Nationalist Ideologies and Misperceptions in India-U.S. Relations

The most prominent story in U.S. coverage of President Clinton’s March 2000 visit to India was the public rebuke issued to him by India’s ceremonial head of state, President K. Narayanan. At an official banquet Narayanan broke with protocol to chide Clinton for describing South Asia as “the most dangerous place on earth,” charging that such remarks would encourage the very violence Clinton feared. Oddly, though, Indian reporting of the event focused more on the tenor of U.S. reporting than on the remarks themselves. The difference reflected a contrast between the tones of American and Indian coverage that, though the reverse of what one would expect, confirms the very different perspectives of the U.S. and India on this chronically troubled relationship. American coverage was somber, focusing on Clinton’s failure to convince India to give up nuclear weapons. In India, where this outcome was never in doubt, reporting was more upbeat, seeing a belated American acquiescence to India’s nuclear status and role in world affairs.

In foreign policy, misperception is seen as a source of conflict. At times, though, India-U.S. relations suggest the opposite. Periods of increasing contact occur when each side believes the other has finally accepted its view of the world. When nothing turns out to have changed, relations between the world’s “two largest democracies” revert to testy indifference. If the current flirtation proves different, it will be because the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India has brought a different mindset to foreign policymaking.

Mainstream Indian nationalism, represented by the once-dominant Congress party, was shaped by the experience of racial discrimination and economic exploitation under British colonialism. It consequently identified India’s interests with the third world at large and emphasized economic and technological self-reliance. Moreover, the gradual pace by which British colonial power expanded from ports granted by local rulers led to the conclusion that even small concessions on sovereignty, such as granting bases to seemingly benign powers, would lead to foreign domination. British India’s abysmal record on poverty—even compared to independent India’s mediocre one—makes it easy for Indian nationalists to defend this concern about sovereignty against charges that military expenditures hurt the poor. For the Congress party, though, formal recognition of the equality of sovereign states is as important as military strength.

For the rival “Hindu nationalist” tradition of the BJP, India’s humiliation at the hands of foreigners began in the 13th century when Islamic kingdoms were established in the subcontinent by central Asian conquerors. The BJP is therefore both less inclined to identify India’s national interest with the third world generally and more concerned with military power as a means for preserving sovereignty. This difference was reflected in the past in, for example, a more sympathetic attitude toward Israel, and it shaped the twin decisions to conduct the first nuclear tests since 1974 and then to negotiate nuclear policy with the United States.

India’s foreign policy shift is not from a moralistic or reflexively anti-American Congress party policy to a pragmatic or pro-American BJP one. Congress governments have often used force to obtain their goals, were influenced by the desire for guns and oil in shaping their policies toward the Soviet Union and Iraq, and have made concessions to Washington in return for aid. The difference lies in the means the Congress party and the BJP choose to pursue India’s interests in the global arena. The Congress party has sought to change the rules of the international game and to create broad third world coalitions, believing that India’s interests could only be safeguarded through collective action. The BJP is more inclined to try to improve India’s position within the existing rules and to strike opportunistic bilateral deals to India’s advantage, even if they are not favored by developing countries generally.

The danger is that the Clinton administration could misperceive India’s foreign policy shift. The BJP is willing to make small shifts in exchange for specific concessions. Even in this, it faces resistance both from a Congress-led opposition that controls the upper house of parliament and from suspicions of U.S. intentions among the Indian elite. Dissatisfaction with what was seen as a weak-kneed Congress approach to the West after 1991 helped the BJP come to power, and Indian excitement after the 1998 nuclear tests was as much due to the act of defiance they represented as to any attachment to nuclear weapons themselves.

The Clinton Trip & Beyond: Recommendations for U.S. Policy

To minimize misperceptions in the future, the United States should avoid projecting its own interests on the Indian government, just because the latter is willing to talk. The form and process of negotiations is also important, not just the substance. The United States cannot, on the one hand, praise the world’s “largest democracy” and then proceed to dictate conditions to it. Neither can it expect unilateral binding commitments in exchange for vague promises of good intentions.

