India, during the Cold War, was officially nonaligned. She was closer to the Soviet Union, which saw her as a natural “anti-colonialist” ally and also wanted a regional counterbalance for China—and accordingly assisted India militarily and politically, especially during U.N. debates over the Kashmir conflict. Later, in 1998, India’s continued refusal to sign the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and her nuclear tests led to the Clinton administration imposing partial sanctions against India.
Since Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, relations have gradually warmed, nuclear disagreements notwithstanding. Successive Indian governments have sought better relations with the United States, most recently the reforming and business-friendly United Progressive Alliance government of Manmohan Singh (a Congress Party-led coalition that took over from the Hindu nationalist-led government in 2004).
As long ago as 1999, George W. Bush was advocating a closer relationship with a country that, in common with Soviet-era policymakers, he saw as a potential bulwark against Chinese ambitions. (India fought a losing war against China along the two countries’ 1,000-mile border in 1962.) One of the earliest foreign-policy actions of Bush’s administration was to lift some of the 1998 sanctions. President Bush met with the prime minister of India in 2001. In 2004, the two countries launched a “Strategic Partnership,” and, in 2005, Messrs. Bush and Singh announced a range of other initiatives, from nuclear technology (apparently much to Singh’s surprise) to disaster relief.
After September 11, India has also been seen as a potential ally against global Islam, and she has shared terrorism intelligence with the United States. There are also increasing economic links between the two countries; India is now the United States’ largest trading and investment partner. (U.S. exports to India, and vice versa, have more than doubled since 2001.) Large American businesses clearly hope to be able to buy into a dynamic economy (there has been six-percent average annual growth since 1980) that is gradually removing barriers to foreign investment, and in which they can employ workers at a fraction of their costs in the United States. It was hardly surprising that America should eventually have taken a pragmatic approach to India’s nuclear capability.
Arguably, although America might have negotiated a little harder, what else could she have done? Indian nuclear capability is a fait accompli. She is trying to become less reliant on imported fuels, so her nuclear industry is destined to expand (it now accounts for just three percent of energy needs), and Washington would rather have India reliant on U.S. or other Western nuclear expertise than on, say, Chinese nuclear expertise or Iranian natural gas.
But this new alliance raises awkward questions. The most obvious is, How will America’s valuable Muslim allies—especially India’s old enemy, Pakistan—react? And isn’t there a danger that America might get drawn into India’s combustible internal politics? On March 2, Mr. Bush praised India’s “free, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.” (There are 22 official languages in India and an estimated 250 separate ethnic groups, many speaking unofficial languages and dialects.) A corollary of this is often violent Hindu-Muslim strife all across the country. In the recent past, there has also been bloody Hindu-Sikh strife in the Punjab. (I was once witness to the aftermath of some of this, when the ship I was on was responsible for salvaging the dead bodies of 300-plus Indians blown up in a plane in 1985.) In the northeastern province of Tripura, Christian fundamentalists have been assassinating prominent Hindus since the 1970’s. The southeastern province of Tamil Nadu is plagued by violent separatists allied to those on Sri Lanka. There are also Maoist terrorists; just two days before Mr. Bush’s visit, they murdered 25 people in central India. Quite apart from these ideological irritations, there has been a major problem with armed bandits—most famously Veerappan, a handlebar-mustachioed sandalwood smuggler and mass murderer, who virtually ruled parts of south-central India until he was killed in a 2004 shootout.
And finally, there is the caste-ridden and shambolic nature of Indian society, with its glaring disparities and resentments, which surely must make all objective observers call into question the long-term viability of “the world’s biggest democracy.” It makes sense to be on good terms with India, but Americans should not expect too much from the relationship.