A Dichotomy Explained: Why Indians Love America But Are Wary Of The American State

A Dichotomy Explained: Why Indians Love America But Are Wary Of The American State

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Sunday, March 19, 2023 03:47 PM IST
A Dichotomy Explained: Why Indians Love America But Are Wary Of The American StatePrime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden, with Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and NSA Ajit Doval in the background. (Image Credit: PMO)
  • Geopolitical interests, the concept of ‘American exceptionalism’, and a self-contradictory American habit of wanting to be ‘pals’ while ruthlessly pursuing their national interests at the cost of ours.

    Here's explaining the broad reasons why this dichotomy is less Indian, and more American, in fact.

Countless Indians dream of emigrating to America. From blue jeans to blues rock, and burgers and bagels between, it is a way of life they hope to be a part of.

As many more want to visit that country, or, aspire to build an America for themselves in the subcontinent; big cars, big buildings, big expressways, and big factories fuelling a yearning for immense prosperity, and great living standards.

And yet, those same Indians view the American state with so much suspicion that it almost borders on hostility at times. It is an amazing dichotomy which has resulted in a genuine love-hate relationship.

On the one hand, visiting American presidents are feted like royalty (Jimmy Carter even has a town named after him — Carterpuri, in Haryana!), but on the other, Anthony Blinken, the current secretary of state, is lampooned as ‘the Pfizer salesman’ who wanted to sell us dodgy vaccines.

As a result, relations are complicated, “we agree to disagree” moments are routine, and bilateral ties are yet to rise to the levels of comfort one would otherwise expect from two democracies.

Why Is This So?

There are a few broad reasons: multiple conflicts of geopolitical interests, the concept of ‘American exceptionalism’ which manifests itself as a needless tendency to meddle in our internal affairs, and an irritating, self-contradictory American habit of wanting to be ‘pals’ while ruthlessly pursuing their national interests at the cost of ours.

The principal sticking point has been Pakistan, whom America formally entered into a military alliance with in 1954.

Since then, our western neighbour has been used as a lever for serial attempts to project American influence in Asia.

In return, America has protected Pakistan in spite of the latter’s persistent belligerent transgressions towards India, including sending the US 7th Fleet into the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 Bangladesh War, wilfully turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s institutional sponsorship of cross-border terrorism into India, and pretending that the existential threat a Pakistan-China nexus poses to us is being somewhat overstated by India.

Over time, the list has grown to include efforts to monkey-balance our relations with countries like Iran, interference in how we manage our trade and energy security, our struggle to tackle our regional security concerns as we need to, and even our plans to become self-reliant in core sectors like defence and manufacturing.

India’s long-standing gripe, since soon after Independence, has been that successive American governments have tried to have their cake and eat it too. The ploy has never worked, but the Americans continue to try.

A second sticking point is ‘American exceptionalism’.

This is a metaphysical rationale for America’s engagement with the rest of the world, in which it assumes the form of a noble force of good, seeking venerably to spread goodness to others.

This may sound like a principled theory, but it has never succeeded in actual practice because it rankles of a superiority complex, presumes that one country knows what is good for another, ignores the value systems of others, and eventually comes across as little more than a preachily sanctimonious cover for gross interference in the internal affairs of other sovereign nations — whether they want it or not, and whether they need it or not.

Simply put, this is a disrespectful unilateralism which rides roughshod across borders without any approval from the target country.

History abounds with examples of entire nations getting wrecked because America tried to export democracy and liberal values to them by engineering regime changes:

Syria, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba, Chad, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan… it’s a long list.

Protests may have been muted during the Cold War, but since then, such efforts have met with spirited, often violent, responses on the back of a rising multipolarity.

Still, the efforts continue, with the list expanding beyond the colonial ‘white man’s burden’ to strategically attractive lands like Georgia and Ukraine, and to friends as well.

Very recently, look at how Thomas Nides, the present American ambassador to Israel, has been openly, actively, and, some might even say recklessly, trying to thwart the Benjamin Netanyahu government from passing judicial reforms in Israel.

Closer to home, American ambassador-designate Eric Garcetti has publicly vowed to engage with civil society groups in India who are ‘actively fighting for human rights’.

In the old days, the Indian government would have frothed at the mouth at this comment, but in a mark of just how much the world has changed, Foreign Minister Dr S Jaishankar’s polished response was to only grin mischievously and say: “Let him come here. Pyaar se samjha denge.

One gripe voiced by Indians, and others, is that American governments moralize too much but don’t practice what they preach.

Instead, a rather one-sided conversation of condescending convenience is initiated with pre-set modalities and pre-envisaged outcomes. Naturally, then, such ‘conversations’ have a high chance of degenerating into arguments.

Ironically, this is diametrically opposite to the seamless manner in which Indians fit into American society. So, obviously, the problem is not with people, but with policies.

Unfortunately, modern American elections are highly influenced by vote bank politics, and prone to electoral malpractices because of institutional deficiencies.

These are things their electoral college system was not designed to absorb. For example, they have no impartial Election Commission; confusion on voter rolls can prevail up to after voting starts. This can supress the popular mandate, or even overturn it at times.

In 2020, when Joe Biden beat Donald Trump, the outcome was effectively decided by a few hundred thousand votes in half a dozen counties of as many states.

Worse, it is a woke, neo-Marxian version of Liberalism which presently dominates the American political scene. This is an alien manifestation which is entirely at odds with a traditional sense of America bound around ‘mom, the flag, and apple pie’.

As a result, it is a debased exceptionalism which American dispensations seek to impose on other countries.

A third problem impeding a more wholesome interaction between the American state and the world is the rapid rise of new evangelical denominations there in the past two decades.

The traditional base, consisting primarily of Protestants, and Catholics to a lesser extent, is being inexorably subsumed by charismatic churches.

There is rapid rise of new evangelical denominations in the US in the past two decades.
There is rapid rise of new evangelical denominations in the US in the past two decades.

At the same time, many urban youngsters are increasingly turning away from religion and identifying as atheists. According to multiple surveys, the number could be as high as one quarter. The country is awash with strange, new identities.

And above all, fourth, is the harsh economic truth that over the coming quarter century, the bulk of the third world is set to steal a march on the West’s traditional pre-eminence in science, technology, manufacturing, services, and trade.

A slow move away from the American dollar as the global currency is already on.

This inevitable transformation has particular relevance to America, where close to 80 per cent of its GDP comes from the service sector.

These dramatic socio-economic changes, plus wokeness, an institutional inability to come to terms with multipolarity, and a need to maintain a decisive say in global affairs, means that the American state will function at increased variance with the society it serves, and this world it inhabits.

The pendulum of foreign engagement will, therefore, swing widely between issues-based cooperation and values-based conflicts, with both issues and values changing capriciously with each season.

Yesterday, China was ‘enemy-number-one’; today, out of the blue, it is Russia. Who will it be tomorrow?

Such whimsical instability is not encouraging, because the American state can still be a force for global good, and a prime mover of the world economy.

But for that, it must first do two things: engineer a domestic political reset which raises policies above divisive politics of identity, and peaceably learn to live with its diminished status on the world stage. If it doesn’t, then America’s relevance will erode even further, and its unpopularity will rise.

So, we see that the dichotomy is less Indian, and more American, in fact.

But until either one eventuality comes to pass, Indians will continue to dream of emigrating to America, India will engage cautiously with America, and our foreign minister will have to patiently endure more ambassadors like Garcetti.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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