(Headed in different directions — India and the US)
Have sounded the tocsin time and again in my books and other writings since the post-1998 tests when the Indian government under the Vajpayee-Brijesh Mishra-duo began the country’s tilt America-wards about getting too close to the United States. A whole chapter in my last book — ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’, was devoted to Washington’s awful record of hurting and trying to harm India’s interests, and why the US is the most feckless of friends and unreliable strategic partner, and a whole host of substantial reasons why it is advisable for this country to keep its distance from Uncle Sam. I have been arguing that Washington’s main agenda point is to somehow and by any means to replace Russia as the premier supplier of military goods to India believing, perhaps, incorrectly, that this is the vantage point that Moscow gained in the early 1960s when it jumped in with the offer of licensed production of MiG-21s at a time when the US rejected India’s demand of the F-104, and has never vacated since. What the US has never appreciated is just why the Indo-Russian relationship grew, despite initial mutual suspicions, into a solid edifice that will not easily be shaken built as it is not just on the sale of hardware but, more importantly, on the transfer of military technology of the kind that the US cannot even contemplate. This extraordinary access to technology afforded India is crowned by nearly unstinted help and assistance in the most sensitive and strategic indigenous programmes that resulted in an array of effective Agni missiles, the Arihant-class SSBN.
It is another matter that India did not use this access to technology to build up an innovation-centered defence industrial base of the kind China managed to do with exactly the same sort of resources available to India when in 1979 Dengxiaoping started the ‘Four Modernizations’ Programme. Nearly 40 years later the Chinese military has advanced to a state where it is giving Washington the willies, while India wallows in the shallows screwdrivering items of foreign origin — which mode is likely to be formalized by Modi’s Make in India policy with defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman giving the armed services the license to import whatever they wished from wherever they wished, ensuring India remains an arms dependency for the next 100 years. Or, forever.
So what was the difference — why did China rocket into the stratosphere even as India stumbled with one wrong decision after another. There’s one and only one decisive factor: Deng and the Chinese leadership had the POLITICAL WILL and the aim to best the best (the US) by being disruptive as hell — it was the Chinese bull in a Western china shop. The Indian government was led by a succession of small-minded, null-visioned, pygmies who have been content to be patted on their backs by the West and happy to join Western clubs and technology cartels (NSG, Wassenar, MTCR, etc) on their terms, and to crow about this as some singular achievement.
But why did this happen? Who or what are the enablers in the Indian system? The fact is Indian leaders and those manning the apparatus of the Indian state — the horde of civil servants, military brass, and DRDO elite all are afflicted by one fatal weakness — their desire for their progeny and family members to have a better life in the US and Western Europe. It is the promise of the ‘promised land’ (green card, H1B or work visa, permanent resident status) laced with scholarship to average sons/daughters of secretaries to GOI, senior diplomats, top military and civilian officers, to Ivy League and similar institutions of higher learning, discretely dangled before the country’s interlocuters when interacting with their American and West European counterparts, that lubricates the passage of US-tilting policies through the byzantine bureaucratic maze that is GOI.
To add to this are similar aspirations of the upwardly mobile political class and what we have is a policy environment so bending over backwards to accommodate Washington it is surprising there’s still something left in the Indian cupboard to be sold! This entire milieu is helmed by the Delhi chapters of Washington thinktanks — Carnegie and Brookings, set up in the last decade with financial contributions by Indian corporates. Thus, not only is GOI willing to put India’s neck in the noose but Indian financiers in the private sector are willing to buy the rope! This is in brief the US-leaning policy eco-system that I have detailed and analysed in my forthcoming book — Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition, and which system cannot easily be thwarted.
If one were to critically assess the relationships the US has forged with its European and Asian allies, one thing is clear — America’s friends have to fall in line, toe the US line, or get punished as any adversary would. Thus, when the visiting chairman of the House armed services committee of the US Congress, William Thornberry, asks Delhi to desist from buying the Russian S-400 air defence system, the “or else” is par for the course. And when, as is now demanded, that India sign on the dotted line of COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security) Agreement and BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation) — the remaining two “foundational accords”, the Logistics Support Agreement being already in America’s bag, it is with the accompanying threat that otherwise the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) will come down hard on India because of its ongoing ties with Russia and Iran — two policy pillars of India’s independent stance. CAATSA in any case will hang over India’s head as long as Delhi wants to do business with Moscow and Tehran and anybody else Washington doesn’t want India to transact with. This mind you despite the anxieties in the more nationalist quarters of the military — yes, these still survive! — that COMCASA will assist the US to penetrate — horizontally and vertically –the most secret communications links, including the command and control net involving the strategic forces!
So, it isn’t really about the S-400 — a damn good air defence system that can bring down any aircraft now flying. It is about Washington seeking to impose its will on the Modi government. If Modi bends on this issue, India has to be prepared to concede more and more on everything hereafter, and will indicate the direction in which India is headed. Up or down.