. India liked to call the state as its possession, while Pakistan preferred to label it as disputed territory. Off and on this issue would crop up in the UN Security Council, where the US would support any resolution supporting Pakistan’s view, while the USSR would veto it.

This is a very short and simplified history of the distrust between the two nations. It would behoove one to think, if unaware of the above, why these two nations that are so similar are poles apart?

Both are democracies. Both are multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and secular. India is one of the few countries that have not seen a military dictatorship since its independence from Britain; ditto for the United States. So why wouldn’t the oldest democracy lead the largest, and a young, democracy in the world to become more stable, confident and self-sufficient? The answer lies in the worldview of the two countries.

America, until the 1930s, was content to be an introverted country. Events in the 1940s, as well as prodding by the ‘mother country’, forced it to come to the fore-front in world affairs. There is no doubt that without American help, England, along with the rest of Europe, would have been a part of the Third Reich. When the dust settled in mid-decade, the US found itself to be the lone man standing, a respected world power, yet being challenged by an emerging power, the USSR and a doctrine being popularized in the new world order, Communism. The Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, NATO and numerous other treaty organizations created throughout the world, the Berlin Airlift, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs operation, etc. occupied the US for the next forty years to contain Communism. It also became very suspicious, choosing friends and allies very carefully.

America was new to the world stage and did not possess the finesse for imperialism of the English. It also did not have the luxury of time previous world powers had to establish their supremacy and therefore went along with this dictum: Countries don’t have permanent friends; they have permanent interests. In addition, with troops already in Europe, which lay tattered after the war, the US chose to remain longer to deny any expansionist plans the Russians may have. Troops also stayed put in Japan and in Korea after the wars. Further, it discovered that it is easier to deal with dictators whose world was law than deal with democracies, like itself, where any pro-American policy may take a long time to be enacted, and was very likely to be diluted or outright rejected. With its sole objective to stand up to Communism, it had to deal with autocrats in Saudi Arabia who controlled the source of energy for a stable developed world as well as ones in Chile who were right-wing terrors and slaughtered their own people and Communists among them, thereby keeping the world free of their influence.

In due time, the US foreign policy became a unique instrument. Although it sermonized democracy, human rights and free enterprise for public consumption, it became an open secret with the company it was keeping to advance its short-term goals. Like its own election cycle, the American attention span toward the world remained short. The American presence was respected for its values the US embodied as a nation and feared for its power as it spent more on its military than the rest of the world combined, yet not trusted because everyone knew that you cannot rely on their word.

India is in a different kind of haste. The share of India’s GDP to that of the world was almost a quarter during the reign of Akbar in 1500s; when the British left in the mid-20th century, it was reduced to less than 1%. The colony was raped and pillaged. It had no wealth or foreign reserves. All it had was hundreds of millions of mouths to clothe, feed and educate. To be fair, the British handed Delhi a united India, which was one the biggest contiguous land mass ever assembled in India’s history; only the Mughals in mid-second millennium and the Mauryas a few centuries BCE could claim that fame. This has problems of its own, as it was as if a Europe is being handed over to a central authority for unitary governance. In 1947, India was more diverse than any other country ever.

This challenge of having ‘unity among diversity’ was not conducive to experimenting with a free-market, capitalistic system. The Central Government will have to be involved in a lot of aspects of the individual. For the polity to be secular and equitable, it will have to be socialist. India was not starting off like America; it was the Old-World with over 5,000 years of civilized history unlike the almost unpopulated land, rich in resources, that the Europeans found in the New World. It couldn’t afford to have robber barons, but will make lemonade out of lime.

It is obvious that while the interests of the two countries were similar, their goals did not converge. Besides, for the second half of the 20th century, India was ignorable. It was not creating trouble, and was a stable country that was minding its own business. It was so busy to get out of the mess the British left it in that it wasn’t creating anything that could have garnered international, or American attention. It had a hand-to-mouth economy, yet managed to keep its head above water and not join the growing list of newly independent states that were failing. In addition, there were other hotspots around the world that were challenging America, be it countries that were Communist, failing or creating nuisance.

