What is Delhi finally getting about America?

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[Jaishankar-Blinken talks at Hyderabad House]

It is not a coincidence that the announcement in Washington of the appointment of the Indian origin lawyer Rashad Hussain as Ambassador at-large for Religious Freedoms followed in the wake of the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s India trip and meeting with his Indian opposite number, S. Jaishankar. The US side had indicated that the issue of the deteriorating human rights situation in India would be raised, and Blinken did so. and tried to preempt the obvious counterstrike by accepting that the conditions and treatment of Blacks and other minorities in America is nothing to crow about. In this context, Jaishankar’s combatively framing the discussion in terms of how the two countries handle their diversity were apt tactics. That said, and the brazen hypocrisy of it notwithstanding, the US government will continue attacking India on this front. And one can expect Hussain will be mouthing off, making visits to India every time there’s a communal incident or eruption, and testifying before committees of the US Congress that will increasingly grate on Delhi’s nerves. Best for Jaishankar & Co., to brace for this onslaught.

Having long ago set itself up as “the shining house on the hill”, the US has habitually worn its democratic system and values on its sleeve even when its human rights record at home was abysmal. In the Cold War years before the 1965 Civil Rights Act, Blacks in the US did not have the right to vote and, in the American South, lived in an apartheid-like system of racial discrimination, including separate public utilities for Blacks. All the while Radio Free Europe, with powerful transmitters on the Warsaw Pact periphery, interspersed with Jazz and popular American music, broadcast 24/7 the virtues of freedom to the peoples of Eastern Europe, supposedly under the Soviet yoke. One thing the US doen’t display in its public posture is a sense of irony.

This to say that the Narendra Modi government cannot but expect to be at the receiving end of bad press in the US and the West, especially if it is unable to prevail on BJP-run state governments to tamp down severely on the extremist Hindu loony fringe. The RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s attempts at narrowing the communal divide by saying Hindus and Muslims and other minorities of the subcontinent share the same DNA, and hence are brothers albeit with different religious affiliations will hopefully contain the more rabid elements, and prevent them from periodically providing Ambassador Hussain the stick to beat India with.

It is clear the Biden Administration seems intent on keeping the human rights situation in India and the geostrategic imperatives of collaborating with Delhi to keep China leashed in the Indo-Pacific, in different policy baskets. In other words, Washington hopes to be free to criticize India in the same way it does China on the matter of the East Turkestani Uyghur Muslims, say, but expects that India, recognizing the larger game in play, will ride out the American barbs and militarily cooperate with it. The onus is thus on Delhi to accommodate Washington, and not the other way around.

There’s a problem here. One hopes Jaishankar made it plain to Blinken that this double-faced approach won’t do. This is no small thing, not something Delhi can safely ignore, because it undermines Modi’s central premise for his pro-America, pro-West stance, namely, that India is a part of a concert of democracies facing an authoritarian China in Asia and the world, even if it is obvious that Indian democracy has still very, very far to go to maturation. But whatever the quality of its democracy, India is still nominally a democratic state in the developing world. This counts, but not for much.

The ruction over India’s democratic status apart, how did the rest of the July 28 Jaishankar-Blinken meeting go? Quad, Afghanistan and covid were reportedly the three main issues on the table. Re: Quad — surely any talks over China and the Indo-Pacific would have to be contextualized by the discussions Wendy Sherman, the US Deputy Secretary of State had with the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi July 25-26. This is what the US State Departgment spokesman Ned Price had to say: “The Deputy Secretary underscored that the United States welcomes the stiff competition between our countries—and that we intend to continue to strengthen our own competitive hand—but that we do not seek conflict with the PRC.” Had he stopped at strenghtening America’s “competitive hand”-bit, that’d have been fine. But his declaration that the US “does not seek conflict” raises the legitimate question about how far Washington would go in avoiding it? The most the US will do is send warships, on ocassion an aircraft carrier group on FONOPS (freedom of navigation patrols) through the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea or, as happened some three weeks ago, deploy 25 F-22s from air wings in Alaska and Hawaii to Guam for in-theatre operations. These are largely symbolic gestures, not real commitment to fight.

