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Nehru did it 70 years ago. Now, Jaishankar is doing the same – introducing India to US

American affection for India stems from the admiration for the national characteristics that India’s current leaders seem committed to reversing.

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India is busy explaining itself and its global aspirations to the world. Over the last several days, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar have spoken to many foreign leaders, think tanks, and media outlets. But what has India really achieved through this whirlwind diplomacy other than attempting to allay foreigners’ concerns about developments in Kashmir and about Indian democracy? The fact that these concerns have emerged in the first place should be of greater concern to the managers of India’s foreign relations.

The effort to woo and impress foreigners, especially Americans, began with Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event on 22 September in Houston. It was followed by bilateral and multilateral meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York and culminated with a three-day swing by S. Jaishankar in Washington DC.

According to news reports, in New York alone Jaishankar met counterparts from 42 countries, held three dozen bilateral meetings, eight pull asides, and seven pluri-laterals (meetings involving representatives of several countries), in addition to the meetings he attended with the Prime Minister. He also had three speaking engagements in New York.

In Washington DC, Jaishankar addressed public and private events at five US think tanks in addition to holding meetings at the US Department of State, the Department of Defense and the National Security Council.

Also read: The text of S. Jaishankar’s US talk on how he sees India’s relationship with the West

Old India vs New India

The sheer intensity of this engagement is impressive. It was almost like 1949, when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru spent three weeks in the US, hoping to introduce a newly independent India to Americans and develop a long-term partnership with what was then one of the world’s two superpowers.

But does the New India of today need to be introduced and explained the same way as Nehru explained ‘Old India’ to the Americans? Perhaps, there is something similar, notwithstanding the protestations about things being different. Indians still believe that India deserves to be at the global high table just by virtue of being India – a 5,000-year-old civilisation, with a rich culture and history.

There is still little effort to portray shared strategic or economic interests. Apart from repetition of India’s importance based on the size of its population, its strategic location, and its civilisational heritage, this time there was an added layer of pointing out how critics of India’s actions, including in Kashmir, simply do not understand India.

Seventy-two years after Independence, India has greater economic strength and enjoys far more strategic partnerships than it did in 1947. India is also fortunate to have an external affairs minister who understands the United States well, has spent time in Washington DC, including as an ambassador, and is articulate and well-spoken.

As Jaishankar knows well, Washington DC is a city with a short memory, and it is important to keep reiterating one’s viewpoint so that key stakeholders are in the know. But it is equally important to review the viewpoint and consider the concerns of others.

Also read: No trade deal, no Kashmir win, no investment but BJP celebrating Modi return from US

Can’t ignore US interests forever

Although the US and India were rarely on the same side during the Cold War, people-to-people ties ensured that when India finally liberalised its economy and expressed willingness to play a bigger role on the global stage, expectations were raised regarding a strategic partnership with the United States. That expectation has benefitted India, resulting in bipartisan support within the US system for India-US ties over the decades.

Today the relationship rests not just on 4 million (40 lakh) Indian-Americans, but also on the potential of strong economic ties and critical strategic partnership. India is a Major Defence Partner of the US, and New Delhi is at the heart of the American-led Indo-Pacific strategy to counter the rise of China.

Differing views on Iran, India’s desire to play a hedging or balancing game vis-à-vis China, and its purchase of Russian-made defence equipment, namely the S-400, are all sources of some tension in the relationship. Although India-US bilateral trade stands at $142 billion today, nationalist, protectionist sentiments and demands of domestic politics could undermine strategic convergence.

India’s phenomenal rate of economic growth over the last two decades made it an attractive partner for the US and many other countries. The slowing down of the economy will take away some of that allure. For example, the fact that Indians and Americans generally like each other cannot compensate for the absence of overlapping economic benefits. India cannot forever ignore US interests while repeating the mantra of both countries being democracies, having shared values, and being close friends.

Eventually, India would have to respond to America’s requests over trade policy, market access, and a level-playing field for US technology firms. Washington will be won, or lost, once India takes decisive action on American hopes of securing India’s commitment to confront China’s expansion in the Indo-Pacific.

Also read: Modi meets US CEOs: Is India still an attractive investment destination in 2019?

