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US-India: False Hopes and a Misreading of History

January 15, 2014

Rudra Chaudhuri, Forged in Crisis: India and the United States since 1947 (London/New York: Hurst/OUP, 2013)

Reading some of the Indian commentary on the row over the arrest of Indian diplomat  Devyani Khobragade in the United States, you would be forgiven for thinking that India continued to play the role of victim confronted by great power arrogance.  You might also come away bemused by the volatility of the US-India relationship—it has oscillated from  India’s closeness to the Soviet Union during the Cold War to the “strategic partnership” promised by the 2005 US-India nuclear deal to the explosive, but petty, row over the diplomat and her alleged treatment of her Indian maid.  (The row was partially resolved last week after Khobragade was accorded diplomatic immunity and sent home; in response, the Indian government under the ruling Congress party expelled a U.S. diplomat.)

A new book on U.S.-India relations dispels, however, both the myth of India as victim and the idea of volatility, suggesting instead a remarkable consistency in India’s determination since independence in 1947 to defend its own interests and its approach to the United States.

In “Forged in Crisis; India and the United States since 1947”, author Rudra Chaudhuri argues that India has always been willing to mix idealism with expediency—or, in his words, “ideas and interests”—to gain economic and military help from the United States without sacrificing its independence. Its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru—one of the architects of the Non-Aligned Movement—was clear from the start on the need to seek “engagement without entanglement” with Washington. “I am anxious to avoid any dependence on the USA,” he declared in 1948. “I do not like the way they are going and they have a method of trying to get their pound’s flesh…”  Yet far from being the lofty idealist that he is commonly remembered as, Nehru was ruthlessly pragmatic in pursuing Indian interests.  Thus, for example, after seeking U.S. military help against China in a 1962 border war, Nehru subsequently rejected all attempts to make western aid conditional on a settlement of the Kashmir dispute. Indeed, as early as 1963, it was the United States rather than the newly defeated India which was forced to back down by accepting that military aid would not be contingent on a Kashmir settlement.

Nehru’s daughter, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, displayed the same determination to pursue Indian interests when she signed a “Treaty of Friendship” with the Soviet Union in 1971 to shield India from the risk of U.S. and Chinese intervention in its war with Pakistan. “Yet her instinct for and sense of non-alignment was by no means divorced from Nehru’s understanding and approach to foreign policy,” writes Chaudhuri. Rather than become a Soviet satellite, India resumed its engagement with the United States after the war—which led to the independence of then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh—while pursuing a nuclear weapons program to guarantee its autonomy. It conducted its first nuclear test in 1974.

A generation later, in keeping with India’s drive to define its relationship with Washington on its own terms, Indian leaders successfully navigated the aftermath of a series of nuclear tests in 1998. While these triggered sanctions, they also captured America’s attention. Indeed as Strobe Talbott, then deputy Secretary of State, is quoted as saying, one of the consequences of the tests was that the United States would give India “serious, sustained, and respectful attention of a kind the Indians felt they had never received before.”

This would lead to what would become a bipartisan Indian effort to engage with Washington while insisting—as Nehru had done decades earlier—on the primacy of Indian interests at all times. In one of the more fascinating chapters, Chaudhuri recounts the debate within the then ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on whether to send Indian troops to help the United States after its 2003 invasion of Iraq. It eventually decided against doing so; however, that the Hindu nationalist BJP even entertained the idea showed how far India’s approach to the United States cut across party lines. Tellingly, the Indian Prime Minister at the time, Atal Behari Vajpayee, was comfortable using a concept first crafted by Nehru that India was “following an honest non-aligned policy” in its decisions about Iraq.

Despite the disappointment over Iraq, the administration of President George W. Bush threw everything it had at building relations with India. It abandoned decades of efforts to try to balance India and Pakistan by adopting a policy of “de-hyphenation” to deal with both countries separately—essentially accepting Delhi’s argument that it was too big a world power to be bracketed with its difficult smaller sibling. Washington also set aside its commitment to non-proliferation by negotiating an agreement with India—first announced in 2005—which recognized it as the first nuclear weapons state outside the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In the detailed talks which followed, India fought successfully for concessions to maintain the independence of its nuclear weapons program. By the time the nuclear agreement was signed in 2008, India had negotiated much of what it wanted. “India today is the only non-NPT state with nuclear weapons that produces fissile material, has an active nuclear weapons program and can still trade with the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group),” writes Chaudhuri.