America’s will to stand up to China is as suspect as India’s under Prime Minister Modi. Except, India is a frontline state and has much more at stake vis a vis China than does the US, and a much smaller margin of error. This isn’t helped by Delhi’s ridiculous optimism coveyed to the press about the 12th meeting of army commanders in Chushul leading to the PLA withdrawing from the Y-junction on the Depsang. It marked the kind of unrealism attending on Modi’s China policy dictated by that bunch of proven appeasers — the “China Study Group/Circle” whose list of flawed recommendations over the years would shame amateur sinologists everywhere.

Re: Afghanistan — Blinken may have responded to Jaishankar’s apprehensions at the turn of the events in the aftermath of America’s precipitate withdrawal by assuring the latter that the US means to continue supporting th Afghan National Army (ANA) by bombing and rocketing Taliban concentrations preparing for attacks on ANA garrisoned provincial capitals, cities and district capitals. There is also a mystery about where the attacking aircraft are taking off from — there have already been several strike sorties to-date. It can’t be carrier aircraft from ships stationed in the north Arabian Sea because they don’t have the range with full ordnance load to reach Taliban targets and get back. Bahrain and the base at Duqm in Oman too can be ruled out for the same reasons. There’s absolutely no doubt then that — notwisthanding promises to Mullah Ghani Baradar, the chief Taliban negotiator that Pakistan won’t allow any foreign power to use Pakistani military facilities against the Afghan Taliban, Islamabad has been arm-twisted by Washington to permit American combat aircraft to use the PAF base at Jacobabad for their anti-Taliban flights. The Jacobabad base has been available to the US Air Force/Navy/Special Forces for a long time now.

Blinken may have queried Jaishankar about what Delhi proposes to do to protect its investments in Afghanistan. Other than some reports in the Pakistani media that the Modi regime has dispatched some 3,000 troops — army or paramil isn’t clear, the Indian government’s response to appeals from President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul for military aid and assistance has teetered on uncertainty. Vivek Katju, a former foreign service colleague of Jaishankar’s, calls it “strategic paralysis”. The paralysis is less over what and how much of various military items to ship to Kabul; more over the substantial policy to adopt with regard to Afghanistan’s future and what role if any to play in shaping it.

India has a choice of some Taliban factions to support, fianancially and otherwise, but no real prospect of getting a regime of its choice. The existing Ashraf Ghani dispensation on the other hand is just the kind of progressive, liberal, government it’d like to see flourish in that country. It makes no sense for Delhi to support a Taliban govt of any kind but it makes ample good sense to try and sustain to the extent it can the Ghani government and, in parallel, begin putting back together the old Northern Alliance, just in case, the Taliban push to take over the cities and major towns and Kabul becomes shove. This will be the bloodiest phase of the underway civil war. The northern Alliance will have to be helped in every possible way to take back the border posts the Taliban have captured on the Amu Darya River accessing Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in particular, and to join with Iran in fielding a substantial and well armed Hazara shia militia to keep northwestern Afghanistan out of Taliban hands. The numerous forums, including the Russia-Afghanistan-Pakistan “troika”, where there’s endless talking, seem to be of little use under the circumstances, and India loses nothing to be no part of any of them.

Re: COVID — Whatever Blinken may have said, with the Delta variant of Corona virus now spreading like wildfire in America, it is doubtful President Biden will agree to increase exports of vaccine making materials for India to ramp up its vaccine production. One wishes the Modi govt, instead of going with begging bowls to the US and the Western pharma – Pfizer, et al for the vaccines, had invested more fully in the Indian Company, Bharat Pharmaceuticals, to scale up its production of its indigenously researched, designed, tested and winning product, Covaxin, as the low cost and effective vaccine alternative for India and the developing world.

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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15 Responses to What is Delhi finally getting about America?

