In American foreign policy circles, where lazy hegemonic assumptions still abound, there is a widespread conviction that the US-India relationship will play out like a Bollywood film: There may be some resistance at the beginning, some friction in the middle and plenty of song and dance along the way, but in the end the protagonists will overcome all hurdles and live happily ever after.
This optimism is predicated on notions of a common political culture (both countries are democracies), some shared threat perceptions (China and jihadist terrorism) and mutual economic interest. The view from Washington appears all the sunnier because prominent Indian-Americans are heavily represented in business, culture and politics — from Google CEO Sundar Pichai and TV star Mindy Kaling to Vice President Kamala Harris.
But this impression has allowed American presidents to take for granted that the relationship with India needs no special tending beyond government-to-government arrangements and the occasional photo-op with the prime minister. Little effort is expended on communicating with Indians; it is assumed that the citizens of the world’s most populous nation will take the trouble, perhaps with the aid of Pichai’s principal product, to inform themselves about American actions that affect their lives.
This failure to communicate is in large part to blame for a growing suspicion among Indians of US foreign-policy objectives. A new survey shows that Indians view the US as the biggest military threat to their country after China — and, even more shocking, put it ahead of Pakistan. Conducted by Morning Consult, a US-based global business intelligence company, the poll also shows Indians are more likely to blame America and NATO than Russia for the war in Ukraine.
Skepticism of the Western narrative of the war is common in the Global South, but Indian perceptions of an American threat to their country require more study. At the very least, the Biden administration should recognize and rectify its negligence in handling relations with a country the president theoretically regards as an important partner.
It would be too facile to attribute Indian suspicions of American intentions to muscle memory from the Cold War, when the US backed Pakistan while India was aligned with the Soviet Union. Growing up in India in the 1970s, I remember my parents talking about the time when Richard Nixon ordered a taskforce led by the USS Enterprise into the Indian Ocean to boost Pakistani morale during the war that would lead to the creation of Bangladesh. My father’s friends in the Indian Navy spun yarns about their readiness to conduct suicide operations, if all else failed, against the American fleet.
But Washington has long since switched sides from Islamabad to New Delhi, and the US Navy now routinely conducts joint exercises with its Indian counterpart. India is a key member of the US-led Quad, a security grouping that includes Japan and Australia and is designed to check Chinese ambitions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Surely no Indian in their right mind perceives a real military threat from the US?
Rick Rossow, an India expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reckons the fear is rooted in the consequences of American military adventures elsewhere: “The concern is that our actions threaten Indian interests.”
Rossow, who holds the Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at CSIS, points out that as one of the world’s largest importers of hydrocarbons, India suffers collateral damage from American policies that lead to a spike in oil and gas prices. “You can make a strong case that the war in Iraq and the sanctions against Iran have hurt the Indian economy,” he says.
The war in Ukraine is a more complicated case, though. As a democracy with a strong national memory of the harm inflicted by British colonialism, Indians ought to feel sympathy with a country resisting the imperial ambitions of a tyrant. Even allowing for New Delhi’s longstanding ties with Moscow — and its profiting from the war in the form of cut-price Russian oil — there can hardly be any doubt that President Vladimir Putin was the prime mover, not the US or NATO.
Part of the problem is that the Indian government, unchallenged by a docile media, has been spinning its naked opportunism as a form of noble, nationalistic resistance to pressure from the West. To deflect uncomfortable questions about New Delhi’s reluctance to condemn the Russian invasion, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has accused the West of hypocrisy, arguing it is selective in its outrage.
But just as important, neither Ukraine nor the US has told their side of the story to an Indian audience with much vigor. The government of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy may have its hands full with the war, but the Biden administration should do better.
Why hasn’t it? For one thing, it has not cared to. But perhaps more worrisome, it lacks the minimum means to communicate with the Indians. The State Department faces a chronic shortage of speakers in any of the Indian languages. It is also lacking an ambassador in New Delhi. The position has been unfilled since Biden became president.
This is hardly an exception: Republicans in the Senate have blocked a number of Biden appointees for ambassadorships. But even Democrats have questioned his choice of Eric Garcetti for the Delhi job. The former mayor of Los Angeles has faced allegations of ignoring a former top aide’s sexual harassment and bullying; he denies this.
That Biden has persisted with Garcetti’s candidacy for the last year and a half is baffling: The mayor has no special expertise on India. Worse, the State Department has been unable even to maintain a semblance of stability at the embassy, which has been run by five charges d’affaires over the past two years. The longest-serving of these had no India experience whatsoever. (In contrast, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, India’s ambassador to Washington, is on his fourth US stint.)
There is no prominent India hand at the Biden White House, and although much was made of Harris’s ancestry during the election campaign, the administration has not capitalized on the enthusiasm she generated among Indians. Putting the vice president front and center of India policy would be a good place to start undoing the damage of long American neglect.
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Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.
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