With these injunctions in mind, how do we assess the Clinton trip? For the president, personally, the trip went surprisingly well. Clinton’s speech to the Indian parliament, filled with praise for India’s democratic traditions and economic promise, was wildly applauded. Clinton also received enthusiastic welcomes during trips outside the capital. Commercial agreements were signed. Committees were established to promote cooperation in areas from information technology to health. Vajpayee agreed to visit the United States. And although there were scattered protests against the visit, and demonstrations had to be banned in Delhi, the only significant fly in the ointment was Indian criticism of the U.S. Secret Service’s high-handedness in making security arrangements.

However, on the core global issues separating the two countries, Clinton faced a brick wall of Indian political parties displaying unanimity unprecedented in recent years. U.S. Secretary of State Albright, who had announced that her goal was India’s adherence to the NPT as a non-nuclear state, had to report no progress in this area. President Narayanan’s comments, while criticized as undiplomatic, were echoed in their substance by all of India’s newspapers. Even the Congress party’s Italian-born leader, Rajiv Gandhi’s widow, Sonia, was said to have endorsed the BJP’s “minimum credible deterrent” response to Clinton. And there was no significant progress either in bridging core differences on the role of labor in the WTO or even in determining the scope of the next round of trade talks.

This is not to say that the misperceptions on the two sides remain as profound as before. Clinton took pains in his speech to Parliament to acknowledge that India had a right to determine its own security needs, though he questioned—as do many Indians—whether building nuclear weapons is a sensible allocation of scarce resources. The “Vision Statement” released by the two sides, which outlined many areas of converging interest, simply recorded the two countries’ different views on whether India needed nuclear weapons.

On the face of it, the two nations could simply agree to disagree on the nuclear issue and move on. The U.S. might then ease sanctions but maintain them formally to deter India from pushing ahead aggressively with a nuclear program, and India could tacitly slow its program without publicly agreeing to do so. But such an arrangement would not likely endure. India wants sanctions removed, not simply eased. The prospect of war with Pakistan remains, and to maintain credibility domestically, the BJP would have to take some steps toward building a “minimum credible deterrent,” even if this only entailed continuing to test missiles. Thus, the time seems right to rethink the U.S. approach to India.

The successes and failures of the Johnson administration’s dealings with India in the 1960s suggest some guidelines. First, negotiate quietly to define limited, attainable changes. Second, identify objectives for which a significant domestic constituency exists within India. Third, avoid blatant and public arm-twisting along the lines of Johnson’s “short tether” policy. Fourth, offer specific concessions to compensate for specific policy changes. The phased lifting of the remaining sanctions is an obvious place to begin, but such a process would have to avoid the impression of constantly moving the goalpost. Fifth, deliver on these concessions. To these guidelines, two other considerations should be added in hopes of influencing not just what the BJP government would be willing to do but what it could do politically.

First, Washington must understand that Indians perceive U.S. domination in the military and economic spheres as intertwined. Perceptions of bad faith on the part of United States in one sphere impair U.S. credibility in other areas. Most Indians, from business to labor and from political right to left, view U.S. support for introducing labor standards into trade rules as a continuation of the protectionism evident in the textile quotas. The fact that quotas remain in place even after India and other developing countries changed their intellectual property rights laws ahead of schedule is frequently commented on. Bitterness over the intellectual property rights issue is widespread—Indian newspapers routinely report on Western entrepreneurs patenting traditional Indian products, for example. Trade issues generally contribute to a sense among diverse Indian constituencies that all American actions are imperialist.

Second, India, like many other countries, views with great suspicion U.S. claims to be championing a new order of international morality. Although neither the Chinese nor the Indian government was receptive, former Russian Prime Minister Primakov’s proposals for an antihegemonic alliance between Russia, China, and India received wide coverage in India. In contrast, U.S. praise for India as a fellow democracy is generally either received with cynicism or used as an argument for convincing the U.S. to accept India on India’s terms. Specific U.S. concessions are more likely to achieve policy changes in New Delhi than will attempts at flattering India into adopting an American agenda.

How would these guidelines be applied to the dual U.S. policy objectives of preventing war between Pakistan and India (as a result of escalated fighting in Kashmir) and halting nuclear proliferation? The most obvious approach is for the United States to separate the two and focus on achievable results in one. It is unlikely that much can be achieved regarding nonproliferation. Neither is it likely that Washington can goad the combatants into solving the Kashmir dispute any time soon. Pakistan’s bottom line (self-determination for Kashmir) and India’s (probably turning the cease-fire line into an international border) are too far apart. However, there are measures the U.S. could promote that would reduce the prospect of war—and thereby of nuclear war—if Washington were willing to shelve its nonproliferation goals.

