Beyond the immediate present

President Obama’s attendance on this January 26 is as important from the perspective of furthering bilateral ties, as it is to show the world that India is ready to play a central role well beyond its borders

January 26, 2015 01:54 am | Updated April 02, 2016 01:10 am IST

“There is a peculiar appropriateness about this January 26 for this day links up the past with the present and this present is seen to grow out of that past.” This was the central argument in Jawaharlal Nehru’s message to the nation prior to the inauguration of the Republic in 1950. That the day itself was of “great significance” is hardly contestable. It demonstrated the “fulfilment to a dream,” as Nehru put it. It was to communicate an achievement accomplished by no other nation in the modern world. History, as Nehru argued, was full of examples of the “chaos giving birth to the dancing star of freedom.” India was an exception. On the whole, the great change that ushered Independence had “taken place by agreement.” This is perhaps the single most important fact that connects India and the United States. This was as true in 1947 as it is today. It was not just that India won her independence from colonialism, but that she did so minus violent rebellion. Similarly, it’s not just that India is the largest democracy in the world that attracts American entrepreneurs and political leaders today, but that it is a democracy able to absorb huge amounts of variance and remain largely steady.

Opportunities created by history The invitation to President >Barack Obama to be the chief guest at the >66th Republic Day is both a reflection of something bold and at the same time unsurprising, when understood in historical context. Bold because concerns about perception and the bogeyman of empire matter little to a Prime Minister more interested in the future than in history. Unsurprising because much like Nehru’s message in 1950, the relationship between India and the U.S. too is an example of how the present has in fact grown out of the past. Most commentators have preferred to look at the opportunity of today. Nuclear agreements, defence contracts and export control laws absorb the headlines and for good reason.

At the same time, there is a historicity that has been lost in debating the immediate. More obvious explanations such as the change in leadership in India and a general transformation in the mood of the country appear to explain Mr. Obama’s special visit. In fact, the close relations in the present are but the palpable outcome of almost 70 years of crises, understanding, and dialogue. That Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been able to capitalise on opportunities created by history is a feat. But this history is worth remembering as we look to celebrate our Republic and better understand why the U.S. President’s attendance on this January 26 is less shocking than otherwise suggested.

The close relations between India and the U.S. are the outcome of almost decades of crises, understanding and dialogue.

Funny People. This is how President Dwight Eisenhower once described Indians. The chief of Army Staff turned President could not bring himself to “trust” India. They were, after all, led, according to him, by a “personality of unusual contradictions.” Nehru’s India remained paradoxical to an entire generation of American Presidents, businessmen, and even journalists. India was a democracy but believed in giving the People’s Republic of China a place in the United Nations Security Council. It accepted military assistance from the U.S. during the war with China without once saying thank you. When a group of American and British military officials and diplomats arrived in New Delhi to meet the Prime Minister in the third week of November 1962, Nehru, as one American in the group recollected, was “withdrawn.” The snub aside, President Kennedy was found more understanding. Curiously, he accepted that America was wrong to expect a gracious nation: India was simply too self aware as a new born democracy to cede any space — even if only by way of rhetoric — that risked jeopardising the freedom it fought so hard to win. Whether it is Kennedy, his successor Lyndon Johnson, or Richard Nixon after, American leaders well understood that India could not be pushed around.

The change This was a period of learning. Indians were no longer funny in the sense Eisenhower once quipped. The paradoxes slowly came to be accepted as fact: India would be moved by her own interests. Of the 12 U.S. Presidents who have dealt with India since 1947, Nixon gratingly internalised this the quickest. During Indira Gandhi’s visit to the U.S. in 1971, Nixon invested in silly ploys to put both her and India in its place. He kept her waiting for 45 minutes to demonstrate “a kind of one-upmanship”, as an aide later wrote. That he intently disliked Mrs. Gandhi was clear. After all, whilst Nixon worked with Pakistan to break the ice with China, India would not let him ignore the atrocities committed in and around Dacca. Interestingly, following the 1971 war, Henry Kissinger was quick to admit that the White House backed the “wrong horse on the subcontinent.”

Mrs. Gandhi too realised that it was imperative to “seek new ties” and cut “across old rigidities.” Whether it was her or Rajiv Gandhi, the relationship was found changing well before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War merely provided the space for something structural to allow a period of engagement to what was already acceptable to Indian leaders and populations alike. Such change was premised on an understanding that the dancing stars of democracy that survived the Cold War left nothing to chance. Unlike the U.S’s relationship with France or Britain, there was a rough edge to an advance with India where disagreement and come-back incrementally invested in strategic resilience. Such resilience is what has allowed Mr. Modi to envisage a future with America, despite disagreements over a whole range of issues whether at the World Trade Organization or to do with insurance liabilities.

Unlocking the potential>Chalein Saath Saath . This is of course the professed joint vision shared by both Mr. Modi and Mr. Obama. Such agreed rhetoric was unthinkable at the time of Nixon and Gandhi or Nehru and Kennedy. After all, the first four decades following Independence was about investing in what might be considered a mutual fund, the dividends of which facilitated the transformational changes witnessed between the late 1990s till 2014. Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh essentially used this fund to their advantage. By 2004, when the Congress-led government was elected to power, the Bush administration was clear that India was “a strategic prize.” The sanctions imposed by the Clinton Presidency following India’s nuclear tests were a mere detail in the fog of history. The idea was to now transform the relationship into something deeper that would allow both these outsized democracies to walk more firmly together. The nuclear agreement achieved this. Despite three years of intense debate and at times hopeless attempts at a breakthrough, not to mention the near disintegration of the Congress-led coalition, it “unlocked,” as then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it, “a new and far broader world of potential” for India and America. In a sense, the agreement did something more than realise potential. It led to a makeover in the relationship, whilst clearly recognising that the Indian star only dances to its own tune. In short, the Bush White House conceded a lot more than what many of its critics thought a prize was worth.

Prior to 2014, the focus of the relationship between India and the U.S. was primarily dependent upon a fund that conditioned bilateral transactions. The rules governing the fund was equally shaped by a mix of old and new biases and prejudices that informed the way in which capital was built and dividends distributed. A degree of distance was important for Indian officials should China or even Pakistan feel betrayed by unlimited levels of U.S.-India market capitalisation. For the present government, these rules no longer matter. Free market politics is what seems to motivate Mr. Modi. Mr. Obama’s attendance on this January 26 is as important from the perspective of furthering bilateral ties, as it is to show the world that India is ready to play a central role well beyond its borders. Yet, like many funds, levels of interest may change depending upon the managers at the helm, but the basis on which capital is built ought not to be ignored. This is especially moot when considering a role in the world alongside an older democracy that understands funds and interests better than most.

(Dr. Rudra Chaudhuri is Senior Lecturer, King’s College London and author of Forged in Crisis: India and the United States Since 1947 .)

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