In his conclusions, Chaudhuri argues that “India will never be an ally of the US.” The two countries should expect “momentary disagreements over a whole range of issues”. Washington should also learn, he says, not to make public pronouncements over Kashmir—as happened in the early years of the Obama administration when the idea of a “Kashmir to Kabul” grand bargain became briefly fashionable as a means of turning around the Afghan war. “But notwithstanding the typical trials and tribulations experienced in a relationship between any two nations, especially two of the world’s most populous democracies, a well-founded strain for elasticity has not only taken root, but much more importantly and much less evidently makes allowances for temporary incidents of botched diplomatic forays.”

He is probably right. India is far too important a country for the United States to ignore. And given what Chaudhuri calls “the faint but distinctive edifice of an Indian approach to foreign affairs” discernible from 1947 onwards, India has also shown a consistent pattern of being ready to face down Washington when it suited Delhi’s interests, while seeking help when required.

The unintended impact of the book, however, is to portray a country which has been ruthless in the pursuit of its own interests. The assumed Nehruvian leftist idealism about non-alignment disguised a focus on Indian national interests, while the supposed new chapter written by the nuclear deal hid a determination to resist if India felt its standing were challenged—as happened when Khobragade was arrested and strip-searched in New York. Other countries also pursue national interests, but they do so in different ways: the United States, for example, still wants to be liked and—despite its history of militarism since 9/11—to be seen as a champion of democracy and the free world. European countries, especially Britain, have traded in their security policies to the United States in return for a large measure of political and economic independence. India, however, has dressed its own pursuit of national interest in the language of the victim—an easy enough garb to adopt for any post-colonial state—while winning virtually every policy argument it has ever had with the United States. The apparent volatility in US-India relations comes only from the West’s own surprise when India reasserts its own interests.

The question, therefore, is to ask why Washington has entertained such unrealistic expectations of India. As demonstrated in Chaudhuri’s book, it has always been disappointed—from hoping that helping India against China in 1962 would give it leverage to pursue a Kashmir settlement, to expecting the nuclear deal to carve out a new phase of cooperation.

The row over Khobragade has been instructive in revealing deep cultural differences between the two countries. India, quite rightly, defended the principle of immunity from prosecution of its diplomats, as any country would have done. Where it left Western observers aghast, however, was in the extent to which the Indian government sided with the elite, in this case the diplomat, over her maid, who was assumed to be guilty without trial. This was not a country treating all its citizens equally while legitimately balancing this with the principle of immunity for its diplomats, but, rather, a strong state defending those in power.  The trite assumptions underlying the US-India relationship—that the world’s most powerful democracy should be naturally allied with the world’s biggest democracy—foundered, in this case, on very different interpretations of what democracy means.

Beyond making sense of those cultural differences, the United States also needs a realistic reappraisal of what it has achieved in the past and what it will gain in the future through its efforts to woo India into a tighter alliance. The historical record is poor.


Myra MacDonald is a former Reuters journalist who has worked in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia. She was Chief Correspondent in France and Bureau Chief in India. After publishing Heights of Madness, a book on the Siachen war between India and Pakistan, she has focused in recent years on writing about Pakistan.


Photo credit: U.S. Embassy New Delhi

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6 thoughts on “US-India: False Hopes and a Misreading of History

  1. NIce review and I agree that expectations are misplaced on both sides.

    But I think the Indian diplomatic case is discussed in a way that is a bit incomplete and seems to be from a journalistic and, in a way, elite bubble.

    Daniel Patrick Moynihan (I made this comment at Small Wars Journal) said we were essentially told by the Indians they would test a bomb and we didn’t listen. Indian officialdom told us how they would react given the history of the Indian fisherman and Italian Marines case.

