SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Embracing America

LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

By Mike Marqusee

NEW PARTNERSHIP?: India and the United States. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW PARTNERSHIP?: India and the United States. PHOTO: REUTERS  

THE love affair between the Indian and U.S. establishments continues to blossom. Recently, Defence ministers Pranab Mukherjee and Donald Rumsfeld signed a new 10-year deal on military cooperation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will shortly be a guest at the White House. Early next year, we're told, President Bush will reciprocate the visit.

A recent global opinion poll revealed that a higher proportion of people in India have a positive view of the United States than in any of the other countries surveyed. 71 per cent expressed a favourable opinion of the U.S. — up from 54 per cent three years ago. Only 17 per cent expressed an unfavourable opinion, compared to 38 per cent in the U.S.'s closest ally, Britain, and 37 per cent in its neighbour, Canada.

In general, the poll suggests that Indians give more credence to U.S. claims and good intentions than people in western Europe or Japan, not to mention the Middle East. Revealingly, when asked whether the U.S. takes into account the interests of "countries like yours", 63 per cent of Indians answer in the affirmative — more than in any other country. Compare that to the results from two of the U.S. long-standing "strategic partners": Britain, where only 32 per cent answer yes, and Pakistan, where 39 per cent answer yes. Do they know something people in India have yet to learn?

It's not hard to find evidence in India of a desire to emulate the U.S. Shopping malls. Brand names. Trickle down economics. Gated communities. Nuclear bombs. And there's also a desire for an American seal of approval — reflected in the media obsession with "Lagaan's" Oscar nomination. Here was a prime example of the wishful thinking that suffuses Indian perceptions of the U.S. Hollywood was never going to give the prize to a film whose dramatic core is a cricket match, just as the State Department is not going to abandon Islamabad to please New Delhi.

As a Non-Resident American, I wonder whether people in India have thought through what it means to emulate the U.S. For example, the U.S. puts a higher proportion of its population in prison than any other country — 700 per 1,00,000. (To reach U.S. proportions, India would have to increase its prison population seven-fold.) The U.S. also boasts exceptionally heavy traffic on death row, executing more of its own citizens than any country except China. Uniquely among advanced economies, the U.S. has no system of universal health insurance — while its pharmaceutical giants make sure drugs are more expensive in the U.S. than almost anywhere else on earth.

Most Indian commentators seem delighted that the new 10-year defence deal will enable India to purchase more and fancier weaponry from the U.S. (top brass at Lockheed Martin and Boeing are also jubilant). But what kind of global stature does India gain by promoting itself as a market for military hardware? Where are the benefits for Indian citizens? The agreement announced in Washington also suggests that India will assist the U.S. in multi-national military interventions - which are always under U.S. command and taken at U.S. initiative. Next stop, Iraq, Iran, North Korea? What price a seat on the Security Council? The Indian elite seem to see the "strategic partnership" with the U.S. as a short-cut to global status. But super-power trappings offer only a flimsy mask for the realities of poverty and are no substitute for grassroots economic development. In the end, subservience to the U.S. will bring no credit to India in the eyes of the world's populations, not even in the U.S. itself.

India's global prestige was far higher during the years of non-alignment — when it championed anti-colonialism and disarmament — than it is today. It's worth remembering, also, that the initial people-to-people bonds between Indians and Americans were predicated on a shared anti-imperialism. (Prior to World War II, Americans were by and large antipathetic to the British empire).

When he meets with the U.S. President, will the Indian Prime Minister make clear the world's impatience with U.S. recklessness on climate change? Will he object to the crimes of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo or Fallujah? Will he insist that the U.S. respect international law? Will he speak for the vast majority of his own and the world's people by making it clear that the invasion of Iraq has made the world a more dangerous place?

Were he to do any of these things, Manmohan Singh would become a household name in the U.S. — hated by some, yes, but admired by huge numbers as well. For even as the Indian elite rushes to embrace President Bush, Americans themselves are abandoning him in increasing numbers. His war in Iraq grows ever more costly and discredited. His attempt to privatise retirement pensions spreads alarm. At the moment, his approval ratings are higher in India than at home. Who knows? By the time Bush arrives in January, he might have to claim asylum.

London-based Mike Marqusee has written numerous books exploring the crossroads of culture, sports and politics.

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