Monday, September 11, 2000

The roots of anti-Americanism

What explains the love-hate relationship that Indians have with the United States? On the one hand, America remains the most favored destination for Indian tourists, students and professionals for holidays, jobs, education and business. For the middle class the green card is still the ultimate currency of individual power.
Even the most anti-establishment intellectuals would rather be in the US than in any other country. This has been true even before India and the US began the latest process of engagement. At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was favored by only the most ideologically committed or the most desperate.
On the other hand, the chattering classes, the foreign policy thinkers and the know-alls demonize the US. They have constructed the US as an evil self-interested power that would prefer a weak and unstable India.
Globalization, the opening up of India's economy, initiatives on Kashmir, the moratorium on nuclear testing, and the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbot dialogue are all seen as part of a devious American design to virtually re-colonize India. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), we are often told, has spread its network in almost every sphere of intelligent activity in India. Langley, declared a retired bureaucrat recently, is only the branch office: the headquarters are in New Delhi.
Engagement with the US is seen as the beginning of a process that will end with the emasculation of India. Thinly disguised references to a Samson-Delilah- like relationship, where the Americans will rob us of our strength just as we fall into their arms are all too common within India's academia and media, as is an identification of all those who have been softened by the Americans.
These views are being expressed not just by former apparatchiks or those seemingly caught in a time warp and nostalgic for a junket sponsored by the World Peace Council, but even by seemingly serious middle-of-the road analysts. Nationalism is judged, especially within the foreign-policy community, by your level of anti-Americanism. The easiest way of establishing your patriotic credentials is still by being abusive, not about Pakistan or China, but about America!
There are at least four factors that can be identified. First, of course, is history. Indians and Americans were on opposite sides of the Cold War divide and the legacy of that bitterness still lasts. Pakistan was an American ally, and Islamabad's present capacity to hurt and subvert India is directly related to US support to Islamabad during those years.
For many, the 1971 war was a formative experience. Nixon's hostility (and plans even to nuke India) toward New Delhi turned-off a generation of Indians. Moreover, for the generation of Indians born in the 1960s, American pressure on India to give up its nuclear option (and especially to sign the CTBT) prompted another resurgence of anti-Americanism, as did the US sanctions after the nuclear tests of 1998.
Another factor responsible for India's love-hate relationship is idealism. Even as Indian foreign policy makes the transition to real politik, there is still a great deal of latent Nehruvian idealism that inspires India's elite.
And within that worldview, America as the superpower, the hegemon, and the mother of neo-imperialism can do no good. In this narrative, the road of American imperialism runs from Vietnam through Central America and Indo-China to Yugoslavia. And India's elite, still rooted in an essentially Brahmanical tradition, like to preach lofty principles and ideals to the world.
Third, Indians do not really understand America. Most Indian elite would claim to be experts on America. But this expertise is based on CNN, Hollywood, Time and spy thrillers. By any standard, these mediums give only a limited exposure to the working of the American political system and the intricacies of policy formulation.
The state of American studies, especially on politics and economics, in India is pathetic. At the country's premier university, there are more than a dozen specialists on the former Soviet Union, and not even half that number of faculty members specializing on the United States. Expert writings on American foreign policy, especially within the public domain, are few and far between.
Finally, the process of globalization has rekindled distrust of America, and there is a convergence between the Left and the Right on this issue. Today, perhaps, Govindacharya - who has left the general secretaryship of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to ostensibly study the impact of globalization - and Sitaram Yechury's views would converge on the dangers of globalization. CITU and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch would be united in their opposition to American multinationals.
But beyond these apparently rational reasons, Indian elite -after 200 years of colonialism - still live in dread of the outsider, the foreigner disguises his designs in the garb of a trader or a friend.
Is there a way forward? Can anti-Americanism be overcome for mutual benefits? Anti-Americanism is unlikely to die in the short-term unless there is a dramatic decline in American power. But, in the long term, Indians in America offer the best hope. As residents of the US and still attached to India, they can help lower the mistrust and suspicion that exists at the popular level. They can become the best ambassadors of the US to India. Moreover, the road to a better US-India relationship lies more through economic co-operation rather than the search for a convergence on security and strategic issues.


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