Sharing Americans’ love for Gandhi

Moreover, the American affection for India stems from the admiration for the national characteristics that India’s current leaders seem committed to reversing. Mahatma Gandhi is the most popular Indian among Americans – a fact demonstrated by the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who spoke at his 150th anniversary celebrations on the Hill and acknowledged by Modi through the article on Gandhi in the increasingly critical The New York Times on 2 October.

India would gain more support by reassuring The New York Times readers that leaders of New India share Americans’ love for Gandhi’s non-violence, support for diversity, and tolerance towards minorities.

Until those aspects of Indian policy, or lack thereof, which have started bothering some Americans are addressed, whirlwind diplomacy will only be able to create an air of extensive engagement. But it is unlikely to create the elusive strategic partnership everyone has been talking about for years.

The author is a Research Fellow and Director, India Initiative at the Washington DC-based Hudson Institute. Her books include ‘Escaping India: Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy’ (Routledge, 2011) and ‘From Chanakya to Modi: The Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy’ (Harper Collins, 2017). Views are personal.

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  1. While intensity of India’s engagement with USA by Nehru just post independence may be compared with that of present Indian leaders, but the situation qualitatively, then and now are totally different. In Nehru’s time India was to start development process in all sectors from higher technical education to industrial production in medium and heavy Industry and India was only in receiving mode. Nehru did well on that front barring his foreign policy with neighbours that were and are. With India, strategically placed, was having a bright ancient past, now totally eroded and denuded by over 1000 years of misrule and human and social cruelty and having lost her pride reducing to a very poor country from high growth and bright social traditions and knowledge level.
    Now the situation is turning around; initially on a slow pace of implementation and execution of development policies, but picking up through a sound policy route which requires time to bring the graph from shallow gradient to steep parabolic gradient with policies of Modi Govt. in last 5 years. The present politico-administrative establishment are attacking change/strengthening of foundations, growth path channelisation / peep of interactive links and interfaces. Unfortunately, inertia growth had been so large that to reactivating it to be productive will take much higher momentum/efforts for slightly longer duration for normalisation. This will generate a growth trajectory parabolically or even hyperbolically.
    Simultaneously, relations with neighbours and other powers, that be, need to be equally balanced and strong. due to political policies in the past 67 years and post independence have been reasons of this extra mile approach on foreign policy issues. this resulted in extra efforts to put these on sounder footings and reciprocal give and take policies. India warrants this approach as part of policy deal to restore her place of pride in the world. Strengtheing of India’s defence system and infrastructure is an area of special attention to take adequate care of difficult neighbour’s unfair tendencies and policies. The Indo-Pacific strategy has to be carefully charted to keep China from adopting a greedy undue posture of her on sovereinty.
    All said and done, Indian approach shows promise, determination, care and sustained policy achievements treading on the path of ancient Indian wisdom of “Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam”; faith, care, trust and love for all in countries and their population; as well as for growth and development of Environment at large in terms of respecting to highest measures for maintaining regional ecology, respect to environmental components, taking care of Global Warming and using alternate continued resources for energy, like Solar Power, Wind Energy, Geo-thermal energy gradient Etc.

  2. Almost half the India’s 72 years the US was guided on India by its lap dog the UK. Only after Carter presidency, India was independently monitord and related by the US State Department. Until then it was preoccupied ith Vietnam and .Europe. It now knows more about India than the Indians.

  3. Under circumstances, for a lucky Nation, it is next to impossible to govern it within Ambit of Constitution, due to chemistry of indulgence of corrupt corporates, who lobbying for majoratarian politics to monopolize the trade & Indian economy! Externally, India is more vulnerable to China & Afghanistan. US is inflating our politicians instinct for a regional super power, who doesn’t possess political acumen to intertwine the future paradigms! First, our politicians must freely work appropriately, delivering Constitutional governance, relieving the burden of nexus of corporates, who are not interested in forensic audit of their loans vis a vis NPA.

  4. The Idea that for any country their job is to cater to US needs and ally the fears of the New York Times audience ( which is slowly sinking abd I say that as a 25 year subsriber to the NYT) is absurd.
    Every country has its interests and no permanent enemies or friends. Also the reason to include india is not because of its qncient civilization but because it is the largest democracy. When China, a repressive regime , can have veto power, and UK qhich is such a small country but India cannot, there is a problem.
    The post continues a strong tradition of condescension . What the EAM stated in a lolite way is that those days are over. Thime to renegotiate the relationship

  5. I couldn’t understand what you want to convey? do you feel this campaign is of no use? I don’t think so…….as a Ex career diplomat Jaishankar knows much better about such engagement, his father K subramanium was well known strategic expert, an institution by itself. Give time, things will mature both sides will know what one can deliver .

