Seema Sirohi has been a foreign correspondent for various Indian newspapers based in Washington for nearly four decades. Consequently, she has been a close observer of the see-saw fluctuation of Indo-US relations in the post-Cold War era. Her book Friends with Benefits captures that saga well.
It begins in the early 1990s with the P.V. Narasimha Rao government inheriting both a unipolar world and empty coffers. There was no option but to quickly calibrate India’s foreign policy to deal with the new reality. Traditional ally USSR was gone. Pakistan had not only won the contest in Afghanistan but used its alliance with the US and Saudi Arabia to modernise its defence capabilities as well as create strategic depth in that country.
The US became even more convinced that it could shape the new world after ejecting Saddam Hussain from Kuwait in January 1991. President George H.W. Bush had visited India as vice-president in 1986 but now India was low among America’s priorities. However, non-proliferation remained high on the US agenda and became the main thrust point, while ignoring Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. As required by the Pressler Amendment, the US President continued to certify till 1990 that Pakistan had no such programme when US intelligence knew for some years that it did exist. This deliberate purblindness was to enable military and financial aid to Pakistan to continue. Ms Sirohi writes that at that stage “India only had critics in the US Congress… quick on the draw, slow to listen and ready to punish India”. India was reluctant to hire a professional firm for lobbying and thus Indian diplomats had a constant hill to climb. What made it worse was that the US treated China as a benign power. Sino-Pak collaboration to develop nuclear weapons and missile capabilities was ignored. In fact, the US Defence Planning Guidance for 1994-99 talked of the need to prevent the rise of a new strategic rival. That nation was not China, but India. Thus, Washington imposed sanctions on Isro and Russia’s Glavkosmos in May 1992.
The surprising victory of Democratic candidate Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election brought more challenges for India. He appointed his old Cambridge friend Robin Raphel, a mere counsellor in the US embassy in New Delhi, as assistant secretary of state for South Asia. She brought an evangelical devotion to resolving the Kashmir issue while parroting a mostly pro-Pakistan line. She was heard questioning even the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India.
Ms Sirohi traces Indo-US relations chronologically from those depths to the present-day bonhomie. It has not been a linear progression as the rise of the BJP in India, India’s nuclear tests in May 1998, Pakistan’s Kargil adventure and finally the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US altered India’s domestic politics and the geopolitical context drastically. The most trying moment was the Indian nuclear tests. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his party correctly calculated that the nuclear issue had to be finessed. President Clinton, speaking at the UN in 1993, called for a multilateral convention banning the production of fissile materials. The Conference on Disarmament in Geneva began the process in 1995 to negotiate such a treaty. In 1994 work began to finalise a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Traditionally, India advocated universal nuclear disarmament. The new treaties instead were formalising the existing discriminatory regime. India acted to break out of the trap.
The book relives those epochal moments when both India and the US were compelled to recalibrate their Cold War geostrategic thinking. But breaking through the entrenched legislative and bureaucratic mindset on nuclear proliferation in the US was a long, often tortuous process. It took the personal commitment of farsighted leaders in both nations to achieve success. President George W. Bush, soon after demitting office, put it succinctly at a conclave in Delhi. He said the nuclear deal was not just about nuclear issues. It was to liberate India from the shackles of technology denial regimes like the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) or the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).
The Barack Obama presidency again brought a new challenge. President Obama had Pakistani college mates and came into office to play dealmaker over Kashmir. Democrats additionally tend to be more aware of human rights issues and less willing to look away for strategic reasons. By the time his second term arrived, he had overcome past predilections. His successor Donald Trump arrived with strong but mistaken notions about balancing trade. India’s success at distracting him with diasporic theatre and allowing China into his line of fire is well recounted.
Two issues are of special interest. One is India’s success at using its diaspora in America to lobby the US Congress on India-specific issues. During Dr Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership, the diaspora was treated as a monolithic entity and used accordingly. In recent times, a communal hue has emerged, creating fissures and identity-based marshalling of this useful asset.
The second issue, treated in passing, is the birth of the Quad in 2007. I led the Indian delegation at its inaugural meeting on the sidelines of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in the Philippines. The reason it went into hibernation was the electoral defeat of Australia’s Conservative Party and the replacement of Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe. India was reluctant to provoke China anyway, and the US still believed China could be a rational and accommodative player in the new era. Chinese obduracy has only strengthened the determination of the four members — Australia, India, Japan and the US — to work together.
The debate remains open on whether Indo-US relations are now beyond any danger that domestic politics in either nation may pose. Ms Sirohi argues that the “demise of the Left in India and the rise of the Left in the US” may act as a spoiler. Implied is that while India appears to have moved past its old anti-US phobias, the US may get distracted by its domestic divides and polarisation. The late Stephen Cohen used to say that India is a friend which shall never be an ally; and Pakistan an ally which shall never be a friend. To borrow from T.S. Eliot, between friendship with the US and an alliance falls the shadow.
Friends with Benefits: The India-US Story
By Seema Sirohi
pp. 493, Rs.699