The US-India relationship has had many highs and lows over the course of the last 50 years. Under Richard Nixon, the US sided with Pakistan even as it committed a genocide in Bangladesh and sent a naval fleet to the Bay of Bengal, while almost 27 years later, in 1998, Bill Clinton unleashed economic sanctions on India for its Pokhran-II nuclear tests.
Finally, the George W Bush administration recalibrated the US’s South Asia policy and sought a partner in India. Since the Bush years, successive administrations have systematically expanded the scope of the relationship.
In 2022, the US-India relationship is as dynamic as it has ever been, working together both in a bilateral capacity and in multilateral groupings such as the QUAD, to address regional and global issues such as climate change, vaccines for the global south, maritime security and supply chain resilience.
Nevertheless, India remains very much part of the US’s south Asia policy and not India policy. Meaning, a relic of the Cold War was viewing partners of the former Soviet Union as autocratic and in dire need for democratisation.
This however, did not apply to American allies and partners, even if they had a history of military rule or were even ruled by kings. Moreover, in south Asia, even after burning its fingers in Afghanistan, the US maintains the non-NATO strategic ally relationship with Pakistan.
While the US government’s pivot to Asia through its Indo-Pacific initiatives signal a growing interest in recalibrating the US-India relationship from south Asian partner to Indo-Pacific partner, and viewing the relationship through a different prism than the Cold War lens, there remains a cloud of scepticism in Washington and in the larger foreign policy community over India’s compatibility with America’s values, interests and goals for the region.
This scepticism is watered, nourished and grown by several 'south Asia' experts at think tanks, 'progressives' in elected office and professors of international relations, political science, history, anthropology and other social sciences at major American universities. This ecosystem that casts aspersions toward India was revitalised with Narendra Modi’s historic victory in 2014. The south Asian academic and think-tank community and media houses took it upon themselves to use every policy paper and journal article to sound an alarm of an impending genocide. Eight years on, they are still waiting for their “told-you-so” moment.
One has to pause and wonder why the same scholarly community and progressive media outlets that rallied against orientalism and bigoted views toward the developing world for most part of the twentieth century became the most ardent critics of the Modi administration which is precisely one that seeks to address those issues.
There are two major reasons for this development. Since Pakistan is America’s non-NATO strategic ally, most government funding for think-tanks went toward building that relationship.
However, as India is too big to ignore, the south Asia programmes have time and time again included it, but by drawing false moral equivalencies between India and Pakistan. The democratic credentials of the two are as clear as day. Of the two countries one has never had a single democratically-elected leader serve a full term in office and the other has been a successful democracy for over 75 years.
Despite these facts, Washington chose to stick with its Cold War ally during its war in Afghanistan. The countless exposes of corruption and dubious practices of Pakistani military generals went unchecked. For several decades, think-tanks in Washington and government-funded institutions that were supposedly promoting peace hosted several track 1.5/2.0 dialogues. These witnessed the active participation of Pakistani government officials and both former and active duty military generals.
As several reports on Khalistani operatives and anti-India campaigns on US soil have highlighted, a coordinated effort of several former military generals and ISI agents were instrumental in organising protests against Modi’s visits to the US, such as the one targeting his meeting with former president Donald Trump in Houston, Texas.
Nevertheless, the Pakistani government’s actions in the US have not totally gone unchecked. The FBI arrested the founder of the Kashmiri American Council, Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, for working as a spy for the Pakistani state.
All said and done, America’s Cold War ally continues to enjoy, if not all, many privileges it did during the height of war in Afghanistan. Its significance to the US might have diminished post withdrawal, but American elected officials such as Ilhan Omar and others continue to harbour sympathies for the state.
While America’s unwritten policy of turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s war crimes in 1971 was part and parcel of its neo-liberal foreign policy, the willful ignorance continues as progressives in the Democrat camp have tabled bills on global Islamophobia — giving a free ride to countries such as Pakistan that often accuse and prosecute minorities for blasphemy, while putting Christian, Hindu and Jewish majority states under a special scanner.
