Peddling a ‘foreign’ policy line (Augmented)

Did not incur expenses for 'Howdy-Modi' event in Houston last year, says  government | India News | Zee News
The September 2019 “Howdy Modi!” event in Houston

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’, )

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.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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25 Responses to Peddling a ‘foreign’ policy line (Augmented)

  1. Amit says:

    You are right about Indian Americans currently in political power leaning heavily left (e.g., Pramila JayPal, Ro Khanna etc.), who are quite anti India especially as the Modi government is in power. However, as an Indian American, I find the Trump Republicans to be a loony bigoted anti immigrant bunch who cannot be trusted. So even while more Indians are recently leaning republican, very few Indian Americans who are Republican are in power (e.g., Nikki Haley), who can thereby providing more support to a right of center government in India. And these Indians will be compelled to more or less support American interests rather than Indian interests (their party positions).

    But there is a larger issue of promoting indian interests and view points in the US like you mention. Maybe the Indian government should engage Indian Americans more to promote Indian interests. Indians who join think tanks will be heavily influenced by the institutional culture rather than change institutional culture by educating them about Indian interests. I see this in how they promote US military hardware for example, even when it does not make sense for India.

    You are right about the need for Indians in America being more proactive in educating Americans about Indian interests. An example would be why the US should stop being so suspicious about Iran and Russia and actually bring them out of China’s orbit. This aligns well with Indian interests too. And works well to contain China. But US history with these countries and their belief in their exceptionalism will make it hard to convince them to change. And Russians and Iranians also don’t trust Americans. However, Indians could bridge the divide IMO, as they have good relations with these countries and Indian and US interests overlap as they relate to China. But for this to happen, the Indian government should also engage with Indian Americans, as this is not an easy issue to resolve. Left to their own means, Indian Americans will mostly take the easy way out – represent the views of the institutions and political parties they represent, rather than change them.

    Also, I believe the biggest driver of Indian interests will be the rise of the Indian economy. Many of these issues will be automatically resolved if that happens.

    • Ranjeet Kumar Singh says:

      You find “Trump Republicans to be a loony bigoted anti immigrant bunch who cannot be trusted.” Maybe, they are. I do not know. But why would an American national (especially Republican) in the flyover country like to invite more immigrants, legal and illegal, when they are at the receiving end of such immigration, both politically and economically? I do not want Bangladeshis overrunning Assam and slums in all the Tier 1 & Tier 2 cities across the country. Period. Likewise a Trump Republican’s aversion to immigrants makes absolute sense to me. What is wrong with it? Nothing, in my opinion.

  2. ABC says:

    Is the colonel Ajai Shukla of Business Standard?

  3. Debanjan Banerjee says:

    Another great article by Mr. Karnad sir. Sir do you feel that RCEP actually gives China more leverage against India in the region with Vietnam and Philippines?
    MK Bhadrakumar suggests that SE Asian countries like Vietnam and Philippines prefers economic interests with China more than any security considerations like Brahmos exports. What is your take on this point sir?

    • Vietnam prizes its security and independence off China in equal measure. The Philippines under President Duerte is less predictable.

      • Gaurav Tyagi says:

        Respected Mr. Karnad,

        I spent some time in Philippines during the first quarter of 2019.

        The country largely comprises of criminally cunning as well as lazy local Filipinos, who don’t have any qualms about pimping their wives, daughters, sisters etc. to foreigners, in order to maintain a steady supply of dough without doing any meaningful work.

        Chinese have a huge presence in Philippines, owning casinos and other businesses.

        Indians especially Punjabis are also present in big numbers in Philippines.
        The Punjabis are mostly in the local money lending business.

        Philippines is an utterly corrupt nation from top to bottom. They will side with whoever has the bigger purse.

        India cannot compete with China when it comes to throwing money around therefore, it’s futile for Indian establishment to count on Philippines support against China.

  4. Kunal Singh says:

    Sir, this article is really frustrating to me and with years of experience in ur job it must be damn frustrating for u.
    Do these Ind think tanks recommend a high standard decolonised education syllabus for our institutions??

  5. Email:
    Joydeep Sircar.
    Mon, 4 Jan at 11:46 am

    Bravo, Bharat (and happy new year!) It seems we are genetically inclined to buttlicking – it used to be the British in the days of the Raj, then the USA, while an ideologically driven minority opted for USSR. The sturdy independence of thought that was one of the redeeming features of lndia in the Nehru era has evaporated – a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Greed and lack of principles have become the hallmark of our educated class. We make ideal servitors for Americans – intelligent, obedient, venal, easily trained. No use fulminating at what is happening – l watched helplessly as my own family rushed like Gadarene swine to feed at the dollar trough. And l am afraid your savage criticism is a failed attempt to blow dead embers of patriotic pride to flame.

    But l applaud your brave quixotic attempt – pity there are so few of you…..

