After India gained its independence from Britain in 1947, many Americans expected it would be a generally friendly power. After all, the US had constantly pressured London to give up its colonial empire; and was also a nation that had gained its independence from Britain, so it seemed so it seemed natural that the great new sub-continental democracy would look to America as a potential friend and partner.
India is no longer, as V.S. Naipaul put it, “A Wounded Civilization.” It is now, in spite of continuing problems with poverty, unmistakably a great power. Thanks to the combination of a liberated entrepreneurial spirit and an abundance of scientific and technological talent, its economy is growing at a solid rate, and managing to do so while India remains a vibrant and thriving non-Western democracy.
For the US, this means that India will become a formidable economic competitor, but more importantly, it will become a valuable partner. Already the US has taken a few small steps towards this goal, but a variety of obstacles still exists — most notably, the US International Trade in Arms Regulations (ITAR), which cover a huge swath of ‘Dual Use” items, and which have crippled US technology exports for decades.
Making matters worse is an apparent US policy of denying visas to men and women associated with India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO). Since there is, naturally, considerable overlap between that organization and the Indian government’s civil science and technology institutions, this policy tends to cripple US efforts to work with India both on civil and military projects. It looks like a textbook case of one part of the US government sabotaging the programs of their colleagues — and this problem all seems to be happening inside the State Department.
Misunderstandings go back to World War II. George Orwell described how, in London in 1942, “a well known Indian nationalist” addressed “a number of American newspaper correspondents who, if handled tactfully, might cable back to America a sympathetic account of the Congress Party’s case. They had come there with fairly open minds. Within about ten minutes the Indian had converted all of them into ardent supporters of the British government, because instead of sticking to his subject he launched into an anti-British tirade quite obviously founded on spite and an inferiority complex.” For decades after independence, the emotional aftereffects of British rule remained a powerful driving force in Indian politics. What is only now just being understood by Indian historians, most notably Narendra Singh Sarila in his 2005 book, “The Shadow of the Great Game,” was how skillfully a few British, Russian and Indian individuals were able to turn these anti-British feelings into anti-American ones.
The talent was carefully nurtured throughout India’s socialist period; but without many local opportunities, these highly trained scientists and engineers simply emigrated to places where they were more appreciated. Now, thanks to the reforms that began in the early 1990s, these elite individuals are staying at home. If things continue as they are, in the near future India will make steady progress towards becoming one of the world’s major centers of science and technology.
A year ago, Secretary if State Hillary Clinton and the Indian Foreign Minister ,S.M. Krishna, stated that “.. it was agreed that the agenda and the initiatives in the bilateral High Technology Cooperation Dialogue should continue with the objective of facilitating smoother trade in high technology between the two economies, reflecting the present strategic nature of the India- US relationship.” — a partnership nowhere better symbolized, in spite of problems, than by the cooperation between the US’s NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).
The ISRO launched the Chandrayaan Moon Probe in October 2008, using India’s Polar Space Launch Vehicle; and included among its suite of instruments a US Synthetic Aperture Radar, called the Mini SAR, a critical tool that helped the spacecraft to make its historic discovery of a large amount of water on the Moon. From a political standpoint , the mission showed that in spite of the legal and bureaucratic obstacles, the two nations could work effectively together on a technologically difficult project.
The Indian military, which had traditionally looked to Russia and Europe for its major weaponry, has recently been buying more and more from Israel, and, most significantly, from the US. By the end of this year, they will receive their first C-130J transports; and they are in negotiations to buy the larger and more capable C-17 to supplement or replace their Russian made IL-76s. India has also purchased an old US Navy amphibious warfare ship, which gives their Navy a useful bit of experience with US naval hardware.
The Indian Air Force is also holding a competition to buy a new fighter, The US F-16 and F-18 are in the running, as are French, Swedish and Russian aircraft. No decision is expected until sometime next year, if then: Indian military procurement procedures are at least as frustrating and complex as US ones. The visa situation just adds to the difficulties.
In early 2009, the US State Department blundered badly when it temporarily denied India an export permit for a GE-made gas turbine engine for one of its warships. These turbines have been widely exported all over the world; in 1979, the Carter administration even agreed to sell the turbines to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. For the US to refuse to sell something to a democracy like India — that it had been willing to sell to the Iraqi Dictator — was a foolish gesture, based either on spite or ignorance. The decision was quickly reversed, but the incident left a sour taste in the mouths of many influential Indians.
In spite of these ups and downs, and in spite of the legitimate fears of New Delhi’s leadership that the Obama administration does not see India as a major partner — the way the Clinton and Bush administrations did — the long term relationship is solid. Geopolitical and economic contexts are driving the two sides closer together; and as neither India nor the US can change the facts of geography, the two large, democratic nations on opposite sides of the world need one another.
India needs America to militate against the threats that surround it, and it needs access to the US market for its products. Although America needs India for similar reasons, no formal alliance is needed: Indian politicians opposed to the relationship would be able to stir up trouble, and both sides could find themselves locked for years in painful and petty negotiations.
Today both nations largely understand that ending the long estrangement has been a blessing for all concerned. As the partnership deepens, there is one valuable lesson that America could probably learn from India: strategic patience with friends.