America chose to let the sleeping dogs lie. Often, it had to take actions that were harmful to Indian interests to further its own short-term goals, but that was no problem because India was too weak to respond and too proud to be an annoyance.

This continued until the very end of the millennium. The current Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, was the Finance Minister in 1990, when India went broke. He enacted reforms that brought the country out of the centrally-planned isolation, interacting with the world. By the latter part of the decade, India was recording growth rates in high single digits. The world sat up and took notice, though its thunder was stolen by China that had started this upward rise about 20 years before.

Towards the end of his presidency, Bill Clinton started to make overtures towards India. There were other reasons for this attention as well. The Berlin Wall had fallen about a decade ago, and the rotting economies of the second world were exposed. America was the new sole superpower, but while USSR had fallen, China was rising, thanks to its own efforts under Nixon in an attempt to contain Russia. Now it was China who has missiles pointed towards major US cities and had to be contained. A new short-term goal had come to fore.

The young presidency George Bush was hit with a sledgehammer by the 9/11 attacks in 2001. His entire first term was spent dealing with this crisis, and creating new ones. Meanwhile, India chugged along and continued to grow, with GDP increases almost touching double digits. While China had established itself as the manufacturing center of the world, India was showing promise in Information Technology, BPO and customer service. It was becoming apparent that by 2025, it will be the third largest economy in the world, after the US and China, pushing Japan in the fourth place. It seemed that the stars were finally coming in alignment for India so that the US  can extend a hand of assistance and friendship.

And it did. In 2005, US and India signed a civilian nuclear treaty. While the two countries had been increasingly cooperating in a host of other areas over the last decade, this was a major breakthrough. With lot of effort and anguish, the deal was finally passed in the legislatures of both countries by the end of Mr. Bush’s term in 2008.

But by this time, another storm blew across the world: tanking of its economy. Interestingly, while the first world reeled under the gale, two former third world countries appeared to have been left standing with minimal damage: China and India. China was still ahead, and also had 2.5 trillion dollars worth of IOUs. This was something that the next president, Mr. Obama, could not ignore. Also, he had promised to bring the Iraq war to an end, and escalate the one in Afghanistan. To do that, he will have to rely more and more on Pakistan.

Once again, in 2009, the US is facing this dilemma. It knows that in the long run, its interests are threatened by China which is rising rapidly enough to challenge US supremacy in a decade or two. Even now, the signs of this ominous fate are becoming apparent. Traditionally, US presidents lecture China on human rights and appreciate the yuan. During Mr. Obama’s visit last week, Chinese leaders scolded him on imposing import tariffs, keeping the interest rates low and not doing enough to tackle the federal deficit. Who would have thought!

Pakistan is another albatross around America’s neck. All terrorist attacks after, and including, 9/11 have a connection that leads to Pakistan. It is an open secret that their spy agency, the ISI, has dealings with the Taliban, al Qaeda and other terrorist outfits and that it helps recruit, plan and execute attacks as well as warn them of pending US attacks. Yet there is no choice but to deal with them because the CIA has zero knowledge about that area. We know that money we give them is pilfered by corrupt officials, but we give them a blank check that they are cashing for tens of billions of dollars since they’ve come into being.

So there we go again. The US knows that in the long term, it’s relations with China and Pakistan will prove to be costly but it has to because that is what the vox populi demands. Elections are every two years, and there may be no choice but to make a Faustian bargain with these two. A relationship with India may prove more fruitful in the long tern, but there are no short term benefits that can be displayed to the electorate.

So this dance will go on. It is quite possible that the US is rather uncomfortable in being the world’s sole superpower. It is now being believed that in a few decades, the world will become multipolar. It could become a self fulfilling prophecy.


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