In '47, India and the US expected that they had enough in common to sustain a good relationship. There were doubts and suspicions in both countries, but there was also a sense that they should be close. They both had democracy and Anglo-Saxon institutions. They could communicate in English. They were large pluralistic societies. Economic production was largely in the hands of private producers, even in India. Their newspapers and intellectuals were free and lively. Their people were God-fearing and religious-minded, yet their public life was secular. Both were reluctant to get involved in other people's fights, although the US had fought two world wars and would soon be at war in Korea. India too would be involved in war with its neighbours Pakistan and China.
Looking back over the last sixty years, all the commonalities notwithstanding, the relationship turned out quite differently from what might have been predicted. What happened?
First, their strategic views were often different enough for the commonalities to be submerged. The US quickly got drawn into a Manichean struggle with Communism. In that struggle, everything and everyone was a bit player. India, by comparison, realising this global intrigue would entrap the new nations in conflicts that were not of their making and distant from their concerns, tried its best to deconstruct the polarity of the Cold War, with Nonalignment. The result was mutual estrangement, incomprehension, and irritation.
From this basic strategic difference emanated the problem of Pakistan. Washington saw Pakistan as a frontline state in the Cold War, particularly after India refused to play that role. An emboldened Pakistan became very difficult for India to handle. New Delhi increasingly saw US involvement in Pakistan as being directed against India. There was some bloody-mindedness over India's unwillingness to sign up for the Cold War, but on the whole, it was US obsession with Communism that drove its South Asia policy. The one strategic moment when there might have been a convergence of expectations and interests was in the Indo-China war of 1962. But China's quick withdrawal was a masterstroke. It stopped India from drifting closer to the US. It also gave the Americans an excuse not to get too deeply involved. There is evidence that the Kennedy administration was already working on an opening to China, well before Kissinger-Nixon came on the scene, and they did not want to throw it away on the defence of India.
The second big quarrel was over the best way to organise India's economy. The US deeply believed in the efficacy of free market policies whereas India preferred a mixed economy, with the government at the commanding heights of production and distribution. Differences over India's decision to buy steel factories from the Soviets in the '50s, agricultural reform and the policy of nationalisation in the '60s, the regulation of trade and investment until the '80s, and of course, the expulsion of Coke and ibm compounded the strategic divide. No amount of US aid was able to compensate for the scrap over economic policies and philosophies.
Finally, we must reflect on the role of cultural differences. Most Indians and Americans will admit to feelings of cultural affront and impatience with each other. Harold Isaacs' book, Scratches on Our Minds, which compared the attitudes of Americans at the height of the Cold War, found that his countrymen understood and admired China more than India. In preferring China to America, Indians returned the compliment in the '50s. Broadly, Indians found Americans materialistic, superficial, racist and arrogant; whereas Americans found Indians spiritual, metaphysical, casteist and arrogant. We didn't like their English, and they didn't like ours. We both found the other talked too much!
Has anything changed? Quite a bit, but it isn't all light and honey. The strategic divide has more or less disappeared, though India and the US don't always see eye to eye on Islamic extremism, Iran, and Iraq. Pakistan is still a bit of a divide. Both are wary of China but know they can't alienate it. Economically, they now talk the same language, and the quarrels are much friendlier. Culturally, television and tourism have changed Indian attitudes, and software and Indian immigrants have changed American attitudes. Seen from this perspective, would it be too much to claim that the India-US nuclear deal was more or less inevitable?
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