    Best regards,

    J. Sircar

  6. vivek says:

    This is reason i really admire US, they have true vision and ready do anything to make sure they remain world power and no other country(except mistake they did in case of china which they are trying to fix) can even think of becoming prosperous and powerful like them so that they can save their position and attract best talents from all over world to help them keeping same. In contrast most of indian/other countries people like to talk/know more about US than India itself.

  7. andy says:

    Scathing but true! Plenty of coolies trying to be more white than the whites,bobby jindal anyone? If someone has the right to be critical of the gora pleasing lot its @Bharat. His was a reverse migration of sorts,studying in the US but coming back to India.

    It’s a pity there isn’t more appreciation for such plain and insightful speaking. The powers that be anywhere would rather surround themselves with sycophants who buttress their point of view rather than listen to valid but brutal reasoning,which is clearly meant for the betterment of the country and the way it’s governed. If they would just take the trouble to look beyond the plain speaking they would find a whole lot of recommendations,which if absorbed and put into practise,would do India a whole lot of good. Alas, thats too much to expect from blinkered politicians and ‘one exam wonder’ bureaucrats.

    • Gaurav Tyagi says:

      I keep telling everyone that Mr. Bharat Karnad should be the National Security Advisor of India.

      The present NSA has staged terrorism events” with Pakistan. It has bought BJP electoral success. This is the only issue, which matters to the right wingers of India.

      In reference to the Ladakh stand-off with China the so called Indian James Bond has either been compromised by the Dragon or he isn’t able to deal with the Chinese challenge.

      • andy says:

        @Bharat for RM.

      • SHANAL SHEKHAR says:

        @GauravTyagi — What is the evidence for your claim that Pulwama was staged?
        Not claims like “I know this for sure” etc. At max indicative evidence. Give it to us. I will believe you without any counter question.

  8. Marco A Ciaccia says:

    Sir, what you describe here is the same psycological complex we have been constantly witnessing in Italy vis a vis London-based establishment circles

  9. R S Mathoda says:

    Thank you Mr Karnad for your correct and informed writeup on ‘us’ Indians. Quite a shame really. Perhaps it is due to our religious philosophies which make us question many things, that on the one hand make us great at religious philosophy, but on the other quite accepting of ‘authority’. No wonder while we have many MD’s and CEO’s of American and other companies we do not have a Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or an Elon Musk. Things will surely change as we begin to look beyond just bettering our individual lot to thinking collectively in a bigger manner. Greater economic prosperity will translate to more power and more national pride. Hopefully the hiccups in building the economy will pass and we will grow as is desirable. Only real progress will silence those who doubt. After all the most successful companies are not those that were best designed but those that were best governed. The key is good governance. Thank you.

  10. What's in it anyway says:

    Indians are the only lot who excel everywhere but India. Those retired Babus are useless anyway, highly skilled Indian engineers, those are useful folks. Look at how Taiwan created TSMC and turned from agri-centric to tech centric economy with ample help from their diaspora.

  11. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    @Shanal Shekhar- Ajit Doval had a secret meeting with his Pakistani counterpart in December 2018 in Thailand.

    The timing of Pulwama just before 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The movement of CRPF convoy by road, the leakage of the force’s movements. Huge amount of RDX used for the attacks freely moving in Kashmir.

    You can connect the dots to arrive at the conclusion. The Rajya Sabha M.P. from Samajwadi Party, Ram Gopal Yadav also raised doubts over these attacks.

  12. Sankar says:

    @Professor Karnad:
    Could you please comment on this news assuming it to be true:
    “Modi Gov’t Becomes Meme Bait After Chinese Firm Bags Underground Rail Project in India..”-
    … At a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is advocating a vision of making India “self-reliant”, a Chinese firm, Shanghai Tunnel Engineering Company Limited, has bagged a contract to construct a 5.6-kilometre-long underground rail project stretching from the Indian capital New Delhi to the city of Meerut in the state of Uttar Pradesh….

    • Don’t know about this particular contract, but it sounds about right considering states and the centre work at different wavelenghts, and even different ministries in the every agency act as if each is sovereign. There’s so little coordination, it’s as good as nonexistent.

  13. Dodda Bore Gowda says:


    Bellagio Centre,
    Wilson Centre….
    I only thought the hubby was mad to become top-officer in his State Cadre, so much so that he went to beejing to make his case to srimaan remote-control.
    Learnt even MemSaab is the same. made for each other

    While your article brings worry-lines on any Indian, who can think, I’m wondering, how can we get over this Charmed-Circle folks causing India to lose?

    We simply can’t do away with these inflation-indexed pensionwaala’s, until we reach the stage like Greece was unable to pay pensions….

    PM has shown he isn’t willing to mend his loved lot, as he’s found bypassing the mantri’s to listen to babu’s..
    Way out !!

  14. Anonymous says:

    Why are Indian-origin Americans, who are part of US administrations, difficult to negotiate with and are such a nuisance?
    It’s not clear what they are trying to prove. .Are whites more reasonable to deal with compared to these Indian-origin jerks?

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