Issue 1, August 11, 2006
India and the United States (US) are thought to be natural allies for several reasons. Both share a colonial history, democracy, individual freedom, religious freedom, rule of law, and a fiercely independent spirit. Yet, both countries have often disagreed with each other more than using their shared principles to further their relations.
In some ways, it is easy to blame the divisions on the Cold War for the artificial polarization. After all, each country was driven by different compulsions. From an American point of view, Indian resistance to US ideas and philosophies was tiresome and it was often vexed by Indian insistence on seeing its policies with a Pakistan angle. From the Indian point of view, the US was driven by its strategic interests to contain the Soviet Union and in that goal, all other interests, including those of other countries, was expendable. India saw the continued military aid to Pakistan, which saw more action against India, as an American attempt to keep the country militarily unstable. There were many other actions of the US that greatly alienated Indians from the US. These would include technology denial, frequent public lectures on several topics including Kashmir, Terrorism, and Human Rights, a demeaning visa regime and treatment of those who sought visas, etc.
Even after the Cold War was over, the relations did not improve. After the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan, the US just abandoned the subcontinent leaving behind thousands of unemployed Islamic fundamentalists, billions of dollars worth of weapons, and a Pakistan fully armed with conventional weapons and covert nuclear weapons. Pakistan leveraged this vacuum and exploited a rapidly sinking Indian democracy led by two incompetent Prime Ministers to create an insurgency in Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir and wreck further havoc on the Indian economy.
When India tried to explain developments in these areas, the well financed Pakistani lobby in the US exploited the large cohorts of Cold Warriors in the US policy making establishment to consistently reject the Indian position. At the height of the insurgency, a US official even went on record to question the foundation of creation of India. While the Indian intelligentsia viewed the gratuitous lectures on human rights, Kashmir, and Punjab, the denial of technology regime including those from Russia with great irritation, they could not accept the US policy of questioning the validity of the Instrument of Accession. These developments reinforced decades of distrust among the Cold Warrior generations and planted new seeds of doubt in the young.
Then a remarkable thing that is completely outside the control of the Government, policy makers, and those who traditionally control bilateral relations happened. The evolution of the Internet spawned a series of technologies, ideas, and requirements that required several engineers. Perennially short of qualified labor, the US corporations scoped out engineers from all over the world to help fill this growing need. Business need, the opportunity for economic expansion, and establishing new areas of technological and economic dominance were the key drivers that got US companies to lobby their policy makers for a change in immigration, bilateral, and economic policy with India.
Being more tuned to the needs of business than India, the US reached out to allow more Indian engineers to travel, work, immigrate, and fuel the growth of its corporations. While there was a mild acceptance of India as an entity that is useful, there were no major bilateral initiatives. With Punjab insurgency under control, planned elections in Kashmir, and the appearance of the National Human Rights Commission there were fewer sticks to beat India. Ignoring India was the benign policy which included not appointing an Ambassador to India
While bilateral relations ambled on, another disruptive inflection occurred. India tested nuclear weapons in May 1998 immediately followed by Pakistan. These tests woke up policy makers in Washington and many of its allies. The US imposed sanctions including withdrawal from the Light Combat Aircraft collaboration, some marginal countries withdrew their Ambassadors, and others demanded a roll-back. For the first time since independence, India refused to buck under international pressure and insisted that it needs the weapons.
With the number of countries in the US dog house list growing rapidly, US Administration quickly realized a couple of important realities. First, the US realized that India was not going to roll-back its nuclear weapons program. Second, the nuclear tests had a unanimous support in India. Third, despite a continuous and discriminatory sanction regime of several decades, India has the resilience of developing sophisticated conventional and nuclear weapons, missiles, defense, and economy. Fourth, continued isolation of India meant a termination of the largest ever economic expansion in the US. Fifth, with both India and Pakistan in the dog house it would have no influence in the entire geographical stretch from Singapore to Israel.
Thus began a series of unprecedented developments and actions that changed bilateral relations to a point where India emerged as a nation that would be seen as a reliable ally in South Asia.
First, there was the Jaswant Singh – Strobe Talbot series of talks that bridged misunderstandings between the two nations. One of the most important outcomes of these 14 meetings is the American realization that India and Pakistan do not need to be hyphenated.
Second, India floated a draft nuclear policy that included land, sea, and air based missile systems that could deliver a debilitating second strike. Simultaneously, India also announced that it will never use its nuclear missiles first and this bolstered confidence in India that its needs are for strategic protection and not strategic offensive.
Third, there was a growing understanding that India’s continued emphasis on terrorism from Pakistan is not a schoolboy complaint but a real thing. In August 1998, the US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were simultaneously bombed by members of al Qaeda with strong roots to Pakistan creation Taliban then ruling Afghanistan and recognized by Pakistan as a legitimate ruler.
Fourth, Pakistan’s Special Services Group and Northern Light Infantry with the support of Kashmiri terrorists and Afghani mercenaries occupied the heights in Kargil in May 1999 apparently without civilian sanction. India fought a controlled war to dislodge the occupants, behaved in the most mature and professional manner, and most importantly never overtly threatening a nuclear war. The US intervened harshly with Pakistan on India’s side and forced an “unconditional withdrawal” of its forces from Kargil. Instead of rubbing defeat on Pakistan, India agreed to a negotiated settlement. It also extended a hand of friendship to Pakistan by continuing with the “Lahore process.” This reinforced US perceptions that India is not a rabid power-seeking nation but a responsible power.
Fifth, Pakistan saw another coup in October 1999 with the protagonist of the Kargil fiasco Pervez Musharraf dislodging Nawaz Sharif for trying to remove him as the Army Chief. Compared to this power struggle and yet another failure of democracy in Pakistan, India looked like an old reliable friend.
Sixth, the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane in Nepal by Pakistani terrorists showed how dangerous Pakistan can be. In sharp contrast, India’s measured, albeit capitulating, response seemed unreal and won sympathy of the world as a nation held hostage by Pakistan. While this is not exactly what a country would aspire to gain, the change in attitude, perception, and understanding was in India’s favor.
Seventh, US President Bill Clinton visited India in a historical visit that included several days in India and several hours in Pakistan. Highlighting the change in US policy, Clinton said “After 50 years of missed opportunities it is time that America and India became better friends and stronger partners.” And about US relationship with Pakistan he said he will “speak directly to General Musharraf and to the Pakistani people about the steps we believe are important to building a hopeful future for Pakistan: an early return to democracy, a crackdown on terrorist groups, restraint on nuclear and missile programs and a real effort to create the conditions for dialogue with India. If Pakistan takes these steps we can get back on the path of partnership.”
Therefore, it was an unplanned series of disruptive inflections, international developments, depreciation of Pakistan as a reliable ally, and rise of terrorism from Pakistan that had a direct impact on the transformation of Indo-US relationship. Having realized the fallacious origins, the two nations have made major, if halted, steps in building bilateral relations.
The Indo-US Framework for Strategic Cooperation signed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George Bush was meant to be a turning point in bilateral relations. While the deal to grant civilian nuclear technology and access to materials outside the ambit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was significant, it is not an architecture that the nations can build on. Instead, the two countries need to build on the following four pillars that can ensure a lasting relationship:
In addition to creating these four pillars that will facilitate future growth, the countries need to focus on creating a timeline and an action plan that will realize these broad objectives.
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