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Modi in Washington: Why India Will Not Become a US Ally

India's recent moves do not mean it is breaking with the BRICS or joining a US alliance against China. It is simply a case of India pursuing its traditional policy of positioning itself between the Great Powers to achieve greatest advantage for itself.

Indian Prime Minister Modi’s just completed visit to Washington has reinforced fears that India is evolving into a full-fledged ally of the US.

The grounds for thinking this were ably discussed by my colleague Andrew Korybko in two fine pieces he has written for The Duran.  For those interested in the details of the moves the US and India have been making towards each other, there is no better place to start than those two articles (here and here).

Is India however really abandoning its traditional policy of non-alignment to forge an alliance with Washington that would in effect bury the BRICS arrangement?

I have no doubt that that is what Washington itself believes.  I am sure that in the aftermath of Prime Minister Modi’s visit, Washington’s huge foreign policy establishment is busy congratulating itself on its success in detaching India from Russia and China.  The champagne corks in Langley and Foggy Bottom are no doubt flying as I write this, and I have no doubt that Andrew Korybko has reproduced with absolute accuracy the way the whole India play is looked upon by people inside the Beltway.

However I suspect that from New Delhi things look rather different.  I am quite sure that both the hopes and fears of an Indian alliance with the US are exaggerated.

Before discussing my reasons for saying this, it is necessary to provide some background.

Much of the concern that has been expressed about Prime Minister Modi’s dalliance with Washington derives from a misunderstanding of his background. There was a widespread view before Modi became Prime Minister of India that because the US had previously denied him a visa to travel to the US that somehow meant he was opposed to the US, and this has led to surprise when it turned out that he was not hostile to the US at all, with more than a hint in some quarters of a feeling of betrayal.

In reality the US refusal of a visa simply reflects ignorance of Indian politics and the US propensity to strike poses, in this case in connection to sectarian riots in Gujarat in 2002 for which Modi as the state’s chief minister was deemed by the US to be responsible.  The episode of the visa says nothing about Modi’s actual opinions of the US and is irrelevant to his actions as India’s Prime Minister.  Those are rooted in his own political needs and background and in India’s national interests.

Briefly and very crudely, Indian politics since independence have broadly followed one of two traditions: the secular leftist “social democracy” associated with Congress or the more conservative, more right wing and more free market oriented course associated with what is sometimes called the Hindutva nationalist movement.  Very broadly, during the Cold War Indian politicians associated with Congress tended to tilt towards Moscow, whilst more Hindutva oriented politicians tended to be more sympathetic to Washington.

Modi comes from the Hindutva nationalist tradition.  He came to power as leader of the right wing Hindutva oriented BJP after defeating Congress in 2014 in parliamentary elections, and he has positioned himself as a follower of the previous BJP Prime Minister hailing from the Hindutva tradition – Atal Bihari Vajpayee – whose name Modi repeatedly invoked in the speech he made to the US Congress during his US visit.

Modi’s Hindutva background would itself suffice to explain his preference for closer dealings with Washington.  There are however practical reasons that might impel him in that direction anyway – as they did his Congress predecessor Manmohan Singh. 

The first is the forceful demands for a closer alignment with the US from the outspokenly pro-US business community centred on India’s port city of Mumbai (Bombay).  These people form a key component of Modi’s political constituency and he is simply not in a position to disregard them. 

The second is the wish to attract US investment to India in order to sustain India’s programme for rapid economic growth and economic modernisation.  This has been India’s overriding priority ever since the initial steps were taken by Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister in the Congress government of the 1990s to liberalise India’s economy.

Given these factors Modi has actually been restrained in his dealings with the US.  It is important to say anyway that these dealings follow an established tradition within India of seeking good relations with the US.

In the late 1970s the leader of what was then the Janata party (the lineal ancestor of today’s BJP) Prime Minister Morarji Desai, was widely suspected of having leaked intelligence information from within the Indian Cabinet to Washington during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.  Whether that was true or not, there is evidence that Henry Kissinger at least considered Morarji Desai to be a US intelligence asset (for a full discussion of this controversial question see the chapter on the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 in Seymour Hersh’s The Price of Power) and he did in fact follow a more friendly policy towards the US – and Pakistan – than the Congress led governments of the period did.

