“American lobby!” was Professor Stephen Philip Cohen’s exclamation when I ran into him at the India International Centre in Delhi in the autumn of 2005 just a few weeks after India and the United States unveiled their civil nuclear initiative. His finger was pointed at me. His tone was one of mock accusation but his eyes were twinkling.
Steve, who passed away Sunday at age 83, was remarking on the utterly surprising support he found in a significant section of the Indian strategic community for improved relations with the United States, especially from those, including me, who were locked with him in fierce arguments about nuclear issues in the past. After all, the historic nuclear accord radically changed the Indian discourse on the United States.
For Steve and a whole generation of American scholars of India, the idea that Delhi and Washington could be friends, let alone partners, was an incredible one. What is taken for granted today was an impossible proposition less than two decades ago. Steve, an expert on South Asia, and his cohort saw ties between India and the United States deteriorate rapidly from the late 1960s and hit a nadir in the 1970s. And the brief efforts to revive them by Indira Gandhi, and later by Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s, seemed impossible to sustain.
Amid India’s intellectual xenophobia of those years, any American scholar like Steve was suspected to be a “CIA Agent”. For the American academics wanting to engage Delhi, “anti-Americanism” appeared to be part of the Indian elite’s DNA. Worse still, that generation’s pessimism about India’s long-term prospects became stronger than ever before.
As official India turned hostile to American academics and denied them visas since the 1970s, China was embracing America. Within a few years, the once flourishing India studies departments in US universities began to fold and Chinese studies began to gain rapid traction. Steve held his faith during the hard “India winter” that gripped American academia.
Steve’s small centre at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, became the oasis for strategic studies on India and South Asia. Steve turned out a steady trickle of South Asian scholarship and among his students were Sumit Ganguly and Kanti Bajpai, now established academics in their own right. Beyond his enclave in Illinois, Steve was ready to assist and advise anyone, anywhere, interested in studying India and South Asia.
When the Institute of South Asian Studies, which I now head, was set in up in the National University of Singapore a decade-and-a-half ago, Prof Stephen Cohen was among the first it turned to. After he moved to Brookings Institution in Washington DC, his office and home were open to all comers from the Subcontinent. At lunch on Tuesday afternoons, he would hold court at the Brookings Canteen, ready to entertain scholars from and on South Asia.
Through his long academic career, Steve struggled to disabuse Indians of their many conspiracy theories about American policy-making. He referred to his brief stint in the US State Department to argue that it was chaos and ignorance rather than a grand design that often drove US policies towards India. Steve also strove to help American officials and scholars to look beyond the arrogant prickliness that greeted US visitors to Delhi. Getting the strategic elites in Washington and Delhi to understand each other was probably one of Steve’s many contributions to India-US relations.
Although commercial relations between India and the US began to improve in the 1990s, the differences over Kashmir, Pakistan, and nuclear non-proliferation became ever more intense. Steve was caught right in the middle of those unending arguments. Yet, by the dawn of the 21st century, Steve became a little more hopeful of India’s prospects as he reviewed the early results from India’s economic reform. His influential book India: An Emerging Power made a strong case for Washington recasting its policies to accommodate the new India.
most of his generation, Steve was surprised that the administration of George W Bush would take his advice on dealing with India with such enthusiasm. As Bush discarded America’s past activism on Kashmir, found a way to resolve the nuclear dispute with Delhi, and put India at the centre of America’s Asian strategy, Steve and his cohort were unconvinced.
They were skeptical that a “non-aligned” India might ever partner America. Steve was surprised to see an Indian Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) would tell an American President (George W Bush) that the Indian people “loved him”. Notwithstanding his doubts about the unfolding transformation, Steve had willy-nilly spawned a new academic industry on a “rising India” and the “natural alliance” with the United States.
If Steve saw India-US ties soar high in the final years of his life, he was deeply disappointed by the steady downturn in India’s relations with Pakistan. Steve, who had once dismissed India-Pakistan wars as “communal riots with tanks”, had never thought the two nations might be trapped in an all-consuming hostility.
The title of one of his last books, Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum, was a reflection on a prolonged conflict between India and Pakistan that Steve worried could become a “Hundred Year War” — he had earlier authored The Idea of Pakistan. As a student of both India and Pakistan, he easily saw the many common interests between the two nations but was saddened by their failure to bridge the differences.
As the Subcontinent moves out of the margins of global politics in the coming decades, Steve will be remembered for long as the one-man institution that helped sustained international interest in India and South Asia at a difficult juncture in the region’s political evolution.
Although Delhi might be transcending many of Steve’s framing devices, his large body of work is likely to remain the best place to start for those interested in India’s strategic policies.
(The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express)