Byline by M J Akbar: Traders, not partners
How many words will India get in Barack Obama’s autobiography, Faith, Hope and Miscarriage, due in 2013?
Going by the law of proportions, it should be between 100 to 104 if the complete book is around 200,000 words, roughly the length expected in a multi-million dollar advance. According to a fine story by my friend K.P. Nayar in the Telegraph, George W. Bush, Dr Manmohan Singh’s “best friend”, devoted exactly 208 words out of 195,456 to India in his memoir Decision Points. “Even those 208 words figure in just three paragraphs only in the context of justifying a visit by Bush to Islamabad after his trip to India in March 2006,” notes Nayar.
Time to clear your throat. The civil nuclear cooperation deal — you remember that one surely? It was the highlight of the summer of 2008. Every television channel was singing “Singh is King” while money changed hands by the sackful in the Lok Sabha to persuade purchasable MPs to save the nation — is dismissed by its principal architect in one and a half sentences.
Those 208 words are not a measure of how important the nuclear deal is in the American perspective; they are an estimate of where India stands among the nodal points of American decision-making. That half-page was authored by a friendly President, not a hostile occupant of the White House. A book is written in a cold logic that sits well on the shelves of a library, not hot air that steams across political rhetoric during a state visit.
The geopolitics of Pakistan have made it relevant real estate in the two major confrontations after the Second World War: the Cold War between the West and East Eurasia; and the current hot war between America and its real or imagined enemies in the Muslim world. Pakistan’s policymakers cottoned on to this very quickly in the Fifties, when they adopted the Pentagon as their Godfather. They felt jilted when their contribution to the jihad that ended the Cold War was treated with indifference by a victorious America, but such is the way it always has been; sentiment is no substitute for need. Pakistan wooed and won China as Godfather 2 during the fallow phase of its relationship to America. Here too strategic interests coalesced since China wanted to outsource at least some of its Himalayan confrontation to a nation which seems to have an Eveready battery in its gut where conflict with India is concerned.
Pakistan got a second wind after 9/11, and Pervez Musharraf picked up its ballast to his own and his country’s advantage. International relations are always untidy, and nations make space for overlapping or even contradictory interests. But despite serious underlying tensions there was a certain neatness in the US-Pakistan-China diagram. China had a lock on the American economy, and Pakistan on the American war effort. The situation would have been different if the Shah or his descendants had been in power in Tehran, but with Iran hostile, America could only conduct its Afghan operations from the east. Washington has had to play a carefully measured strategic game within this triangle.
American policy, whether in the time of Bush or Obama, is perfectly logical, since it is driven by American interests. What is astonishing is that Delhi’s strategic community should have, with the help of largesse from the UPA government, abandoned a history of autonomy in order to smuggle itself into the contours of American strategic requirements when Washington has always made its priorities clear.
Even Bush worried about the consequences of the nuclear deal on the American equation with Pakistan, and Obama has authorised a policy that not only multiplies Pakistan’s offensive capabilities both on its western and eastern fronts, but also endorses China’s gift of at least two additional nuclear plants. As a further sweetener, Washington has promised to beef up Pakistan’s economy, although this might be beyond its capabilities.
For both Bush and Obama, India is primarily a market; they are traders more than partners. China is a manufacturing base for the American economy, and India an opportunity for Walmart. They are, as they have repeatedly made clear, interested in India’s middle class rather than in India. When did Bush or Obama mention either Pakistan’s or even China’s middle class? Bush has been quite specific. He has said in his book that the “educated [Indian] middle class has the potential to be one of America’s closest partners”.
Friendship does not flourish in an either-or matrix. Disagreement is not evidence of enmity, and it would be far better for Washington and Delhi to accept departure points rather than pretend that they do not exist. Obama and Manmohan Singh can live with each other without being in love with each other.
I hope Obama gets to write his memoirs only in 2017 rather than 2013 but that is a decision which will be taken by the American voter.