    But I see a lot of reporters assuming a monolithic Indian opinion and making grand claims that cannot be empirically supported.

    You tweeted an article that you said represented “the best comment” so far. Yet, it was a very Indian journalist opinion and it made broad statements like, Indians abroad are now ashamed of India. What? Most people living abroad don’t probably pay that much attention. The world is not all the online bubble of Twitter, Reuters opinion or blogs.

    OTOH, I am going to rely on online commentary for the following, so who am I to talk? :)

    I see three basic reactions:

    1. Khobragade is a corrupt Babu because of the Adarsh scandal. This seems to be a lot of the online commentary of commenters, many of whom are taking Indian journalists to task. She got what she deserved, basically, even if the Americans caught her out.
    2. The Americans are arrogant and shouldn’t treat diplomats this way.
    3. Khobragade is corrupt but the Indians should deal with it, not the Americans.

    Where are these three strains in the elite American commentary, including the Washington Post and New York Times?

    How can any community be a monolith and where are the surveys to document the opinions of any community?

    The US erred. Dumb move. The Indians likely need to improve their game too, too many connected folk represent India abroad and their work is not the best Indians can do.

    Her appointment was a source of controversy among some sites that pay attention to Indian officialdom.

    And tensions in the Indian American community and among Indians on various issues are not new. This is not some new souring of affection. These tensions always exist because we are talking about human nature, not neat little academic theories.

  2. Hmm, that came out a lot more prickly and difficult a comment than I intended.

    The American Conservative had an article about a historian–the name escapes me–who said that looking at history in a novelistic way wasn’t such a bad thing.

    I keep seeing this novel in my head, you know?

    1. Preet Bahara, ambitious official.
    2. Husband of Khobragade, Indian American, wine expert and academic.
    3. Dalit “aristocracy” and Adarsh Housing Scandal.
    4. US State Department and its historic weirdness to the Indians (and Pakistanis, too).
    5. Indian babudom and officialdom, the more connected the better!
    6. Reuters reporters and New York Times and Times of India and tweet, tweet, tweet!
    7. Aam Aadmi and Tea Parties and Occupy Wall Street!
    8. European commentators on arrogant Americans.
    9. Culture as a lazy short hand term to describe the pedestrian world of elections and money and technology and changing societies and the corrupt versus the non-corrupt.

    Common man versus elite! Rich versus poor! West versus East! Competence versus incompetence! Journalistic circles and bubbles! Diaspora bubbles!

    The thing is, everyone has a point. And so many points but instead of a complete accounting, the punditry has been narrow and self-focused. Curious.

  3. I mean, have you seen how scathing some Indian commenters have been about Indian journalists?

    And so too with the Americans on this tempest-in-a-teapot.

    Where are the public opinion surveys or actual hard evidence that this is what the initial commentary says it is? The world of South Asian analysis and punditry seems so small and narrow….

  4. Calder Walton’s book (mentioned by Mark Stout here at War on the Rocks) also talked about Sardar Patel’s work with British intelligence in training, etc., after Indian independence.

    Too much Nehru and Gandhi stuff out there, it sometimes seems. The situation was always way more complicated than the Nehrus and Gandhis and Kashmir, and, yet, the same old same old from South Asia analyst types.

    Calder Walton’s book does have a weird radio silence on Kashmir, though. The Indians and Pakistanis have it too, in some of their academic work and commentary. Weird. Occam’s Razor, or something else?

  5. I mean radio silence on certain subjects….

    The northern diaspora (some, not all) and Pakistani and Indian intellectuals in the West often don’t seem to go outside certain angles in understanding. A bit opaque, my commentary, but it’s weird, isn’t it? The same topics coming up again and again without pushing forward the academics into newer and more productive areas?

  6. What is the point of this article and book? A country, though poor, looks after its own interest. Is anybody surprised? It makes US look like the victim, which it is not and almost always looks for their self interest, sometimes ruthlessly. I think the author is aware of the quote ” America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”