  1. Gaurav Tyagi says:

    My half cent worth opinion is that no existing vaccine is capable of effectively dealing with the Delta variant of Coronavirus.

    No government will admit it to avoid spreading panic among the masses.

    Here in China the authorities are also paranoid because the Delta variant has spread to numerous cities.

  2. Amit says:

    I think you make some good points about the fault lines in America and how India has a choice of playing that card to manage the ‘human rights’ issue that Democratic regimes seem to play up more than Republican. In my view this human rights issue is related to the freedom of religion issue that the US harps on and is now being driven by the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democrat party. It also now has right wing Islamic connections with potential connections to Jamaat e-Islami in Pakistan (I read an article somewhere where they showed all the connections between the various organisations – can’t find the diagram I had saved from that article). So as long as Democrats are in power in the US, India just has to manage the Bernie Sanders and the Quad wing of the Democrat party. I think India is doing that based on the various discussions I have seen our EAM have with various think tanks here in the US as well as on other forums. Frankly, I also think some US pressure might be a good thing for India, since the opposition in India provides no such thing.

    As for US media…it is mostly liberal and they are ideological in their support. So expect the Wapos and NYTs and CNNs of the world to continue to harp on Modi and India. That will not stop as long as the BJP is in power. But Fox is supportive of Modi … so media is all ideological here. However, even if a left Govt comes to power in India, it will be portrayed negatively. That’s the nature of American press and India has to develop its own media might to counter that. While a small country like Qatar has done that with Al Jazeera, India has nothing to show here (Indian media is a circus show in India). Jingoism and false pride rule Indian media with little regard to competence and world class reporting. I watch YouTube podcasts for news about India…they are much better.

    As for Afghanistan, I agree with your comments about India being supportive of the current Afghan government, while supporting elements of the old Northern alliance as well as keeping channels open with factions of the Taliban. Based on the flurry of activity I see with Iran and the Stans and Indian EAM and Defence Ministers, I think this is happening. We have to see how things play out on the ground. But there are some analysts saying how India is isolated and will be left out and how Pakistan’s new strategy of ‘Geoeconomics’ is the ‘new’ way and the ‘new’ Quad that the US is pushing or the Russia-China-Pakistan troika will trump…all wishful thinking. Anything can happen – the situation is fluid. Those who claim certainty on what will happen do not know what’s happening. I don’t agree with the ‘strategic paralysis’ comment for India as well. India is quite active diplomatically right now about Afghanistan. But no one knows the outcomes.

  3. DEBANJAN BANERJEE says:

    Another insightful article by Mr Karnad.

    While all of our gaze is fixated onto Afghanistan, we have hardly seen any focus on the upcoming potential civil war in Myanmar. MK Bhadrakumar wrote in May that he believes India will play the frontline state role in the Myanmar civil war similar to what was played by Pakistan in Afghanistan in the 1980-s and 2000-s.

    Dear Mr Karnad do you see the recent Assam-Mizoram conflict as a harbinger of things to come in the coming months and years as India solidifies her role in the Myanmar civil war ? I would love your expert views on the same.

  4. By mail from
    Gopalaswami Parthasarathy (former High Commissioner to Pakistan) and Vice Chancellor, Jammu University
    12:59 PM (2 hours ago)
    Whether we like it or not, “Human Rights” issues have come to stay, not just in our relations with the US but also with the EU and UK. But, Washington and others, also know that while we may join groups like the QUAD, to meet our interests, we will set our terms of participation, especially where our ties with Moscow are concerned.

    Our ties with Moscow are non-negotiable. One, however, hopes our Russian friends behave more sensibly on Afghanistan, instead of behaving like a puppy dog, following China

    • Sankar says:

      “… we will set our terms of participation” –
      What hubris, “our terms”? – this is just a pipe dream, Sir!

      “Our ties with Moscow are non-negotiable” – oh really? I thought, that the fundamental tenet in Statecraft is, there is no permanent friend or foe in the international world for a Nation-State. What is permanent is the interest of the Nation to pursue. It seems this will not be the case for India.

