By Mustafa Malik
What was my take on “our growing relations with America?” asked Birendra Nath Basu. I met him on a passenger car to Karimganj town in the northeast Indian state of Assam. Basu had a master’s degree in business administration and was returning from a job interview in Guwahati, the state capital.
I asked his take on his question.
The multifaceted relationship, he said, had “greatly helped some sectors of our economy, but we have to pull up our nation, not just certain classes.”
We parted company as I headed for the home of the late professor and historian Sujit Chowdhury. An old friend, Chowdhury died after I had met him in 2007 at his home in Karimganj, an unhurried town of 52,000 people, which evokes fond memories of my boyhood visits with relatives. I wanted to pay a courtesy call to my friend’s widow.
Chowdhury was a lot more upbeat than Basu about U.S.-India relationship. He expected it to create “a brave new world of progress and prosperity.”
Washington and New Delhi began their “strategic partnership” as the Bush administration wanted to enlist India’s right-wing Hindu nationalist government in its “war on terror,” tap the huge Indian market and help build India as a counterweight to China. America became India’s largest trading partner, biggest investor and biggest provider of advanced technology.
Prodded by the American nuclear-commercial-lobby, America signed a civil nuclear agreement with India to launch lucrative nuclear trade with it. Nuclear trade would have been prohibited under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which seeks to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. New Delhi hadn’t joined the treaty but would need to buy nuclear technology form countries in a nuclear suppliers’ cartel, called the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group. That cartel required compliance with the NPT guidelines for the purchase of its technology. At U.S. insistence, the 45-member grouping granted India a waiver from NPT rules.
Most Indians were euphoric and expected nationwide prosperity from their partnership with the wealthiest nation.
The relationship promises to continue to stimulate the Indian economy, but has been showing considerable strains. Washington had allowed India to build trade, economic and strategic relations with Afghanistan. That infuriated Pakistan, which saw itself being encircled by its archenemy, India. For all their feuds with Pakistan, Americans need Pakistani help to strike a deal with the Taliban. So the United States put a break on India’s Afghan projects, angering Indians.
New Delhi, for its part, defied U.S. sanctions against Iran. Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao told Americans bluntly that relations with Iran were “a fundamental component” of Indian foreign policy.
Most troubling to Indians has been what Indian columnist Anil Kakodkar called America’s “double-cross of India.” As mentioned, nuclear technology suppliers’ group had waived their restrictions on India. But this past June, the group tightened its rules, virtually nullifying that waiver. To Indians’ dismay, the United States abstained on the cartel’s vote, instead of voicing its opposition.
To infuriate the Indians further, Washington insisted that the stricter suppliers’ rules “in no way detract from the exception granted to India.” Indians knew that wasn’t true.
Meanwhile, India’s center-left Congress party government, which has replaced that of the rightists, has mostly reversed the Hindu nationalist tilt toward Israel on its confrontation with the Palestinians. Ignoring U.S. pleas, New Delhi recently voted for the Palestinian membership of UNESCO.
America has learned, too, that while its China policy may in cases converge with India’s, it can’t “use” India against China. Robert Blackwill, the Bush administration ambassador to India, envisioned Indian collaboration in containing China. Recently he said ruefully that “there is no better way to clear a room of Indian strategists than to advocate containing China.”
Indians’ excitement about the burgeoning U.S. ties that I observed in the early 2000s has evaporated a great deal. Besides the above irritants, the kind of economic boom that many Indians had expected from their partnership with America just hasn’t happened, at least not yet. Many are disappointed to see the bonanza from these ties being scooped up by the high-tech and business communities, that it eludes the nearly 600 million poverty-stricken Indians. As disturbing, India’s growth rate has dropped from 8.5 percent last year to 7.7 percent. Direct foreign investment plunged 32 percent last year to $24 billion, making it Asia’s only large economy to suffer a decline.
Yet both India and the United States know they can’t let these setbacks derail their ambitious economic and strategic partnerships. New Delhi has been downplaying its differences with the United States, while Washington has launched a campaign to reassure Indians of its commitment to long-term, productive relationships.
On Oct. 20 President Obama sent his national security adviser, Tom Donilon, to New Delhi via Beijing to convey the message that his administration had moved past the G-2 (Group of Two) power structure with China, and embraced India in G-3 formation. The following week the U.S. consul general to Calcutta, Dean R. Thompson, assured Indians that America “has been trying with all sincerity to further improve its relations with India.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other American U.S. diplomats have also been hammering on this message.
I would have told Basu in Karimganj that U.S.-India relations seemed to me to have glided out of its initial peak on to a plateau. But I wanted to hear his views, instead.
●Mustafa Malik, a columnist in Washington, is visiting his native Indian subcontinent. He hosts the blog site: ‘Islam and the West’– http://islam-and-west.com