So low is the bar in U.S.-India relations right now that the best thing that can be said about John Kerry’s two-day hop-over to New Delhi was that he went there at all. A relationship that burst into true blossom under George W. Bush, one that held for many Americans the promise of a mold-breaking alliance for the 21st century, lies shabbily dormant. Indeed, the only memorable episode in Kerry’s visit was his scolding by India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, for the NSA’s spying on her political party.
Should America care? India has little or nothing to contribute to American efforts to tackle the crises in Gaza, Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq. It is a reluctant partner, at best, in Washington’s efforts to rein in Iran and will have no truck with the West in any showdown with Vladimir Putin and Russia. Its incessant push for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, while understandable for a country that is the world’s second-most populous, isn’t exactly in America’s interests: New Delhi and Washington frequently find themselves on different sides of votes on U.N. resolutions.
The two countries converge in their legitimate fears of Chinese aggression and expansion in Asia, but even here, India has been loath to embrace any formal alliance that would act as a check on Beijing, for fear of provoking the Chinese into military incursions into Indian territory that New Delhi is shamefully unprepared to counter. Besides, in recent weeks, India has been party to the setting up of a BRICS Bank, with Brazil, Russia, China, and South Africa. This institution was conceived as a way to break America’s global financial hegemony—a word beloved in bureaucratic Delhi, where America is still regarded with a suspicion that is as potent as it is irrational. The BRICS Bank looks, for all its founding rhetoric, like a platform for Chinese hegemony instead. Once more, China appears to have taken India for a ride. But that is another story.
India offers America nothing of concrete strategic value that Washington cannot, currently, live without. Not only does it balk at an alliance of any kind, its political and intellectual elites are wedded still to nonalignment, that antediluvian credo from the years of the Cold War. Intellectual worthies in New Delhi have cooked up something called “Non-alignment 2.0,” by which “India must remain true to its aspiration of creating a new and alternative universality.” For those masochists who want to acquaint themselves better with this Cold War mummy come to life, I suggest a visit to this website. It will swiftly become clear that there is no room in this starry-eyed arrangement for a compact with Washington.
Forget matters strategic, you may say; banish from your head all thoughts of a military or security handshake. What about economics? Doesn’t India matter to America as a market, a place for wise and profitable investment? Here again, Americans must resign themselves, for the moment, to disappointment.
For all Narendra Modi’s free-market rhetoric in the run-up to the elections, for all the assurances given to investors in back rooms, he has offered scant evidence, in his two months in power, of being the man who will shake up the Indian economy and make his country a more rational place in which to do business. His national budget was only marginally less squishy and Fabian than other, recent Indian budgets, and Thursday’s capricious scuttling by India of a World Trade Organization deal that would have vastly streamlined the global trade system calls into question Modi’s professed ardor for free trade.
American private enterprise has always tread cautiously in India, and there is every indication that it will have to continue to tiptoe its way through, around, and over the cactus grove of Indian regulations. The job of the Obama administration (and that of a likely Hillary administration) will be to persuade India to change its ways. That will be immensely difficult if Mr. Modi continues to backtrack on economic reform. (Why is he doing so? Is it his belief that, having won an emphatic but contentious election, he needs to “buy” social harmony by embracing the sops and subsidies he inherited from the previous quasi-socialist government of Manmohan Singh?)
So, as things stand, America gets neither strategic comfort nor a fair economic opportunity from India. Perhaps it’s time for Washington to shrug its shoulders and move on, leaving a warmer relationship with India to a time when Indians have made up their muddled minds about the kind of country theirs is—or ought to be.