      Again, “One … hopes our Russian friends” – gee building foreign policy on hopes!
      Didn’t Gorbachev withdraw the erstwhile Soviet “nuclear umbrella” for India against PRC when he came to power and sided with PRC for India to fend for her security? In my reading of political events, until then Delhi fell into a slumber imagining that the Soviet guarantee for a nuclear shield will be there forever, and the policymakers gave up all desire to gear up the Indian military with nuclear technology for weaponry.

    • San Mann says:

      Prof Karnad, it completely suits the Left-wing govt in the Whitehouse to accept criticism about their country’s treatment of Blacks and other minorities, because that caters to their own domestic partisan political narrative. So Jaishankar is only fighting the fire demon with fire, which is entirely ineffective. What Jaishankar should instead be doing is talking about America’s Euro-centrist foreign policy under the Democrats, as well as its iron censorship against dissenting political views, such as ‘cancel culture’, banishment from social media, even firing of people from their employment for being politically incorrect. Biden’s govt openly boasts about looking for ways to bypass the US constitution, including even possible packing of the US Supreme Court! We Indians as a fellow democratic society can easily find the chinks in the political armour of these American Lefties, to home in on the issues which are most politically sensitive for their ruling partisans. What about the senile Biden’s own corruption scandals involving his son? Their media are conveniently silent and muzzled — how democratic is that?

  5. Deepak says:

    Modi’s foreign policy is a failure. He thinks building personal relations will bring good returns but it is partially true with dictators, like Putin. But when you deal with democratic countries you have to deal with a country not with a leader as he can move out anytime and next leader, if he is an opponent of current leader, wont continue with many policies of the preceding leader. Modi over relied on relationship with Trump, which is now backfiring with Biden. Not sure if Modi is ready to learn from past mistakes as he thinks himself the smartest leader post-independence.

    • DEBANJAN BANERJEE says:

      I do not agree with you. I do not think Mr Modi has done anything different than the other previous prime ministers. We need to understand that the World has changed a lot in the last few decades which is a reality. Another interesting thing is that the World is a lot more competitive in the post-COVID circumstances where small country nationalism is on the rise. I do not think even Indira/Rajeev/Rao/Vajpayee would have got different results had they been around instead of Mr Modi.

      • Deepak says:

        Vajapayee had at least the guts to ignore US sanctions and carried out nuclear test in national interest which is lacking with modi who always waits for certificate from west on his major policy decisions.rao implemented economic reforms.Indira with all her negatives still created bangladesh,annexed sikkim,siachin.rajeev/nehru/manmohan and others are total failures anyway which makes modi look great leader comparatively but not in reality.

      • Gaurav Tyagi says:

        @Debanjan Banerjee- Deepak has described Modi perfectly in this last sentence of his, “as he thinks himself the smartest leader post-independence”

        You have named 4 ex Indian Prime Ministers. Let’s examine them briefly;

        1. Indira- She first became the P.M of India in 1966 and in 1971, she carved out Bangladesh from Pakistan.

        Modi has been in power since, more than 7 years. He isn’t even capable of taking the so called POK from Pakistan forget confronting China.

        In my opinion, the biggest achievement of Indira was the abolition of “privy purses” for the erstwhile kings.

        Very few people are aware that most of India’s GDP was being wasted in providing lavish monetary grants to these Kings/Princes.

        2. Rajeev- Utter failure as a P.M. His close associates/friends enjoyed the perks of power. Rajeev occupied the highest post in the land just because of ‘Sympathy Wave’ due to his mother’s assassination.

        3. Narasimha Rao- Successfully managed to complete his 5 year term despite not having enough numbers. He did a brilliant job of opening up the Indian economy from the suffocating license/quota era.

        4. Vajpayee- Fond of wine & women. Did nothing special during his term but expressed his gratitude to his Chinese host’s ‘hospitality’ by giving in writing that Tibet belongs to China.

