Love and hate: India's contrary views of the US

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2007, 12:00am

At the heart of India's furore over the proposed nuclear deal with the United States lies a complex that is more psychological than political. US ambassador William Saxbe put it into words in the 1970s: 'When I call on cabinet ministers, the president or governors, they all love to talk about their sons, sons-in-law and daughters in the US and how well they're doing and how well they like things. The next day I read in the papers the very same people are denouncing the US as a totally different kind of country.'

The attitude he described reflects more than contrary views running parallel in a large and disparate society. As Mr Saxbe noted, the same person often responds differently when it comes to American foreign policy and his offspring's higher education and employment.

India's sustained criticism of American policies can be traced back to prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. His disenchantment with US president Franklin Roosevelt - for succumbing to British pressure and withdrawing support for India's independence - was compounded by an upper-class English disdain for things American.

Former external affairs minister Natwar Singh says that eight out of 10 Indian diplomats have children in the US. As the economy prospers and education creates a new awareness, even villagers are joining their city brethren in the quest for a US green card.

In private, members of India's Left Front - 59 communist MPs who prop up Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's minority government - are as susceptible to America's attractions as anyone else. In public, they articulate non-aligned nationalism, with Marxist leader Prakash Karat claiming the nuclear deal will bind India to US 'strategic designs in Asia'.

Since the two countries are already strategic partners, it's only the nature and extent of the co-operation that must periodically be determined. Though 'containment' sounds too crudely physical, next month's five-power naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal will further the strategic aim of maintaining the region's military equilibrium.

Critics of the nuclear deal accuse the US of being motivated by commercial interest. Expanding India's nuclear energy from the present 3 per cent of total generation to the target 25 per cent will obviously present huge export opportunities for US industry. Clearly, the US is prepared to legitimise India's nuclear status - albeit to a limited extent - only because of these expectations.

It's these limitations that some Indians resent as an infringement of sovereignty - though, without the deal, India could not openly pursue any nuclear programme at all. The objection to its doing so would not be legal since, unlike Iran or North Korea, India has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Rather, sanctions imposed in 1998 denied India fuel for reactors as well as access to nuclear technology.

Hence National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan's verdict that the treaty is 'as good a text as one can possibly get'. It's a question of half a loaf being better than none.

The process still needs the International Atomic Energy Agency's agreement, followed by a nod from the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group to lift sanctions. Some of its members, notably China, are thought to be lukewarm about this. Having gone so far, Dr Singh cannot retreat without serious loss of face and a setback to Indo-US ties. A general election may become unavoidable if the Left Front scuttles the deal.

That alone may not purge Indian ambivalence about the US. But a formal treaty and visible official co-operation at various levels might encourage Indians to be less mealy mouthed about their obvious yearning for the American way of life.

The present mix of hostility and admiration recalls the fabled Philippine graffiti: 'Yankee go home - and take me with you!'

Sunanda Kisor Datta-Ray is the author of Waiting for America: India and the US in the New Millennium