How India can tackle dissenting voices in US policy circles

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar at a press conference in New Delhi on June 8 (Photo: ANI)
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar at a press conference in New Delhi on June 8 (Photo: ANI)


  • Some American policymakers have argued against closer cooperation with India because of the rise of Hindu majoritarian sentiment in the country and New Delhi’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States, scheduled to begin on June 21, is expected to mark a decisive step forward in bilateral relations and India’s stabilising role in the Indo-Pacific. A key anticipated development is finalising a deal for American engineering giant GE to transfer technology for Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd to start producing the GE-F414 engines for India’s Tejas Mark-2 warplanes, an improvement on the existing light-combat aircraft Tejas Mark-1. Preparatory meetings are already underway, such as the maiden strategic trade dialogue between the two countries on June 7.

This is one tangible outcome expected from the visit. However, the delegation could make progress on a wider agenda. There has been clarity in the US on India’s vital role as a strategic counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific region ever since former US President George Bush not only signed a nuclear deal with the Manmohan Singh-led government but also strong-armed China into accepting India’s quasi-membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group despite India’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). India is now a member of the so-called Quadrilateral grouping, aka the Quad, which also includes the US, Japan and Australia and aims to ensure peace in the Indo-Pacific.

Yet, there are dissenting voices in US policy circles on closer cooperation with India. This dissent stems from two sources, but Indian interlocutors should be able to clear the air on both to the satisfaction of sceptics.

The first of these is suspicion about whether India actually qualifies as a democratic country, given reports of crackdowns on dissent and the rise of Hindu majoritarianism in parts of India posing a threat to those who follow other faiths and to India’s cohesion as a nation.

The other is motivated by India’s refusal to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. While India has not endorsed the invasion and is committed to finding a negotiated settlement to the hostilities, there is puzzlement in US policy circles on why India should equivocate on the violation of one nation’s sovereignty by another. That India has joined China as a major buyer of Russian crude at knockdown prices is seen by these critics as a sign of opportunism.

On the charge of deviation from democratic norms, New Delhi must reiterate its stated official position, in conformity with India’s Constitution, that is against any oppression of minorities, and highlight its stand-out track record as a functional democracy among countries that have emerged from colonial rule. Any backsliding is best remedied by more vigorous internal democratic politics rather than by external meddling.

As for the unusual stand on Ukraine, New Delhi must make it clear to the world that India stands by the legitimacy of both national sovereignty and geopolitical power centres. America’s National Security Strategy 2022 saw China as America’s systemic rival and Russia as little more than a thorn in the side, but India’s view of the world is a little different.

A bipolar hegemony of the US and China would leave India, on which China has hostile designs, with the prospect of eroded strategic autonomy, confronted as it would be with the need to rely on US assistance to stand up to China. India needs Russia to remain a salient pole of global power to avert such an eventuality. In fact, it would suit India even better if, in addition, President Macron of France were to make good on his vision of making Europe a centre of geopolitical power.

For India to remain a counterweight to China in the region, it must be a powerful, autonomous power and perceived as such by other Asian countries. For Russia to remain a global power centre to be reckoned with, it must continue to have a navy that can be deployed at will. Crimea hosts the Russian navy’s warm-water base in Sevastopol. Crimea has historically been part of Russia but was assigned to Ukraine in 1954 by the Khrushchev government of the USSR. Continued access for Russian men and materiel to Sevastopol depends on the land route along eastern Ukraine. This explains Russian intransigence on Crimea and on Ukraine’s membership to NATO.

War will not find a solution to this imbroglio — only negotiations can. And that is what India supports, quite reasonably. It should be possible for Indian interlocutors and the media to articulate this position with clarity and conviction.

Many see in the halted progress on bilateral trade agreements a major obstacle to ties between the two countries. Exclusive focus on merchandise trade occludes the reality that the bulk of India’s information technology services exports are to the US, as is a big chunk of the growing knowledge-process-outsourcing segment. Better access to the US market for Indian professionals and the availability of work visas for such access are vital, but preferential trade deals – of the kind that are extended to poor nations, from whose ranks India has graduated – are not.

In creating a world order that permits the emerging world to articulate its aspirations, India and the US have much scope to work together. Indian prime ministers can no longer afford to champion only national causes on their visits to world capitals.

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