As for Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Modi’s predecessor as BJP leader and Indian prime minister, it was during his period as Prime Minister that the first steps in forming the present US-Indian relationship were taken with the visit in 2000 of US President Clinton – the first visit to India by a US President in 22 years.

The key event in forging the present close relations between the US and India however happened not under Vajpayee – or indeed now under Modi.  It happened during the last period of Congress government, when the US administration of George W. Bush made a sustained and ultimately successful attempt between 2005 and 2008 to forge good relations with India

The key achievement of this period – and the keystone of the whole US-Indian relationship – pointedly referred to as such by Modi in the speech he made to the US Congress during his visit – was the 2008 India-United States Civil Nuclear Agreement, which essentially amounted to recognition by the US of India’s status as a fully-fledged nuclear Great Power.

Suffice to say that the Indian Prime Minister at the time of the India-United States Civil Nuclear Agreement was none other than Manmohan Singh, someone often spoken of as a BRICS loyalist, who represented India at the founding summit of the BRICS group in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg in 2009.

It is entirely natural that Modi, like Manmohan Singh before him, would want to build on the relationship with the US forged during the premierships of Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh.  Doing so after all arguably serves both his own political needs and India’s national interests.  India has no interest in making an enemy of the US and it is entirely natural that it would want to extract the most advantages from the US by maintaining a good relationship with it.

What however of the greater strategic play – does wanting good relations with the US mean India has to align itself with Washington against Beijing and Moscow? 

Before discussing this question it is necessary to say something about the history of India’s relationships with Beijing and Moscow.

India’s relations with China since independence has been complex and difficult.  India’s relations with Russia since independence by contrast have been straightforward and easy.

China and India had very close relations in the 1950s – much closer than today – when it appeared that the two countries’ prime ministers, Zhou Enlai and Jawaharlal Nehru, had forged a close friendship.  Relations however fell apart in the early 1960s over Tibet and disputes over their common border, with a brief but savage war fought between the two countries in 1962 in which Russia sided with India but in which India was comprehensively defeated by China, leaving China occupying much of what had previously been Indian controlled territory. 

Relations between India and China then remained very tense until Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 since when they have warned considerably.  During the previous period of tense relations China however forged an alliance with India’s perennial enemy Pakistan, which continues to this day and which adds another layer of conflict to the Indian-Chinese relationship.

With Russia by contrast the relationship has been straightforward and good.  India and Russia have been close friends since India achieved independence from Britain (the Indian ambassador Krishna Menon was the last foreign visitor received by Stalin before his death in 1953). 

In the late 1960s, as Moscow’s own relations with China deteriorated, Russia and India became for a time de facto allies against China and its ally Pakistan, with Russia providing India with critical military assistance which enabled India to win victory in the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war. 

Since the USSR’s collapse relations between Russia and India have as a result of Russia’s diminished reach and power inevitably become more distant, but they have remained warm.

Given the complex and difficult history of India’s relations with China, and given the huge increase in Chinese power which has taken place since the 1970s, and given the reduction in power of India’s former partner Russia over the same period, and given the fact that Russia has itself drawn closer to China and is now in de facto alliance with it, it is completely understandable that India would want to insure its position against China by strengthening its ties with Washington.  India would surely be doing this even if there were not also compelling economic reasons to do so (see above).

However looked at objectively what is striking is the restraint India has shown in pursuing this objective.  Whilst India has certainly followed the logic of improving its relations with Washington, it has been careful to retain its traditionally good relations with Moscow, and under both Manmohan Singh and Modi it has kept its lines of communication to China open, working successfully alongside China and Russia as a member of the BRICS.

The reason India has pursued this balanced course is actually made clear in Andrew Korybko’s two pieces.  India’s aspirations to be accepted as a Great Power are ultimately incompatible with subordination to Washington – a relationship of subordination to the US being the only type of relationship Washington today seems able to forge with other powers.

Beyond this, India has no more interest in making an enemy of China than it has in making an enemy of the US.  China is far more powerful than India.  India cannot defeat China militarily and recent experience will have taught India that any US commitments to “defend” India from China are to all intents and purposes worthless.  China is also India’s biggest trading partner and – like the US – is a key potential investor in the Indian economy.

