Relations between India and the United States have been flawed with a genetic defect ever since Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called on President Harry Truman in Washington in 1949: a sharply divergent view of the nature of conflict in the post-war, post-colonial era. India was coming to terms with freedom and partition; America was sifting through the responsibilities of rebuilding the scrapheap of western Europe, while searching for allies in another epochal conflict looming ahead, the Cold War.
Nehru’s foreign policy was shaped by his experience of imperialism and its in-house partner, capitalism. America, equally understandably, viewed Communism as an existential challenge to the values of individual liberty, collective democracy, private sector and free trade. Nehru was apprehensive about the emergence of America, not as the new colonial power, for that would be too much of a contradiction with America’s professed values as well as its history, but as a neo-colonial force. Nehru preferred neutrality, clumsily described as non-alignment, but equally felt that in a crisis the people’s republics would be a better guarantor of independence for new nations on the rapidly changing map.
Nehru’s prescription was a relevant antidote for the malaise of its time. But medicine becomes counterproductive when it crosses its sell-by date, or when the illness has passed. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its sprawling empire, the strategic implications of non-alignment lost their raison d’etre. There was a second, and more lasting, consequence.
A collateral preference for quasi-socialist formulations for the economy, and particularly the conversion of the state into the intellectual and administrative engine of the economy through a Planning Commission, inhibited the creative capabilities of India’s private sector and strangled growth with red tape and startling corruption. Worse, India’s business community, trapped in insularity and the lazy convenience of a Licence Raj, lost touch with best practices in world manufacturing and market expansion, sabotaging India’s ability to lift the people from the curse of poverty.
Personality of course has played a significant part in the dramatic leap forward that India-US relations have taken after the first meetings between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama in autumn last year. Obama publicly recognised the sustainable combination of vision and administrative delivery that Modi offered. Perhaps there was a hint of regret as well over past misjudgement, but that is not Obama’s fault; he could only assess on the basis of what he was fed by his institutions. But the past was brushed aside with discretion and maturity as the two leaders discovered the excitement of opportunity.
This opportunity is grounded in objective reality. India and America are, at long last, at a crossroads from where they can travel together for two formative reasons.
First, they are singing from the same hymn sheet over the two bookends of the relationship: security and prosperity. The nature of conflict has changed. The Cold War, which divided the two nations, has given way to the fourth great war of the last hundred years, the war on terrorism. Geopolitics made Pakistan a preferred American ally in the Cold War. In the war on terrorism, as the Pentagon slowly began to realise, Pakistan’s role was at best dubious and at worst blatantly hostile. Pakistan, by accepting theocracy as a birth principle, became an epicentre, sanctuary and a supply factory for Islamist warriors who have expanded the perimeters of this raging battlefield from the Wagah border to the Atlantic shores of Africa.
But, as the West is finally beginning to admit, this war is also being fought beyond conventional space. It is the world’s first great unstructured conflict, outside the theories of set battles, uniforms, national objectives or even the familiar impulses that drive armies, like the occupation of ground. What terrorists seek as much as territory, is psychological dominance through fear. If New York, London, Brussels, Paris and Berlin can be pushed towards uncertainty and its dangerous offshoot hysteria, then a significant purpose is achieved. When a mainstream, if right-wing, news channel like America’s Fox TV, reports that non-Muslims cannot enter a British city like Birmingham, then some of the job is done by such nonsense.
India is the natural partner of America in this conflict, because India has the experience achieved through resilience. The more important reason however is ideological. This is also a conflict between regression and modernity, between those who champion in faith supremacy and ethnic cleansing of minorities and sectarian enemies; and nations who believe in faith-equality, in multi-cultural and multi-ethnic communities loyal to a national flag that belongs to every citizen. India’s Constitution, based on democracy, secularism, gender equality and economic equity, is the model for nations lost in the swamp of dynasty or dictatorship or theocracy.
India has, under Narendra Modi, achieved remarkable clarity about where it stands today and where it wants to reach tomorrow. Its great challenge, articulated with passion by the Prime Minister, is the elimination of extreme poverty within a foreseeable future, through economic growth that reaches the poor, not by the pernicious limitations of the trickle-down theory, advocated by the previous Congress government, but by a trickle-up theory in which swift financial empowerment of the poor is matched by the availability of goods manufactured in India. Economic growth must be about the quality of life for the poor. That is the rising tide that will propel India to the foremost ranks of the 21st century; the rest is hot air.
President Obama has recognised this renewal of India’s promise and, through the power of his personal conviction and the huge influence of his office, is leading the world towards this India. In Delhi he has the perfect host.