By inviting US President Barack Obama to Republic Day celebrations, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done something more than symbolic: he has hit hard at the anti-America attitudes that sway not just the academia but also the foreign policy establishment. In a country where intellectuals of all shades love to hate America, it is indeed courageous to have its President as chief guest on such an important occasion. That the invitation was accepted is a measure of the growing Indo-US ties in various areas, if not a tectonic shift in geopolitics.
India and the US have been called ‘estranged democracies,’ and not because the peoples of the two countries hate each other. I discussed the subject in November 2010: “India is a democracy, so its political class is supposed to reflect the views, feelings, and aspirations of the people. But why was it that while the people of India felt, and feel, at home in Washington, New York, and other U.S. cities (and in the West in general), our leaders found friends in Moscow and Jakarta? India and the U.S. have had strong economic ties (the U.S. is the biggest trade partner), social and cultural relations, but the political ties have often lacked warmth; at times, there was pronounced hostility between the world’s two biggest democracies.” (http://www.indefenceofliberty.org/story/3954/3986/The-public-private-gulf)
The answer, I concluded, lies in socialism, the ideology that delineated our economic and foreign policies during much of the second half of the twentieth century. Socialism empowered a few Wise Persons to frame policies that the latter, in their infinite wisdom, deemed it fit for the lesser mortals, also known as the people of India. Hence controls, permits, and quotas. And hence a foreign policy that had little to do with the interests, desires, and aspirations of the citizens. Jawaharlal Nehru and his alter ego, V.K. Krishna Menon, chartered a course that was perfect for the dreamscape they loved to loiter in. America was bad, imperialistic, always promoting the detestable capitalism, whereas the Soviet Union and especially China were good, humane, and supporters of the Third World. Facts like the Soviet Union’s aggression in Eastern Europe and China’s oppression in Tibet and grab of our land were ignored or downplayed as minor aberrations.
A natural corollary was the demonization of Israel, a US ally. We refused to normalize ties with Tel Aviv in a bid to appease the Arabs in the Middle East and the Muslims at home. This was despite the fact that Israel was always friendly and the Arabs often supported Pakistan. Ironically, it was a Congress Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, the greatest head of government since Independence, who normalized relations with Israel. However, the Nehruvian shibboleths persisted, perhaps the most significant being the non-alignment movement of NAM. Even when it was crafted—that is, during the cold war—it was neither relevant nor sincere; in general, it was anti-West. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, NAM—one of the founding fathers of the movement of which was India—lost even its rationale. Yet, it continued, like a bad habit.
Even the first genuinely non-Congress government, under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, did not accomplish a paradigm shift in foreign policy. In fact, he went on record, in Rajat Sharma’s TV programme, that foreign policy does not change with the change of government. Vajpayee never concealed his admiration for Nehru; apparently, he aspired to be known as a saffron Nehru. So, unsurprisingly, he failed to make his mark and provide a viable, Rightwing alternative; after he demitted office in 2004, whatever good he did—highways, privatization, slow retreat of the state from the economy, improving ties with the West, especially America—came unstuck. The Nehruvian empire struck back with a vengeance; the rest is recent history.
The bishops and abbots of ancien regime will still remind us of the real and imaginary sins of the US—its support for tyrants, intervention in Vietnam, neo-imperialism, and of course its relations with jihadists in Afghanistan. They would also shout that Washington has always been friendly to Islamabad; remember the Seventh Fleet threat in 1971? And what about the continuing aid to Pakistan, even after September 11 and harboring of Osama bin Laden, foreign policy experts would ask.
Like any other country, the US has also committed blunders in the international arena, but the reason it is maligned in India has less to do with Washington’s follies than to with the ideologically moorings of our experts. Convinced that America, as the exemplar of capitalism (and, therefore, of neo-imperialism), is evil, they associate every evil with the most powerful nation of the world. Hence their skepticism about the US. IndraniBagchi was correct in her assessment in TheTimes Of India (November 24): “For long, both MEA [Ministry of External Affairs] and the experts have believed that while it’s important to engage,it’s equally prudent to keep America at arm’s length because they are perfidious,play fast and loose with us, cosy up to Pakistan behind our backs, plot a G-2with China, swamp our brains and our markets, squeeze us on impossible things like climate change, remain an unreliable defence supplier. They have devised all manner of buzzwords ranging from ‘non-alignment 2.0’ to ‘strategic autonomy’ to explain a collective insecurity about the US.”
It is against this backdrop of systemically entrenched anti-Americanism that Modi’s invitation to Obama should be viewed. Interestingly, the man who was never known for geopolitical insights has added a novel dimension to foreign policy.