Undo the damage done
‘For the laws of nature (as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to) of themselves, without the terror of some power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge and the like.’
That was Thomas Hobbes, the British 19th century political philosopher, who had a rather deem view about ‘man’s nature.’ From that worldview was born one of the primary schools of International relations – realism.
If one makes the Hobbsian choice of selecting this lens, with which one looks at the world, the Devyani Khobragade episode of the current Indo-US relations becomes more understandable. Indeed, the idealist realism track of Indian foreign policy is quite out of step with the values that drive the US globe-girdling policy.
Let’s step back a bit. Indisputably the most important bilateral and strategic relationship of the 20th century was the Sino-US relation. Then, if one were to take the US President, Barack Obama seriously – though known for rhetorical flights of fancy – his statement in New Delhi in 2010 about the Indo-US relationship being the ‘most important strategic relationship of the 21st century,’ is at the very least, flattering.
But is it just that? Or is there more? Does India take the same amount of mind-space in Washington, that Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s single-minded pursuit of having good relations with China had caused, in the 1970s? Unarguably, the halcyon days of the Indo-US relations were the days of the much reviled - and rightly so - regime of the Republican neo-con president, George W Bush. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had very ceremoniously told the same Bush that Indians ‘loved’ him.
The reason that caused that statement – besides possibly Singh’s own predilections – was the civilian nuclear agreement between the two countries. It was also fanned by the US-led Western media propaganda of portraying the economic growth story of the country as permanent, thus an emerging great power; and, thus a counterfoil to rising China. So, it may be worthwhile to look at the early days of the Sino-US relation as a template for the US-India relations. Even at the time when China emerged as a major blip on the White House radar in the 1970s, the US hegemony was considered on the decline. The Vietnam War had sapped the energy of the country. On the other hand, then Soviet Union had emerged as the scientific powerhouse of the world. Washington needed an earth shaking tectonic shift for it to reappear on the strategic game board of the globe.
As is the case now, especially since 2008, the financial meltdown and attendant deep recession in the Western economies, needed India or a Brazil to help them to pull through the crisis. The case of India as a strategic partner to the USA was strengthened by the fact that the latter needed to pull itself out of the morass of Afghan-Pakistan political and military mess. China in the 1970s and ‘80s had made it abundantly clear to both Nixon and Kissinger, however much they tried, Beijing (then Peiping) would not budge on its core interest in Taiwan. India was far more servile at the beginning of its strategic relations with the USA. Culturally and socially, it was so entwined with the USA coupled with the need to emerge from the nuclear isolation that former BJP prime minister, AB Vajpayee had to write a cringing letter to Bill Clinton giving the fig leaf of a motivation as being anti-China, for his 1998 declaration of the country as a nuclear weapon power.
Post 9/11, the BJP-led government even went to the extent of instigating a debate in Parliament whether New Delhi should militarily join the Western coalition’s ‘War on Terror’ being waged in Afghanistan and Iraq. From those kind of flirtations grew the seeds of the bilateral strategic partnership. Manmohan Singh and the Congress-led government also followed a similar line of appeasement of the USA in its first term that had to lead the communist and left parties out of supporting the government.
But since 2010, after the civilian nuclear deal was signed, and Obama had come to office, Singh government and its elite backers were sensing a waning of interest of the US government. A study of New Delhi’s foreign and security policies followed.
A group of experts who were closely tied to the government eventually averred that the best path for the country’s national interest is to avail a ‘strategic autonomy’ and a tighter embrace of ‘non-alignment.’ The policy divergence between Washington and New Delhi was thus scripted.
It is a real pity that the Devyani issue had to lift the veil of hypocrisy on both sides. While behind the portrayal of India as financial globalisation’s early success story, Washington was seeking to entrench its hegemonistic ‘globalisation,’ New Delhi was trying to actualise the intent of its elite to see the country reach its own supposed natural destination at the top of the heap.
What the Khobragade episode exposed was the nether world of international politics where there were few prisoners taken. And this fact the Chinese learnt quite early during their honeymoon with the USA; India will have to learn it too.
The author is a senior journalist