In the last 40-odd years of attending international seminars and conferences I have been struck by a trend that’s hard to miss. It involves Indian-origin academics, retired Indian diplomats and military officers, and India-based academics and thinktankers, who have the opportunity to speak their mind untrammelled by official Indian Government restrictions and to convey to Western, especially US, audiences India’s core national interests and why these often clash with Washington’s preferred policy, but don’t do any of this. Instead, they usually say things soothing to American ears.
Often times, I have found myself over the last three decades to be the lone Indian voice, airing views contrary to what’s being said, by all the other participants, Indians who have in their careers held high government positions included. Initially I was perplexed. Now it gets my goat.
If the image is consistently projected in US policy circles and among the Western intelligentsia by these Indians and NRIs that India is sympatico with whatever the US is doing in the international arena, then it roots certain expectations in the American policy milieu. As a result, not unreasonably Americans, even those who ought know better, end up believing that Delhi is departing from the mutually accepted script and working against US interests even if India is acting in its own best interests. When US policymakers find Delhi not acting as is expected they slide over to the punishment mode. Whence the sanctions that India has often faced in the past. Most recently in the period post-1998 nuclear tests. In the soon-to-end Trump presidency, for instance, it congealed into an attitude that was more punitive than transactional. In the Biden Administration US foreign policy is likely to revert to America’s liberal do-gooding instincts, albeit in a muted form after two decades of military activism and interventions, which in the George W Bush years led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the start of the unending cycles of extremist violence and instability in West Asia and turmoil world-wide sourced to militant Islam that the world has experienced ever since. Talk of good intentions breeding evil.
But why do Indian-origin types feel the need to suck up to Americans? The IT software techies, engineers, doctors and other ‘professionals’, are happy beavering away at their jobs and are not really in the policy swim. The bulk of the Indian community limits itself, when convenient, to attending ‘Bollywood nights’ and “Howdy Modi” sort of political circuses should these come to town as a way of keeping engaged with the ‘old country’ in which, otherwise, they have neither interest nor stake. Their sole focus is on keeping the ‘family reunion’ provisions in their resident visas open to enable them to cart more of their relatives to America. They look to the the Indian government to be helpful in this regard.
Then there’s the growing lot of NRIs on liberal arts faculties in various American universities/colleges, the more conspicuous among them lecturing Delhi, in line with Washington’s commitment to nuclear nonproliferation, human rights, containing China, etc. on the perils of nuclear proliferation, the non-desirability of India building up a strong thermonuclear deterrent, and of fielding intercontinental ballistic missiles, and going with nuclear first use, on the benefits of strategically partnering the US in the Indo-Pacific, and the virtues of respecting minority rights, the special status of J&K, and of retaining a liberal social order. Individuals in a sub-section in this group involved in security studies strive to make a reputation for themselves by replicating concepts and ideas developed by Indian civilian strategists and passing them off as their own in US academic quarters, secure in the belief that no American analysts reads books by Indian strategists anyway! All these academics adhere closely to the offcial US policy line on the issues they advise Indian governments on because not doing so would stunt their careers. Ironically, their writings are then quoted by Indian analysts and media to make the case for a small, inoffensive, nuclear deterrent, for India becoming a cog, in effect, in the US military machine in the Indo-Pacific, etc.
Then there are the US-born and reared Americans of Indian ethnic origin — such as Richard Verma, the sometime US ambassador in Delhi, who are Indian only in their looks but otherwise, unsurprisingly, entirely American in their outlook. The shared Indian looks frequently leads Indian government officials mistakenly to expect a more empathetic hearing than they get. Indeed, I have found in semi-formal interactions with US officials that the US-born Indians among them are the loudest in decrying India’s policies and in challenging Indian policy predicates. The reverse is just as true. The Washington policy circles expect these ethnic Indians placed in South Asia -related positions to have some special insight into India’s foreign and other policies when actually they are no better clued into what’s happening in Delhi and in the states than their average white counterparts. I recall a conference hosted several years ago by the National Defence University in Washington DC on the sidelines of which the hosts arranged for me to meet with the US National Security Council Staff. At this meeting in the Excecutive Office Building adjoining the White House, the head of the South Asia section, Nisha Agarwal, who was later elevated in the Obama Administration to be Assistant Secretary of State for Southern Asia, was the most vocal in slamming the Indian government for not delivering on the 2005 civilian nuclear deal, on not being as receptive to US’ strategic initiatives in Asia, etc. She put on this show possibly to show her colleagues how hard she could be on India — apparently a litmus test that Americans of Indian origin in the US government have to pass!
