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The liberal paradox

There is an abiding paradox in Indo-US relations that calls for deeper reflection. From India’s point of view,those whom we think of as liberals...

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
October 8, 2009 3:30:47 am

There is an abiding paradox in Indo-US relations that calls for deeper reflection. From India’s point of view,those whom we think of as liberals within the American spectrum seem much more difficult to deal with than conservatives. This was not always the case. During the fifties the conservatives were miffed at India’s reluctance to be at the frontline of anti-communism,while liberals were trying to garner support for India. Now liberals are less enthusiastic about India.

At one level,this is easy to explain. Contemporary conservatives believe in a straightforward calculus of power,shorn of any moralistic pretension; you can engage with them straightforwardly on that terrain. American liberals pretend to greater idealism. They therefore have higher moral demands: they want countries to be the perfect environmentalists,fair traders,human rights activists,and renounce nuclear weapons. India is a problematic case for them because India’s position has been simple. India will go along with this version of internationalism only if it applies to all powers,including the major powers.

But this is where American liberals run up against two of their own limitations. First,their version of liberalism is not about replacing American hegemony with some equitable conception of world order; it is about using the language of liberalism and multilateralism to preserve and prolong American pre-eminence. Even as thoughtful and influential a document as the “Princeton Project on National Security”,that aimed at “Forging a World of Liberty Under Law”,could barely disguise the undercurrent that its commitment to a global rule of law was not for intrinsic reasons,but because it could enhance American power. But rather than owning up to its own limitations and its powerlessness against American double standards,American liberalism needs an object on which to assert its ideological identity. Since they dare not take on China,India is the easier target. Certainly there is something quite bizarre about the extraordinary construction of India as an “obstructionist” state that still permeates discourse in the American liberal establishment on almost every issue.

Certainly this construction of India as obstructionist is in stark contrast to the contemporary representation of China. There is no question that the liberal establishment is cosying up to China in unprecedented ways. One could explain this away simply as a consequence of the realities of power: the US needs Chinese cooperation desperately; China simply matters a lot more. But there is still something odd about the repeated calls in the liberal establishment that India should take more responsibility,while China is let off lightly. All the liberal non-proliferationists still bear a grudge against India,while the biggest proliferators are still excused. But there is maybe another,less conscious dynamic at work: the liberal allure of difference. China still serves the function of an exoticism in a way in which India does not. India,by virtue of its political system,is all too familiar. It has to be said: in the US liberal establishment there is a bit of suppressed admiration for the way China manages to create order. India is still chaos.

But the attraction of difference also explains a rather curious mystery about the American establishment,one that crosses party lines: its extraordinary ability to be bewitched by the Pakistani establishment.

Despite the direst constructions of the Pakistani state,the Pakistani ruling establishment still has an odd allure. Its generals — even the ones that let the Taliban lose,and brought their own country to ruin — are often described as “professional”. And there is often a barely suppressed fascination with the aristocratic character of the Pakistani elite,compared with India’s decidedly more humdrum,middle-class public face. Even though India and Pakistan are in a sense de-hyphenated,Pakistan still remains a source of American liberal ambivalence in relation to India. In some ways,American liberals are receptive to the argument that despite all that has transpired in the last couple of years,Pakistan needs some reassurance against India. It is India’s responsibility to ensure that it is not up to funny tricks in Afghanistan,it is India’s responsibility to reassure Pakistan by withdrawing troops. India’s policy of self-restraint is prudent,but there is something distinctly odd about the way in which liberals sanctimoniously counsel it. Richard Holbrooke is a prime example. The implicit construction of India as a “threat” is still prevalent; the liberal establishment still has not entirely got over its protective instincts about Pakistan.

There may also be another curious social dynamic at work. It is fair to say that by and large Indians (and those who work on India) in the humanities and social sciences,who have access to the public discourse,in the East Coast are left-liberals. This reinforces the two dynamics mentioned above: a culturally protective instinct on Pakistan (the Hindu-Muslim question is still centrally conflated with the Pakistan question),as a manifestation of their own liberalism,and a more relentless questioning of India. And second,a refusal to see India in a comparative geo-strategic frame. So what is excusable in China is not excusable in India. In short,a free culture of self-criticism of India is made to feed easily into a discourse of putting India on the defensive.

Some of this is all to the good. It is a backhanded compliment to be held to higher standards. Indeed,India should hold itself to higher standards than other powers. But we should be under no illusions about who our real friends and supporters are going to be. We should not take it for granted that there is some objective necessity that will now drive the US to favour India. India is risking a structural dependence on the US; one that will be greatly exacerbated if India does indeed place its impending single largest order of aircraft with the Americans. Till now the risks have not been great,but it may be too premature to lock us into long-term commitments. India is by no means perfect. But there is still something disquieting about the degree to which it is being put on the defensive on a number of issues,from climate change to proliferation — and now even potentially on Arunachal. Foreign policy,we know,is not just governed by the cold calculus of interests. It is governed by an amalgam of prejudgments,cultural representations,and ideological constructions. India needs to watch out for the fact that the “liberal” construction is likely to gain ascendancy,posing challenges for how we carve a place for ourselves in the world.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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