WHEN Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs in the US State Department, visited India last week, Indians had the barely suppressed excitement of a suitor waiting for an "I do" from a comely bride. This was because Burns discussed the US approach to India’s candidacy for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
India’s ambitions took a step closer to reality after the US let it be known that it wants only two more new permanent members besides, of course, Japan, and wants to freeze the membership when it comes to the likes of Germany.
India thinks, for valid reasons, that it fits the bill for having "a flourishing democracy" as described by none other than President George W. Bush, and has been involved with the UN right from the beginning, particularly two score peacekeeping operations across the world.
That apart, India’s improving ties with China and Pakistan, and willingness to discuss Kashmir, which was taboo earlier, has made it immensely acceptable to the world community in general.
What has really mattered — and most Indians, barring the leftist ideologues and those still living in the Cold War era, accept this — is that the US has come to recognise India as a regional power. Not only that, the US has come to depend upon its solidarity and support on a number of issues.
This is, of course, because American national interests coincide with India’s on many counts. Believing in anything else would be foolhardy, and Indians, as also Americans, realise this.
When the history of the post-Cold War era is written, the performance of the United States will be measured in terms of its friendship with India, as much as its response to 9/11, its involvement in Iraq and its success, or otherwise, in confronting Iran and containing China.
For India, too, orphaned by the demise of the Soviet Union and trying to fight terrorism at its borders on its own until 9/11 happened, success in turning around relations with the US will top the list of its achievements.
The upsurge in Indo-US relations is meant to last for a long, long time. It is important for India that the US has de-hyphenated the India-Pakistan relationship. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said so while using superlatives like India being "a big, important, multi-ethnic democracy with a significant Muslim population". Each word used conveys US priorities.
Bush, her boss, voices identical sentiments, being "extremely excited and pleased" about Indo-US ties. He notes that India means "one billion people of different backgrounds". The US, too, has "problems" with different sections of its population and he has emphasised the need to treat them "with patience".
The credit for putting India on American radar screens goes first to the late P.V. Narasimha Rao, and then to Atal Behari Vajpayee. Narasimha Rao made the beginning and then quickened the pace, both towards the US and Southeast Asia. Vajpayee transformed US-India relations and did this despite authorising India’s second nuclear test.
Unlike the Democrats in the White House, the Bush administration has not sought to benchmark India and never made the issue of signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty a core issue in its relations with India. Rather, Bush proposed the "Next Step in Strategic Partnership". The NSSP is a series of sequential steps aimed at minimising decades-old differences on non-proliferation and improving the flow of advanced technology from the US to India.
The Vajpayee Government’s support for the US national defence system resulted to a large extent in Washington giving the nod to Israel to sell Phalcon radars for India’s Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). Previously, in a similar deal between Israel and China, the US denied permission for the sale of Phalcons to the Chinese.
The Indo-US relationship has survived the Bush administration’s obsession with the "war on terror" in which Pakistan stole the role from India as a close and strategic ally because of its proximity to Afghanistan and also because of President Pervez Musharraf’s enthusiasm in pursuing the American agenda.
On India’s part, there is little doubt that its intelligentsia has transformed from being non- aligned and anti-US during the Cold War era to being open to Western overtures and close ties with the US. It questions the US involvement in Iraq — the vehemence among the Muslims is understandably greater than the others — but that has not prevented the burgeoning defence ties being pushed by the Bush administration.
What is significant is that there is a measure of consensus. It is still not all hunky dory. Both India and the US still have to live down 40 years of estrangement and misunderstanding. The US has a record of being apathetic and India, plainly hostile. There’s still the deep problem of each side’s inability to listen to the other.
A major recent issue is India’s agreeing to be part of the proposed gas pipeline network emanating from Iran. Iran is deeply into it and the US does not like India and Pakistan getting into it. Yet, Indians seem cool about it.
Besides the usual symbolic importance of Manmohan Singh’s mid-July US visit, especially if he addresses Congress, the most significant outcome will be increased pressure on both governments to move ahead, now that strategic policy decisions have been made to enhance co-operation across a number of fields.
The visit may mean signing some concrete agreements after all the legwork has been done. It’s a sign of approval by India on the developing relations and of its role in the region and the developing world.