The Bold Voice of J&K

Getting to know each other, striking rapport

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Gautam Mukherjee

The Indian-American relationship has always been strangely awkward. Indian students love studying in the Ivy League colleges of America, either on scholarships, or at an enormous expense, and Americans, on their part, admire peace apostle Mahatma Gandhi and the Mughal architectural beauty of the Taj Mahal, in almost equal measure. Our understanding of each other is patchy, like the proverbial curate’s egg.
Both the sides always want to improve the other with both one-sided demands and gratuitous advice, but to little or no effect. America has a track record of getting along much better with tin-pot dictatorship and totalitarian regime where the transaction, not understanding, is the main thing. Democracy may be what both India and America espouse, and practice, but it does not seem to engender much mutual recognition of affinities.
And yet, John F Kennedy came to our rescue in 1962 when the Chinese invaded. It was probably the US show of naval muscle that sent the Chinese scurrying back. Nixon sent in the aircraft carriers too, but this time to menace us, during the liberation of Bangladesh. We also got the message. Bill Clinton summoned Nawaz Sharif from Islamabad to Camp David and threatened him with dire consequences if the Pakistan Army and irregulars did not withdraw from Kargil forthwith. Two out of three times, it was America to India’s rescue, and the third time too, there were no adverse reactions to the birthing of Bangladesh, in place of the erstwhile East Pakistan.
But our democracies, that of the US and India, do differ hugely in terms of scale. America has a much bigger land mass and many fewer people. Ours, involves 1.30 billion souls, with 525 million voting in the recent general elections, a number nearly double the entire American population. America’s democracy is neither as numerous, nor so variegated. It is also underpinned, willy-nilly, with the neo-imperialism of the biggest economy of all, and the greatest technological and military might on earth.
Is the Modi-Obama fan-dance then about an enhanced security cooperation and the pressures of geo-politics? One that is aimed at containing Chinese temptations towards expansionism? Does America want to manufacture defence equipment in India in spite of its Intellectual property rights and patent reservations? What about the stalled nuclear power equations? Only time, and tide, will tell.
Meanwhile, India is the upcoming democratic poor cousin, with three million of its ethnic brethren who are now US citizens. India as an independent republic is just 69-year-old, but also an ancient civilisation, rivalled perhaps only by China for sheer antiquity. America is just 200 years young, taking its civilisational cues from old Europe, from whence, after all, it was spawned.
After the two World Wars, the US graduated from being considered gauche colonials, gaining in stature from each. It rose to its undisputable preeminence, its massive power and glory. But it is now also being challenged by an increasingly multi-polar world, in a weakened economic state, and hampered by a tendency to be insular.
Totalitarian China, set on its ascendancy by Nixon, is catching up, with a possibility of overtaking it in the coming decades.  India is bringing up the rear, from a long way behind. But, if all goes well, she too could be ranked very much higher in the not too distant future. And yet, not just now, but always, there has been a clumsiness at our mutual efforts to draw closer.
It is, therefore, difficult to expect very much from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to America beyond a level of satisfying personal vindication on his part, pleasant ‘optics’ on all the Indian TV channels blanket-covering the visit, and an evident swell of pride in the American-Indian community.
Mr Modi’s first visit to Washington, DC, as Prime Minister also coincides with President Barack Obama going into his lame-duck period. And judging by how the India-US relationship went into limbo after the warmth of George W Bush’s second term, India can only really expect to make a proper accounting of where things are going strategically, once the new US President assumes office in 2016.
Modi has certainly assessed this, and spent a lot of time meeting many people from the American business community, boosting ties with the Indian diaspora, illustrated in some measure by permanent visas for Persons of Indian Origin. He met politicians and influencers from both the Democratic and  Republican Parties. He wants to tell all those who wish to know that he will make things very much more hospitable once he comes back home. This should attract a flow of new investment in due course, assuming that the Americans are enthused.

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