It matters to Indian national interest which person and party wins the presidential elections in the United States, not for the usual reasons of the this or that winner being more friendly to this country; but because, generally, Republicans are more hard-headed and strategically-oriented, clearer in their minds of what countries are more important in the larger geopolitical game underway at any given time; and, specifically, because Republican appointees to high posts in the administration tend to be more Manichean in their outlook — cognizant of ideological adversaries who need to be checked, unlike Obama’s officials trying to ‘nuance’ their way out of trouble.
The fact that the George W Bush government saw the emergence of an aggressive China as a rival and assessed democratic India’s importance as a counterpoise in Asia was not dependent on the nuclear deal that many in the Manmohan Singh regime claim was decisive. Even without the deal, a convergence of interests indicated the direction in which the two countries would proceed. The nuclear deal was the sour cherry atop the cake that the improving bilateral relations could well have done without, as subsequent developments have shown. Indeed, the foundations for good Indo-US relations were actually laid by Republican President Ronald Reagan in the Eighties. What is remembered by Indians, however, are the dark days of the Richard Nixon era, when aircraft carrier USS Enterprise sailed into the Bay of Bengal with its load of nuclear weapons on an errand of gunboat diplomacy — prevent Indian forces from taking Dhaka in December 1971. It didn’t work but seeded distrust of the United States, and Republicans in particular. Nixon’s sidekick, Henry Kissinger, in promoting Mao’s China as counterweight to the Soviet Union in the Cold War, in fact, ended up seeding its unparalleled rise and growth.
For reasons not entirely clear, the Indian establishment prefers the Democratic Party with romanticised memories of the days when Kennedy’s ambassador in New Delhi, John Kenneth Galbraith, had easy access to Jawaharlal Nehru, offered sound but unsolicited economic advice to a socialist India struggling with the statist demons it had created, and all the while displayed good humour. However, it was during Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B Johnson’s presidency that India lived ‘ship to mouth’ — relying on the gift of American PL 480 grain, which leverage was used ruthlessly to punish India for not supporting the American policy in Vietnam. It was, however, the denial in 1966 of the $980 million grant-in aid that Johnson had promised, which had the most devastating consequences. The nearly billion dollar aid was supposed to cushion India’s transition to a market economy. With that cushion pulled from underneath her, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided against going through with her economic reforms liberalising the Indian economy that Washington had been urging. Had Johnson not held back the funds, Indira Gandhi not gone back on her decision to eliminate the license-permit raj in 1966, India would have had a 10 year economic head-start and, who knows, might have been where China is today — on top of the world.
It is a curious take on history by Indians that President Bill Clinton is thought of as a great lover of India. Even the Indian government — which should know better, regards him thus, possibly to not embarrass the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the former First Lady. Actually, Clinton began to appreciate India only after his plan for a concert of powers with China in the new millennium was rejected by Beijing, but not because Washington didn’t try hard enough. Recall how Clinton bent over backwards to please China, going to the extent of leaking to the New York Times Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s letter that spoke plainly about the growing Chinese nuclear arsenal as the reason for India’s 1998 tests and weaponisation. It breached confidence and showed enormous bad faith.
The Democratic Party in the US has been in the forefront of pushing nonproliferation and, should he win a second term, Barack Obama is likely to make the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) his primary foreign policy goal at the very least to buttress his credentials as a campaigner for a nuclear weapons-free world for which he prematurely won the Nobel Prize for Peace. It is another matter that CTBT is peripheral to the central issue of the United States and Russia reducing their respective weapons/warheads stockpiles. Moreover, most of the extreme non-proliferationists in Washington are associated with the Democratic Party and part of the Obama Administration — persons such as Robert J Einhorn, special adviser in the State Department, an inveterate India-baiter, and Ellen Tauscher who, before assuming charge as assistant secretary of state, vowed to bring countries like India into the Non-Proliferation Treaty net.
The reason why the Obama Administration will pursue CTBT is because it diverts attention from drawing down America’s strategic inventory and presents an avenue for easy success. After all, the manner in which the Manmohan Singh government was persuaded to indefinitely extend the ‘voluntary moratorium’ wouldn’t have escaped Washington’s attention. A bit more push here, a lot more pressure there, and the US State Department may be forgiven for believing it will have the outgoing Congress coalition regime drag India into the NPT basket.
Obama’s ‘Asia pivot’ — an extension of the George W Bush policy — conceptualised to deal with China’s aggressive maritime strategy hiked India’s importance as strategic partner. The worst the Republican Party presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been accused of in foreign policy terms is that 17 of his 24 advisers were part of the last Republican administration, and that these are neo-conservatives who with their strident views will precipitate matters especially where China and the Middle East are concerned. Iran could complicate Indian relations with Washington, but with a Romney Administration targeting China and the economic, political, and military confrontations between them heating up, the net beneficiary would be India. Why is that bad?
Bharat Karnad is professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com