US-India relations are going from strength to strength, despite the persistence of naysayers on both sides. Much thanks to Beijing that has mainly shouldered the burden of pushing this relationship along, as it remains undeterred by the difficulties of the task or even common sense. While another section of experts is tiring to constantly remind the Indian commentariat to focus on the central purpose and scope of the US-India partnership, it is also essential to do so. Additional burdens are sought to be placed on the relationship by those seeking to divert it from its primary objective — of cooperation to counter China. Neither Afghanistan’s stability, nor India’s shaky liberalism are problems that the US-India partnership can fix. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to India demonstrates that both governments are now quite adept at dealing with such external pressures. But the public discourse, especially in India, has yet to catch up.
US-India and Afghanistan
On Afghanistan, first. It was always foolish of New Delhi to expect that the US will keep spending blood and treasure to keep Afghanistan out of the hands of the Taliban. Indeed, it is not even in India’s interest for the US to remain in Afghanistan, for at least three reasons. First, continuing to stay in Afghanistan and expending its energies there dilutes the power that the US can bring to bear on balancing China, a relatively much more important Indian strategic objective today. Second, as long as the US remains in Afghanistan, it will also be hostage to Rawalpindi. Leaving Afghanistan means the US is less vulnerable to Pakistani blackmail, something that is much to India’s benefit. Third, it is somewhat less than credible for Indians to ask the US to stay in Afghanistan when there is little appetite in India to send its own forces to defend the people of Afghanistan. Though the US has been reluctant until now to allow a greater Indian role in Afghanistan, truth be told, its objections have also been a good excuse for India. It is difficult to imagine that Indian policymakers or the strategic community, let alone the people as a whole, would support any Indian expeditionary mission to Afghanistan.
Two counterpoints also need to be considered. First, the fate of Afghanistan and its long-suffering people. There is little doubt that it will be a disaster for Afghanistan if the Taliban thugs take over the country. Obviously, both India and the US can and should help as much as they can to strengthen Afghan national military forces to prevent the Taliban from taking control. It would be foolish to abandon Kabul and seek an accommodation with the Taliban because there is little chance that the Taliban will be able to cut itself off from Rawalpindi’s apron strings. But the fight ultimately has to be fought mostly by the Afghans themselves.
Second, the danger of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, with comparisons being drawn to the situation India faced in the 1990s. This is not a serious objection. The terrorism threat that India faces comes as a consequence of Pakistan’s action, not Afghanistan’s. Simply put, India doesn’t face an Afghanistan problem; it faces a Pakistan problem. But the solution to this, from diplomacy at one end of the spectrum to military retaliation at the other, has to focus on Pakistan. Indian policy has moved significantly towards the latter end of the spectrum.
India should also acknowledge its own errors. Despite claims to all of Kashmir, India has never sought to reclaim Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) through force or diplomacy. Pakistan has, repeatedly. If India had reclaimed Gilgit-Baltistan, it would have changed the geopolitics of the region, ending Pakistan’s status as the sole viable territorial link to Afghanistan and cutting Pakistan off from China. Instead, we have had hand wringing about Pakistan exploiting its advantage in Afghanistan and whining about the US withdrawal or China building the CPEC corridor through Indian-claimed territory, none of which is particularly useful.
The state of democracy in India
Similar problems face the other major demand that is being placed on the US-India relationship — of protecting India’s liberal democracy. This is a forlorn hope, for two reasons: first, any direct US involvement in Indian political affairs would very likely be counterproductive because it would simply lead to greater friction in US-India relations and do little to change the Narendra Modi government’s behaviour. The commitment of Indian governments to liberal principles, especially to limiting arbitrary use of State power and protecting individual rights and free speech has always been suspect. The current government’s record isn’t encouraging either, compared to the previous governments with the possible exception of the Indira Gandhi government during the Emergency. And it has gotten worse over the last few years.
But this is not a problem that can be fixed with clumsy external intervention. It is foolish to subcontract India’s domestic political tasks to any foreign power. Correcting India’s political problems requires domestic political action and activism. The sad truth is that the reason the government is able to get away with such behavior is because of the pathetic state of India’s opposition, especially the Congress. As long as the opposition remains weak and divided, there will be no way to check India’s State power.
Of course, whether the US would want to is itself a good question. Though the US has been accused of putting democracy at the centre of its foreign policy, Washington has usually been pragmatic about when it seeks to promote democracy, which is usually when other, more critical American objectives do not get in the way. American rhetoric on such issues is rarely an indicator of actual policy. The Joe Biden administration, even in these last few months, has shown itself to be extremely careful, sensitive and strategic, no doubt a result of the disciplining enforced by the emerging great power tussle with China. The deterioration in Indian politics will have to be corrected by those of us concerned, and not by outsiders.
Both India and the US face many problems. But the US-India partnership is not meant to fix most of them, other than the one overwhelming joint challenge.
The author is a professor in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He tweets @RRajagopalanJNU. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)