As the Indian leadership reviews US ties this week with the visiting Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, a paradox stands out. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden have already agreed on an ambitious agenda for bilateral, regional and global cooperation between India and the US. That ambition, in turn, is based on the unprecedented convergence of Indian and American national interests.
But the discourse within India’s strategic community continues to be anxious. India and the US have come a long way since the 1990s — there is growing political and security cooperation, expanding economic engagement, widening interface between the two societies, and the intensifying footprint of the Indian diaspora in the US.
Yet, some of the questions that animate the media and political classes have not changed since the 1990s. Does the US president want to mediate on Kashmir? Will the American talk of democracy and human rights derail Delhi’s relationship with the US?
The Indian debate is often trapped between new and contradictory fears. Can India really trust the US to extend full support in coping with the China challenge? At the same time, Delhi also worries that the US may be trying to “entrap” India into an alliance. While we expect the US to give iron-clad guarantees on supporting us (that is what alliances are supposed to do), we insist that Delhi will never enter into an alliance with the US.
Every difference with the US — even formal allies don’t agree on everything in the world — acquires a larger-than-life significance in India. As India’s relative weight in the international system continues to grow, it creates much room for give and take between India and the US. Yet, a small state syndrome continues to grip the foreign policy elite.
The situation is similar on the economic front. Although India is now the sixth-largest economy in the world, there is unending concern about Washington imposing globalisation on Delhi. Even as India’s salience for solutions to climate change has increased, Delhi’s debate remains deeply defensive.
While the government seems quite self-assured in dealing with differences that were traditionally seen as irreconcilable, the gap between Indian policy and discourse endures.
Part of the problem is with the Indian elite’s entrenched ideological suspicion of the US since independence. Successive prime ministers in the last few decades — from Rajiv Gandhi to Narendra Modi — have invested political capital in improving ties with the US, despite much resistance in the political class and the bureaucracy. But the suspicion lingers on in sections of the elite.
There are many reasons why the Indian public debate can’t keep pace with Delhi’s policy changes with the US. For one, the narrow focus on the bilateral precludes an assessment of the larger forces shaping American domestic and international politics. That, in turn, limits the appreciation of new possibilities for the bilateral relationship.
To be sure, it is not easy to identify the policy signal amidst Washington’s noisy debates. But those nations with big stakes in the US relationship have no choice but to develop the capacity to see the big picture amidst the seeming chaos that envelops American policymaking.
The problem, however, is reinforced by Delhi’s under-investment in public understanding of American society. Unlike India, Russia and China have put large resources in American studies at their universities and think tanks. The Indian government and private sector will hopefully address this gap in the not-too-distant future.
Through the last six months of the Biden presidency, there has been little informed debate in India on the extraordinary policy shifts that are unfolding in Washington.
On the domestic front, Biden has broken from the neoliberal economic policies initiated under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and sustained by successive administrations, including those of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Biden’s two recent Democratic predecessors in the White House.
If the economic policy drift in the last four decades was to the right, Biden is moving left on the relationship between the state and the market — on raising taxes, increasing public spending and addressing the problem of sharp economic inequality.
Biden has also joined Trump in questioning America’s uncritical economic globalisation of the past. If Trump talked of putting America First, Biden wants to make sure that America’s foreign and economic policies serve the US middle class. Biden does not plan to sign any free trade treaties in the near term. If the past American policy was to open financial markets everywhere for Wall Street, Biden’s top advisers say it is not the job of the White House to open the international doors for Goldman Sachs.
Washington is also witnessing big changes in US foreign policy. Biden’s emphasis on rebooting the American economy — including through an active industrial policy — is driven in part by the perceived need to vigorously compete with China. More broadly, Biden has concluded that four decades of America’s uncritical engagement with China must be reconstituted into a policy that faces up to the many challenges that Beijing presents to the US.
Biden’s decision to respond effectively to China’s aggressive policies in the Indo-Pacific has strong backing from the Republican Party. Biden is also focused on renewing the traditional US alliances to present a united front against China. He is also seeking to overcome Washington’s hostility to Russia by resetting ties with Moscow.
America’s new orientation under Biden has opened much space for India to widen and deepen ties with Washington. But what about the question of democracy and human rights that seems to be exciting the sceptics of the India-US relationship?
Democracy is very much part of America’s founding ideology. But living up to that ideal at home and abroad has not been easy for the United States over the last two centuries. At home, it is now in the throes of a new effort to revitalise its American democracy. Unlike his predecessors, Biden recognises that renewing American democracy is the most powerful way of supporting democracies around the world.
At home, Biden has underlined the importance of confronting institutional racism within America, reducing the mindless gun violence by limiting the constitutional right to bear arms, and preventing discrimination on voting rights for minorities. Biden’s efforts will have valuable lessons for reforming India’s own democracy. Delhi and Washington will also have much to discuss on the challenges that new surveillance technologies and big tech monopolies pose to democratic governance.
Washington has long struggled to reconcile its commitment to promote democracy with the pursuit of US national interests abroad. The exclusive American focus on democracy promotion has been rare, costly and unsuccessful. India’s own experience at spreading democracy in its neighbourhood is quite similar.
Delhi and Washington, then, have many notes to exchange on democracy and human rights. But that discussion is only one part of the expansive new agenda — from Afghanistan to Indo-Pacific, reforming global economic institutions to addressing climate change, and vaccine diplomacy to governing new technologies that beckon India and the United States. As they intensify the bilateral cooperation, the two sides will hopefully turn the Indo-US partnership from a perennial curiosity to a quotidian affair.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 27, 2021 under the title ‘The great convergence and a lag’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express