From India’s point of view maintaining at least a working relationship with China is therefore overwhelmingly in India’s interests even if for historically fully understandable reasons the relationship with China cannot be conflict free or entirely warm.

All this points to the sort of policy Modi is currently following – and which was followed previously by his two predecessors – Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh: good relations with both Washington and Moscow combined with a certain wariness towards China but with a continued willingness to work with China in India’s national interest through the BRICS group and the various other Chinese led institutions that are now being formed.

Seen in this context it is now possible to read Modi’s speech to the US Congress in the proper way. 

The speech contained all the usual cliches and bromides Americans love: invocations of “freedom”, platitudes about American democracy, flattering reminders of how India is also a democracy, paeans of praise for American enterprise, breathless references to Abraham Lincoln, Norman Borlaug, Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Walt Whitman (as it happens an interesting selection, and one that might beg some questions) and heroic talk of the joint struggle against Islamist terrorism.

It also made no definite promise or commitment to the US whatsoever.  The whole tenor of the speech was a call for US support for India with nothing of substance offered in return.  Importantly, nowhere in the speech is there a single reference to the Logistics Support Agreement discussed at length in his two pieces by Andrew Korybko. 

Whilst the Logistics Support Agreement does have the potential to evolve into the sort of all-encompassing military relationship Andrew Korybko writes about – and that is no doubt how the US envisages it – it is important to say that that can only happen if India approaches it in that way. 

As things stand that is most unlikely.  From the Indian point of view the Logistics Support Agreement should be seen for what it is: an insurance policy India has taken out with the US against China, which India can draw upon if its relations with China ever turn sticky, but which India ultimately only took out because it was pressed do so by the US, who offered it to India for free.

Modi’s visit to the US Congress and his speech there is in fact a regular ritual Indian prime ministers now regularly perform when they visit the US.  Similar speeches have been delivered to the US Congress by previous Indian prime ministers: Rajiv Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. 

From Modi’s point of view his speech must be counted a success.  Though Modi actually offered nothing the assembled Congressmen – thrilled by Modi’s earnest flattery – lapped his speech up.  The result is that Modi left Washington with Congressional approval for trade concessions and for more arms sales.

Having got what he wanted in Washington, Modi’s next move says everything one needs to know about the true nature of Indian policy.  On returning to New Delhi where – hopefully – US listening devices could no longer hear him, practically the first thing Modi did was to telephone his BRICS partner – President Putin of Russia – presumably over a secure line.

The Kremlin’s brief account of the call suggests a Putin – Modi summit is in the works.  It pointedly also refers to relations between India and Russia as a “privileged strategic partnership” – balancing similar words used in Washington by Modi to describe India’s relationship with the US.

Whilst we cannot know exactly what Modi and Putin said to each other, it is overwhelmingly likely Modi would have given Putin a detailed account of his visit to the US and that that was the purpose of his call.  It is also overwhelmingly likely that a full account of Modi’s conversation with Putin – perhaps even a transcript – will have been sent by the Kremlin to Beijing, and that Modi made the call knowing – and intending – that that would happen.

In summary, India’s moves towards Washington are not the actions of a country that is repositioning itself as an ally of the US pitched against its former partners Russia and China.  Nor are they an attempt by India to play one side off against the other.  Rather they should be seen as what they surely are: the careful manoeuvring of an emerging Great Power as it seeks the maximum advantage for itself in an increasingly fluid international system. 

The Russians and Chinese undoubtedly understand all this especially since – as Modi’s telephone call to Putin shows – the Indians are being careful to keep them informed about what they are doing.

As for the US, obsessed as it has become with its complex games of geopolitical chess, it by contrast almost certainly does not understand what the Indians are up to even though – if the US had a more conventional approach to foreign policy – understanding it would be easy enough. 

That this is so is shown by what happened the last time the US sought to play an emerging Asian Great Power off against one of its rivals.  That was in the 1980s when the US sought to play the “China card” against Moscow – oblivious to the fact that whilst it was doing so the Russians and the Chinese were quietly settling their differences with each other.  In the process the US made a string of unilateral concessions to “win over” China – just as they are doing with India now – including the fatal one of opening up US markets to Chinese goods.  The rest as they say is history.

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Alexander Mercouris
Editor-in-Chief atThe Duran.

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