A more dangerous lot comprises retired Indian diplomats, especially ambassadors posted to the US, who while in service “cultivate connections” and, after retirement, ease into numerous thinktanks and university faculties around Washington, DC. They produce little of any intellectual or even policy worth but remain in circulation spouting innocuous stuff except on occasions when they have to “sing for their supper” and come out strongly against India’s nuclear buildup or some move by Delhi on the domestic harmony & peace front. These persons are problematic because they are taken seriously by the US policy establishment as having their fingers on the pulse of Delhi (or at least the MEA) and what they say is used by those critical of India for their own purposes. Not to name and shame anyone, but one such diplomat was successively a Fellow at Brown University, “practitioner-in-residence” — whatever that means — at the Rockefeller Foundation-run Bellagio Centre in Italy, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, and professer offering a course in Sino-Indian relations at Columbia University in New York city, all this without producing a single research paper or any other policy-relevant writing of note, leave alone a book!
More intriguing still is a new stream — of retired Indian military officers who seek a place in the American sun! Many, many, moons ago at a conference called by the then US Pacific Command in Hawaii, the person who was the most vociferous in rejecting India’s nuclear assertiveness was a retired Vice Chief of the Army Staff. To my dismay, he put on a similar show at a conference called by Wilton Park — a thinktank of the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Wilton Park is a vast estate in Buckinghamshire that was used in 1946-48 to “re-educate” World War Two German officers who were prisoners of war! Such “exposure” was parlayed by this Indian General into a year-long stint at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. Since then many more ex-Indian military officers have climbed aboard this gravy train, translating one-off appearances at academic conferences into consultancies with various US agencies, etc.
The more intellectually inclined among them hanker for placement in thinktanks and at universities. I remember some 20 years ago a one-star officer approaching me for advice about what to do and how to go about securing a sinecure at an American institution. By then he had written a book and I suggested he could become a strong proponent for a meaningful Indian military aggressively championing India’s national interest. He knew better. He did the exact opposite and it worked! He spent time at leading security thinktanks in the US run by the Pentagon by essentially tailoring his message to suit his American audiences. More recently, a retired army colonel whom I had respect for has found a second career as a reporter covering Ministry of Defence for an Indian newspaper on which he has piggybagged a third career as lecturer at a US university. Without at all considering the downside of India losing its leverage with Russia and Iran, its role as balancer of power in the international system, US’ record of unreliability as strategic partner, or the better geostrategic options that are available he now argues, as do others within and outside the government, for India to link up militarily with the US in the Indo-Pacific as a means of ringfencing China.
The reason why so many retired and serving Indian government and military officials canoodle with Americans is simplicity itself . It is the same reason why young Indians try desperately hard to somehow find their future in America — it is a damned nice place to live in with none of the daily aggravations of life even in Indian metros! There’s material plenty, life is good, the universities provide unmatched education, the work place ethos is easy even as it is stressful because there are no time-grade promotions (as enjoyed by the civil services here) and only peformance in the job counts, and entrepreneurship and innovative thinking are rewarded. Of course, there’s a glass ceiling but this is melting away for Indians who with their technical expertise and English language proficiency, by and large, find it easier to get along and go along (in comparison to, say, students from China) and are elbowing their way to the top in corporations and other organizations.
Small wonder the whole broad band of civil servants and diplomats manning the top echelons of the Indian government move heaven and earth to ensure their progeny are educated in the US and settle down there or elsewhere in the modern and ‘secular’ West. The flipside of this parental interest in doing good by the children is, as I warned in my 2018 book (‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’) the rise of a distinct Fifth Column within the Indian policy establishment. It peddles and pushes the US policy line without a twinge of conscience, convinced it benefits India too. Its activity is supported in terms of public outreach by a number of American thinktanks — Brookings, Carnegie, Aspen — who have set up shop in Delhi financed by Indian monies! ( I wrote about this in Open magazine in April 2016 — ‘India’s Foreign Policy — The Foreign Hand’, https://openthemagazine.com/voices/indias-foreign-policy-the-foreign-hand/ )
All the Delhi chapters of the American thinktanks studiously plug and propagate the policy line of the Administration of the day. It is an activity in which a bunch of retired Indian diplomats, serving and former secretaries to the government and senior military officers — all the people, in fact, who whilst in government favoured siding with the US, participate. There is now a counterpart presence in Washington of an Indian thinktank — the Ambani-funded Observer Research Foundation (ORF). This would be a welcome development, except far from creatively articulating for the Beltway denizens India’s vital interests and explaining why these on many important issues collide with US interests, ORF Washington seems to be in the business of doing the same thing the US thinktanks do in India but with a slight twist. It embroiders US policy schemes acceptable to the ruling party in Delhi (going by the op-eds in Indian papers — because there’s little else — by its head)! So, what good it does India is anybody’s guess.
One cannot blame aspiring Indians for seeking a better future abroad or Indian officials for wanting the same for their kids, because the Indian system is too stultified to offer the youth brighter prospects at home. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is among those who has been hugely influenced by America and the “good life” it offers its people. At the core of his government’s ceaseless efforts over the last six years to keep the H1B visa channel open to Indians is precisely his fatalistic acceptance of the fact that the Indian system cannot be changed. Not, as he once promised, by him anyway.