The U.S. is well-placed to promote conventional arms control and peacekeeping measures in South Asia. Although India would be unlikely to agree to recall regular troops from Kashmir as long as it believed irregular guerrillas were infiltrating from Pakistan, pulling back heavy weaponry might do a great deal. More ambitiously, the U.S. could work to rid South Asia of short-range missiles, which, unlike medium-range missiles, are both useless for deterring China and hard to monitor. Still more ambitiously, the United States might press India to allow an international peacekeeping force on its side of the line of control in Kashmir. India refuses to allow the present UN Monitoring Group (UNMOGIP) to operate because UNMOGIP only monitors regular troops. Whether the rules of UN peacekeeping can be changed to rectify this limitation is unclear. Certainly troops from major powers, like the NATO force in Bosnia, would be unacceptable to India. Perhaps the United States could offer to supplement peacekeeper monitoring with satellite pictures, which helped adjudicate among rival claims in the 1999 conflict.

These proposals would be a hard sell, but the very high cost that India paid in mid-1999, and continues to pay for maintaining troops on high mountains and glaciers, might eventually make it receptive. Finally, the United States could press New Delhi—in private—to begin talks with the home-grown factions of the Kashmiri militancy, as India has with separatists in other regions. This is an approach for which there is considerable domestic support among India’s political opposition parties and that might well lead eventually to some form of self-determination for Kashmir—meeting Pakistan’s stated goal—without requiring India to publicly reverse its opposition to a UN-mandated plebiscite or to negotiate Kashmir’s status with Pakistan.

None of these measures will be easy to achieve. There is hope, however, if Washington tacitly accepts the existence of nuclear weapons in the subcontinent but insists that responsible nuclear powers make efforts to remove possible flashpoints with their nuclear adversaries, as the Soviet Union and United States once did. This approach, which has been adopted by the Clinton administration on occasion, is undermined by the intrusion of nonproliferation goals in a quite contradictory way.

Like it or not, from official India’s perspective, the bomb has brought India dividends diplomatically. It has also provided Pakistan with assurance of its own survival, for the first time since 1971. Belying its insistence that nuclear weapons are not a sign of prestige, the United States has paid more attention to India since India’s nuclear tests. Where Albright cut short an earlier trip to India when a crisis erupted over Iraq, Chinese threats to Taiwan did not intrude on Clinton’s visit. Where before there was little progress in border negotiations with China, today progress is reported. Even the longstanding dream of a permanent seat in the UN Security Council is closer to attainment, if some reports are to be believed, although skepticism is warranted. No Indian government is going to undo or formally cap its nuclear program any time soon.

A more modest goal of slowing the growth of India’s nuclear arsenal might, however, be attainable. India is barred from importing safety equipment for its highly dangerous nuclear reactors because of its refusal to place all its reactors under international safeguards. India is unwilling to permanently cap its nuclear stockpile at the current level by placing all its reactors under safeguards, but it has, on occasion, proposed placing new reactors built by Western firms under supervision, in an effort to obtain investment in this area. Allowing the export of safety equipment to the most dangerous reactors and placing only these under international supervision might decrease India’s production of fissile material to a trickle without entirely capping it. Though the BJP government would resist this, growing domestic concerns about nuclear safety could prove a useful U.S. ally. This approach, however, would require Washington to compromise on the letter of the NPT. To attempt to go much beyond this would be both self-defeating and unnecessary.

Sanctions and global condemnation have achieved little toward controlling India’s nuclear weapons. Ultimately, economic constraints and democratic politics will prevent any Indian government from launching a huge missile program. Short of a conference on global nuclear disarmament, there is little the United States can do to reverse the status quo. Clinton might well have proven that he could win office in India if he wished, but if he did, it appears that he, like Sonia Gandhi, would have to embrace India’s “minimum credible deterrent!”

The United States has an unprecedented opportunity today to play a constructive role in resolving South Asia’s chronic and expensive rivalry. If Clinton does not wish for his trip to go the way of the equally successful trips to the U.S. by Indira Gandhi in 1966 and Rajiv Gandhi in 1986, he will have to focus his considerable persuasive skills on narrower goals.