Both the neo-liberal policies of the past and recent progressive policies prioritise Pakistan over India in the region. As a result, India becomes an easy target to virtue-signal at. The Ukraine-Russia conflict and the Western backlash to India’s response is a case in point. To paraphrase University of Chicago professor John J Mearsheimer, the US has followed a policy of liberal hegemony.
Since the start of the conflict, the US has unsuccessfully attempted to persuade India to reconsider its relationship with Russia. India, on the other hand, has continued to trade with Russia and find ways to circumvent sanctions. American media houses such as The New York Times have been unrelenting in their propaganda about India underwriting Vladimir Putin’s war chest.
Adding fuel to fire were bureaucrats who made veiled threats to India over its purchases of Russian oil, despite the relatively low quantity compared to the amount European countries have purchased. Several south Asia experts at neo-liberal think tanks, for their part, parroted these officials and made moral arguments on India’s position on the conflict.
As mentioned earlier, the US-India relationship today runs the gamut, from cooperation on vaccines, critical technology to climate change. Most recently, the US surpassed China to become India’s largest trading partner. The relationship is clearly heading in an upward trajectory. Nevertheless, America’s neo-liberal internationalism could play spoilsport.
In order to prevent that from happening, America and India should have realistic expectations of each other and choose pragmatic realism, ie, developing synergies through strategic and economic interests over liberalism to steer the relationship. To that end, the diaspora has a vital role to play.
The economically and politically influential Indian diaspora has played an important role in shaping the US-India relationship dating back to the nuclear deal in 2008. Despite their positive contributions, however, Indians, and particularly Hindu Americans, have also become collateral damage of the stereotypical south Asia analytical lens used to misinterpret events and policies in India.
This has often led to dangerous smear campaigns against Indian and Hindu American organisations and activists who merely work towards increasing the understanding of ground realities in India, often accusing them of dual loyalty or of being fascists and supremacists.
Indian and Hindu American politicians and political candidates at the local, state, and federal level haven't been spared either with the likes of Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, and state-level elected officials such as Padma Kuppa, Niraj Antani and Jennifer Rajkumar being relentlessly smeared with similar accusations. That being said, the diaspora won’t be silenced and will only continue to increase its voice and visibility and help move the US-India relationship forward.
The former US Ambassador to India, Richard Verma’s three recommendations for building the US-India relationship sum it up well. One “1) absent a treaty, work with Congress (America’s governing body and not India’s political party), Congress will be crucial to institutionalise the relationship, (as) they have in the past with the civil nuclear deal; 2) bring the Indian American diaspora in as much as you can and get them involved in key issues, (as) they are a potent force; 3) end the divide between strategic and economic issues and revive strategic and commercial dialogues along with the existing 2+2 dialogues”.
This is where advocacy organisations such as the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) come in, who engage with large swaths of the diaspora and work towards educating policy makers and the media on an accurate portrayal of India, while emphasising the shared values and common interests of the world’s two most important democracies.
And one of the most important tools at its disposal is an objective and nuanced analysis of India and the bilateral relationship, such as created through the new collaboration with the Pacific Forum and the inaugural chapter on Indo-US relations in the Pacific Forum's Comparative Connections triannual e-journal, Cold-War Era Differences & Indo-Pacific Synergies. It's the first-of-its-kind partnership between the Hindu American Foundation and Pacific Forum International, a leading American think-tank based in Hawaii specialising in the Indo-Pacific region.
Earlier this year, in a poetic development, Archer Blood, the foreign service officer who challenged Henry Kissinger’s bloody crackdown, and the one who sounded the alarm of an actual genocide in 1971 in what was then East Pakistan, was finally recognised for his heroism, and contribution to American foreign service with a conference room named after him at the American State Department.
Hopefully, the objective analysis produced from the collaboration between Hindu American Foundation and Pacific Forum International leads has that kind of impact and corrections in the US-India relationship to realise the full potential of the two vibrant democracies.
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