    • so what? Still Jaishakar has to operate within the limitations of india’s overall ability and its perception. He is not a magician, his father was also not a magician. His father offered viewpoints and set up IDSA.
      India’s burden is due to Modi’s clumsy economic handling as well as the perception of beef eaters being lynched, general disorderliness, etc. You can’t just keep shouting democracy,democracy etc. With economic weakness and many indian institutions in the red, NPA, etc, you don’t have much to offer and you can’t keep saying you will do something or achieve something later, later. The article is just pointing out the limitations of jaishankar and the modi govt and you can’t manage by mere talk – in other words, diplomacy alone is immaterial in the longer run.

      • Sir, with due respect: “The Chinese economy is slowing, and the cost of living is rising. The trade war with the United States shows no sign of ending. Wage growth is sluggish. More young people are chasing fewer job prospects.” (Stevenson, 02-10-19, New York Times).

        I am not justifying the failings of Modi government in handling India’s economy but just stating that the intensive interconnectedness of 21st century economy is acting like a hydra headed monster for almost everyone. Most governments across the world seem to be clueless today.

  6. Having followed the entire trip of Jaishankar across various American and other think tanks over the past few months, it is surprising to me that the author is still coming to the conclusions she has in this article. It may be a result of being caught up in the cacophonous Indian news cycle. While it is fashionable among a certain section of losers to worry senseless about “Indian democracy” and “Kashmir”, the world has evidently seen the wood for the trees and silently allocated responsibility where it should lie – it was helped immensely by Imran Khan’s sojourn where he publicly admitted to Pakistan’s role in nurturing such noble actors as Al Qaeda and LeT.

    To most casual observers, it is clear that Jaishankar has a vision for an India that is a player of global relevance in keeping with her natural strengths and competences; as opposed to The Print which still cannot get their balls off Kashmir and Pakistan. Sad to say, their analysis has left much to be desired and plays too much to a myopic, navel-gazing gallery at home that can’t see beyond Lahore.

    The overwhelming trend that has been rightly articulated by Jaishankar time and again, and which much of the world agrees with, is an India which the world sees as a key component of the emerging world order. He was talking about the shift from a 1945-1990 world order to a 2030 world order. It does seem that the analysts at The Print are missing this completely, preferring the comfort of their ideological or journalistic bias.

    The Indo-Pacific is not just the US and India; it is seen rightly as a quad to contain a rising, totalitarian Chinese state with imperial ambitions not different from the 1800s. Given her rising profile, and the fact of the current US dominance over Asia, it is natural that India gets in to the conversation to be more proactive in terms of managing regional affairs.

    • Very well summed up Sir. It was much more than introducing India to the US and about the imminent dynamic in the new world. In fact I would go on to say that India’s global economic strategy should be aligned with its geopolitical strategy. India should not allow China to play patronising BIG brother role between herself and Pak. I am all for QUAD.

  7. The whole Imran-Modi-Trump-Jaishankar-Qureshi conduct in the past one month can be described as:

    “As for Pakistani politics, they’re a different sort of mess: a mix of fecklessness and fear – fear of each other, of us, of their neighbours (on several sides). At least in Jaswant we’ve got an interlocutor who’s working the problem; In Shamshad I’ve got one who is fighting the problem,” – Talbott, S. (2004: 152). Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb. Brookings Institution Press.

  8. There is no reason to be defensive about foreign media’s coverage of the Kashmir issue. Media should be free to write and report, which it does in the West with gusto. Pakistan is not spared either. However, smart governments know how to engage media, and lobby with the policy makers simultaneously. This is precisely Indian government seems to be doing right now. In this world, everything is manageable. There is no need to be too sensitive. China is a good example of this approach. That said, it was a treat to watch these interactions. India has a competent foreign minister. Now it is time to also get a competent finance minister.

  9. EAM spoke. He must also have listened. In private, foreign governments must have spoken with candour. All of those impressions should be faithfully reported back home, evaluated, factored into foreign policy making. 2. Foreign audiences have their own media to declutter the world for them. There is a wealth of reportage that a few formal interactions cannot possibly hope to undo.

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