        As a fellow contributor Sankar has pointed out various times on this blog that who are Indians to decide whether Tibet belongs to China or not? This should be decided by the Tibetans.

        Modi- I don’t remember any major decision of his during his term till now.

        Demonetisation was a completely useless step. GST botched up, wherein rates/slabs are still being discussed.

        Providing free Gas connections is sheer hype. Waiving the connection fee is nothing, the price of a Gas Cylinder is still unaffordable for most of the BPL families.

        Opening up of Billions of Bank Accounts is another nonsense. What good is a bank account for an individual, who doesn’t have access to a regular income?

  6. Mr.Mister says:

    “This to say that the Narendra Modi government cannot but expect to be at the receiving end of bad press in the US and the West, especially if it is unable to prevail on BJP-run state governments to tamp down severely on the ***extremist Hindu loony fringe***.”

    Karnad, I am afraid you are trying to obfuscate some thinly-veiled deceit here. Your attempt at misdirection/deflection is clear. We weren’t born yesterday, you understand.

    The rise of the “extremist Hindu loony fringe” (actually, not-so-fringe really, when many of them are part of the ruling party, and lynchers get garlanded, and their coffins draped with the flag!!) is directly due to the rise of the RSS/BJP, and not in spite of them. So, there will be no “prevailing” over them, when what we witness happening is encoded within the ideology of the RSS/BJP. The only “prevailing,” if at all, will be an eyewash for outside consumption. How well the propaganda works remains to be seen. After all, India is such a big market, we can imagine… wink!

    Finally, I have a humble prayer… I pray that the forces of right-wing hate, which causes much pain and suffering, and their apologists, whoever they all may be, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Atheist, etc., fail at their machinations everywhere, and God’s justice prevails over them.

    Any righteous thinking human should join in my prayer.

  7. Amit says:

    Regarding Vaccines, looks like India is dragging everyone within its bureaucratic mud by insisting on providing no legal indemnification Apparently, there is such indemnification for Pfizer and Moderna in the US… https://www.cnbc.com/2020/12/16/covid-vaccine-side-effects-compensation-lawsuit.html.

    The fact that India does this is amazing. Rather a few million Indians die than lose the freedom to sue the ‘money grabbing’ Pharmacos. Even the most litigious country like the US has provided indemnification. But our mandarins like to compete on the wrong things!

  8. Krishna Soni says:

    “Necessary To Ensure Continuous Supply Of Arms To Forces”: Lok Sabha Passes Essential Defence Services Bill Amid Protests By Opposition”
    @Professor Karnad
    Modi Govt has passed Essential Defence Services Bill, 2021, The bill seeks to empower the government to issue orders which would ban strikes, lockouts, and lay-offs in units engaged in essential defence services despite protest by the opposition.
    https://swarajyamag.com/news-brief/necessary-to-ensure-continuous-supply-of-arms-to-forces-lok-sabha-passes-essential-defence-services-bill-amid-protests-by-opposition
    I think modi govt deserves some praise for passing this bill, what is your opinion.

    • Good move, long overdue.

      • Sankar says:

        @Professor Karnad:
        I do not agree at all. The civilian workers in defense factories must have every right in their workplace as their counterparts in any other industry not defense-related. This measure is just for the consumption of the gullible patriots and nationalists exposing “fake” nationalism. The State can get away by enforcing the workers to come to work by this measure true, but the workforce will be disgruntled, and you will never get the right output from such a labour force. Consequently, the military is bound to suffer in the ultimate count.

        This step needs to be countered fully since the Modi Government itself does not care about accountability, not to mention patriotism. Some unconfirmed reports are already emanating that the Rafaels supplied to India to date do not have RWRs (Radar Warning Receivers) fitted to them. This makes them flying ducks in the air space for the PLAAF to have target practice. Apparently, France has told India that RWRs will be fitted at a later stage (but when?). And Modi himself went to France with great fanfare for signing that deal for Rafaels. In those days Bhaktas went in euphoria for Modi’s “out of the box” thinking in negotiating the deal!

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