The very fact that the Presidential debate on foreign policy did not mention India while deliberating at length on our nuclear neighbours, would perhaps suggest that Romney and Obama don’t differ too much in their views about India. But US foreign policy continues to bother us.
Is it just me or has there been a discernible decline in our interest in the US presidential polls this time? I certainly feel so. Perhaps because we don’t have much to gain – or lose – either way? The President may change, but the Indo-US relationship cannot change very much. And unlike Barack Obama, a Black candidate for the White House, Mitt Romney as challenger does not exactly make your heart race as you watch history being made. In general, we are fascinated by all things American – including the elaborately inscrutable US Presidential elections. There was a time when our fascination for the United States of America was a bit like a child’s amazement with ants – we keenly followed its every move but still had no clue what it was up to or how it got to be the way it is. I grew up in an India which often believed that everything was being surreptitiously monitored by the wicked CIA. In the frenzied bipolar world, where we were aligned to the other pole, everything that went wrong was blamed on the American ‘foreign hand’. It was a country where Indira Gandhi was the only Gandhi after the Mahatma, and probably the only Prime Minister that Richard Nixon thought of as “the old witch”, a lady who was openly critical of theUSand its generous gift of arms and support toPakistan. It was a land where over time and overuse the evil ‘foreign hand’ went from being feared to loathed to pitilessly lampooned.
Today, the world has changed.Russiahas disintegrated.IndiaandPakistanhave come clean and flashed their nukes. And Indo-US ties are warm, cordial and somewhat trusting. In fact, the Indo-US relationship was so hot about four years ago that in a moment of closeness in the White House India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a man of distressingly few words, said toUSPresident George W. Bush: “The people ofIndiadeeply love you.” Bush had indeed been “a great friend ofIndia” as Singh pointed out, by changingU.S.policy opposing nuclear cooperation withIndiaand ending 34 years ofIndia’s isolation in nuclear research and commerce. By pushing through the Indo-US nuclear deal, Bush had effectively acknowledgedIndiaas an important superpower, and a trusted ally. He had broken the curious convention of treatingPakistanandIndiaat par, while treatingChinawith far more respect. On his part, Singh had risked his government for the nuclear deal, and survived by the skin of his teeth the no confidence motion in Parliament against him. After decades of slow and steady improvement in Indo-US ties, such huge political investments by President Bush and Prime Minister Singh made sure that the relationship betweenWashingtonandDelhiwould not easily slide back to the horror years of the 1970s and 1980s.
It’s also interesting howIndia’s intellectuals traditionally favour Democrats, while the political establishment is generally more comfortable with the Republicans. The Republicans don’t beat about the bush (no pun intended), they are pragmatic, avoid troubled waters and focus on useful stuff. On the other hand, the Democrats annoyingly watch our every move, brood over our human rights records (while ignoring their own), and focus on liberal values that we may not wish to follow. And of course both the Republicans and the Democrats pamperPakistanwith arms and funds – apparently for fighting terrorism – that they know will shore up terror attacks onIndia. But a change of guard inAmericawill not really make much of a difference for us right now. The very fact that the Presidential debate on foreign policy did not mentionIndiawhile deliberating at length on our nuclear neighbours, would perhaps suggest that Romney and Obama don’t differ too much in their views aboutIndia. ButUSforeign policy continues to bother us. We differ strongly with theUSonIran, for example, a country that would gain further importance for us after theUSwithdrawal fromAfghanistan. In fact, the consequences of theUSwithdrawal fromAfghanistancould be particularly worrying for us. If Obama is re-elected and sticks to his word of exitingAfghanistanby 2014, it could mark – among several other worrying possibilities – the end of the current peace inKashmir.
At the risk of sounding cynical, one must recognize that being busy on its western border withAfghanistankeepsPakistanaway from its eastern border with India, which has helped in stalling cross-border terrorism inKashmir. Add to it the Democrats’ abiding interest in intervention in Kashmir(which, I must admit, Obama seems to have overcome) and you have a bit of a problem in the otherwise warm Indo-US friendship. On the other hand, a Republican President would have to withdraw fromAfghanistanas well, and not much later either – since that is what the American people want. And the Republicans’ intimacy with the Pakistani army is well documented. Yet, the Republicans may be good to Indians as well, especially when they look the other way in case tricky issues of nuclear research and proliferation come up. Then there are US domestic interests. Interests that have curbed outsourcing to Indiaas well as severely reduced US work visas for Indians, for example. And this situation is unlikely to be reversed dramatically by any President, either Democrat or Republican, who is struggling to boost the sagging economy and find jobs for Americans. In short, we may be watching theUSPresidential elections with some interest, but very little passion. Life is not perfect, but it is less stressful now that we have the ‘foreign hand’ in a firm handshake.