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India is No U.S. Vassal State: It is a Proud Country with an Independent Foreign Policy

India's recent moves with the US are not an act of realignment with the West. They are carefully calibrated actions based on hard-headed calculations of Indian national interest.

The close bonhomie India is sharing with the US in the last few years is certainly going to raise some eyebrows among those who cover the alternate perspective, a more realistic perspective I might add, of the changes going on in Russia and China, and the realignment of world polity. It will be mind-boggling to comprehend how a country, which was firmly in the Soviet camp during the Cold War and whose main enemy (Pakistan) is supposed to be in the American camp, is becoming closer to the US. Wouldn’t the second most populous country and one of the most egotistical civilizations in the world want to be part of the newer alliances shaping the political realignment?

It is here that we must pause, and question this narrative and punch it with nuances that many often miss, trying to view India from the same dichotomous lens of “them” (the US and the system of its allies) and “us” (the belligerent countries challenging the US dominance). In my view the application of such a lens is no different than how the US sees the world, and indeed Russia. We have to move beyond the concepts of “sameness” and “otherness” that have hijacked the world ever since the Dulles brothers started this in the 1950s, as explained by Stephen Kinzer. Otherwise those who try to analyze what is going on in the minds of the mantris in Delhi will be forever doomed to misunderstandings.

Yes, it is true that India is moving closer to the United States – not close as in buying a few weapons close, but close in a far more impactful manner. India is closely cooperating with the US military, and a treaty, which will allow each other’s militaries to utilize the bases of the other, is in the final works. Now, it would be fair to criticize this, but to claim that the closer cooperation between the two countries means the projection of US hegemony through India, that is simply not true. The current government, formed by the Bharatiya Janata Party does give an image as if it is a West leaning, capitalism heavy political entity, but this image arises from a fundamental misunderstanding those outside of India have when it comes to analyzing how domestic politics work.

Before I explain the origins of the BJP, I would like to layout a simple model of a democratic system which I shall be using to explain the BJP. In a democratic system, there are elections held at regular intervals where people decide to vote a particular party into power. This structure creates elections as some sort of a sporting event in which each party tries to win by securing votes. And they go about this business by differentiating themselves from the other, which leads each party or any political entity to evolve a set of core kernel of beliefs, using them as a legitimacy to gain power.

The kernel defining the identity of the BJP in India is the misunderstood concept of Hindutva. Now many prominent self-identifying liberals – who suffer from an acute lack of understanding of Indian ethos and local issues – try to create links between Hindutva, the political ideology and Hinduism, the religion. In their criticism of Hindutva, they argue that BJP is a communalist party which is bent on creating a nation for just Hindus – contrasting the reality that India is the third largest Muslim nation in the world. But Hindutva is a concept which is very different from this. It is an idea which mixes India’s culture, her history and the colonial experiences to create a set of narratives seeking to unify Indians under a common identity. It is no different in its conception than the distinct brand of Communism that sprang in China as a way to respond to the infringing of Chinese interests by the outside world.

Hindutva defines Hinduism, which is far lesser understood by Indians themselves, as a cultural framework rather than a religious one, where all Indians are woven into its fabric. The Indian Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, while giving an interview to the New York Times, said:

“India is a Hindu nation in the cultural sense. A Catholic in Goa is also Hindu culturally, because his practices don’t match with Catholics in Brazil [a former Portuguese outpost like Goa]; except in the religious aspect, a Goan Catholic’s way of thinking and practice matches a Hindu’s.”

This quote is at the heart of what the BJP believes in and considers it as the model for India. But the most crucial aspect of Hindutva which is casually brushed aside is how the idea is structured in the broader framework of the global world – after all there is no such thing as “isolationism”.  As I mentioned it earlier, Hindutva was formed largely as a reaction to Western imperialism. James Gelvin, an American scholar on Middle East, coined the term “defensive developmentalism” for a framework whereby indigenous institutions oriented their policies and behavior by strengthening their efficacy and control over resources and governance structures as a way to react to asymmetrical relationships with other states. Development from this perspective was seen as a way to address the imbalances in power. The concept can be widely used to explain the set of changes that occurred in China between 1911-1949, in Japan under the Meiji era between 1868-1912, both the Koreas in the post Korean war, and also, India, between 1857-1947. Hindutva was one of the avenues for such a reaction.

The hallmark for such ideologies is the justification of strengthening national security and local military apparatus. It is then, no wonder that the BJP and its political ancestors have always supported efforts by the Indian government to strengthen India’s military capabilities. Atal Behari Vajpayee who is one of the most influential statesman and politicians in the Republican era of the country, despite being fundamentally opposed to the Indian National Congress (the chief opponent of the BJP) wholeheartedly supported Indira Gandhi from the Congress when she railed against international opposition to develop nuclear weapons.

Thus, national security – which is seen as a modicum of strengthening sovereignty in the BJP’s kernel – is a key factor in understanding why India appears to be leaning towards the West. It is not due to corruption, or nepotism, or even an opposition to Russia and the growing power of China entirely. It is because from the viewpoint of India, the US is an entity which is willing to share its military capabilities which India can tap into and build the foundations of its military reforms. In other words, it is engaging in exactly the same kind of copying of US technologies that the Chinese do (or did?), but unlike China, India enjoys a benign view in the minds of the American leaders. In reality India has nothing to do with the imperialistic philosophies of the West – after all it is a victim of those exact philosophies.

Apart from access to military technologies another factor behind the push towards the US is due to the India-Pakistan conflict. Now, Delhi does realize that the future lies in the land routes of Eurasia – shown by the special interest the Indian Prime Minister has shown in the Russian city of Astrakhan. Astrakhan is a special city because until the 18th century, Indian traders used to be a common feature in the city until the advent of the sea routes wrecked the trading networks. But India cannot utilize these trade routes, which in history ran all the way from Bengal to Baku, Tehran, Qom, Nishapur, Samarkand and Astrakhan in the West, until its relationship with Pakistan is resolved. Naturally, Indians wish to settle their political feud, but it is advantageous for the them if the deal occurs on terms they want. But for this to happen, India has to manage outside influences from China and the US. One way to achieve this is to develop a close relationship with the US. So the relationship between the US and India is not about giving up sovereignty and becoming a vassal state. It is about bootstrapping the development of the Indian military by tapping into what the US has to offer, and also about resolving its long running, but counter-productive feud with Pakistan.

It is vital that the analyses of US-India relationship don’t fall victim to the inanely naïve analyses that the clueless think tanks of Washington produce. There is a lot more diversity in the structure of the world, even in “our” camp and “their” camp. If the analysis has a prejudice of confining India in the camps of blindly following what Russia and China seem to be doing, then India will be an enigma producing a series of disappointments. And if we confine the country in the Western camp, it too shall produce nothing but disappointments. Instead of this, it is more insightful and more accurate if one recognizes that India is a country that has never fallen into any cages of dogmas, and has always strode in a manner justifying its immense ego, wishing to be independent.

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