Whether a new, economically more muscular, India has registered on the American public psyche will be known when the Indian Prime Minister addresses the joint Houses of the US Congress during his state visit starting July 18. If the benches are filled as is likely to happen by fresh-faced Congressional pages and clerks who are instructed to fill the vacant seats of the majority of the missing legislators and to clap at appropriate moments during the visitor's peroration as happened when Atal Behari Vajpayee was accorded this "honour" in 2000, the reason may be that India does not really count for much.
India is still perceived as an unassertive, pushover of a state and not really a factor in international affairs except insofar as it can be cajoled or coerced into serving America's larger regional, security and commercial interests. This much is evident in Washington's three-pronged India policy.
It is the usual mix of carrots and sticks, incentives and threats, with its three prongs pertaining to (1) the offer of, not the advanced "dual use" technology India needs but, military hardware and nuclear civilian reactors it can do without, (2) plain speaking about such offers, and (3) the brandishing of the sanctions weapon should India step out of line.
Mindful that the NSSP (Next Steps in Strategic Partnership) is a non-starter, Washington is covering up for its unwillingness to sell or transfer technologies that could seriously enhance India's strategic capabilities by offering instead combat aircraft, enriched uranium-fuelled Westinghouse 1000 civilian power reactors, and the all but useless missile defence paraphernalia. Briefly, the problems with each of these offers are as follows.
The F-16 fighter aircraft and the F-18 multi-role combat plane, both of Seventies vintage, may equal but do not surpass in performance the Russian Sukhoi-30 MKI and the French Mirage 2000 aircraft in Indian Air Force's employ. Assuming the Indian Air Force's difficult logistics problem spawned by aircraft from diverse sources is ignored, the question is whether accepting the offer of F-16 co-production and ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems — symbolic of warming relations no doubt — is worth the risk considering the patent unreliability of supply. The fact is the White House can give no state level sovereign guarantees which cannot at any time be countermanded by the US Congress by means of retroactively enacted laws and riders to important legislation. Keeping the Indian F-16s/F-18s flying will be contingent, in other words, on securing on an annual basis the US certificate of India's "good" behaviour. That is the American system, take it or leave it. It may be best to leave it.
Until a few months back, the Westinghouse 1000 reactor was not certified by the US Atomic Energy Commission; so its safety cannot be vouched for. Worse, buying into this reactor technology means walking into the Tarapur trap. Except, unlike in Tarapur where the power facility was set up with US aid monies, we will be investing billions of Indian dollars to install American reactors only to have the fuel to run them held hostage to periodic US policy rethink and as pressure on unconnected issues. And finally, meeting the US condition of putting all Indian civilian nuclear power plants under the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards will mean that in a national security emergency, these will be unavailable for producing plutonium for the country's weapons needs. If energy is an Indian worry, collaboration with the US in bio-fuels and in the economical uses of solar energy and wind and sea-wave power may be a more pragmatic option than hobbling the country's "dual thrust" nuclear programme.
And then there is the ultimate flimflam of a deal to do with ballistic missile defence (BMD). Notwithstanding the hundreds of billions of dollars spent by the Pentagon in developing BMD systems, so far not a single physical interdiction of targeted missile has been achieved. As far as the low-end hardware — the American Patriot PAC-2/PAC-3 and the Israeli Arrow-2 are concerned, their "kill-rate" even in computer simulated "best case" tests do not exceed 70-85%. Meaning, roughly two or three out of every 10 missiles fired, if not most of them, will get through to their targets. Given that these missiles will carry nuclear-warheads, the effects would be as calamitous for a country with BMD as for one without it. Further, the huge sums poured into this system will starve Indian strategic forces and conventional military modernisation programmes of desperately needed funds. Much worse, plugging into the American sensors in the BMD system will transform India, willy-nilly, into a security dependency of the US.
Coming to the plain-speaking part, a team led by a US deputy assistant secretary of state recently in Delhi left nobody in any doubt about the downside of "buying American." It reiterated what has been known all along that sales of military hardware and future transactions for spares and services will be subject to the dictates of the US foreign policy of the day, the human rights record of the recipient state, the impact of these deals on regional stability, and the ability of the buyer country to protect the transferred technology. Thus, India's plans to augment Indian strategic or other military capabilities against China, for instance, could be interpreted by Washington as upsetting the military "balance" or stability regime vis-à-vis Pakistan, and hence worthy of scrapping midway.
India's human rights record and ability to "protect" purchased US technology too can be questioned — notwithstanding new laws and regulations India has promulgated and a stricter export regime it is enforcing — and the underway deals stopped dead in their track, with what consequences for national security can only be imagined. If despite clear warnings New Delhi nevertheless puts the country's neck in the noose, Washington can hardly be faulted for pulling on the rope if that serves its purpose in the future.
And finally, coming to the threats: the US government has warned that India faces sanctions in case the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project is approved. If India's relations with Iran can precipitate sanctions, consider what might happen were New Delhi to decide to stray from the American line on a host of issues, like beefing up its thermonuclear-intercontinental ballistic missile deterrent to match the country's growing economic and technological heft and/or the advances in the strategic forces of the five so-called Nonproliferation Treaty-recognised nuclear weapon states.
In its fundamentals then, this is the US approach to India. The question is whether anybody in the Indian government is reading it right. It seems not, going by the views rife in official quarters. Those in the know espy a 70-30 split in the thinking in the highest councils of government between those who actually take seriously the George W. Bush administration-inspired nonsense about helping India become a "major" power — the only thing India will be assisted to become is a client of the US — and who, in any case, believe that bandwagoning with America and becoming part of its global security architecture, is the best possible policy, and the others who seek succour in the equally impracticable India-Russia-China axis.
The conclusion is unavoidable that the Indian government is perilously wrong in its foreign policy orientation. Except that this defeatist-collaborationist mentality is contextualised by Dr Manmohan Singh's strong belief, which he apparently openly voices in the inner councils of government, about India being "too economically weak." But, ignoring for the nonce all the obvious economic strengths of the country, India is too weak to do what? To have an independent foreign and military policy? To work on its own "India first" national security paradigm? To think and act as great power?
At the core of such flawed thinking is the economist's fallacy of "proper sequencing" requiring India to first become economically strong before it seeks military strength and can claim great power status. But this thesis goes against the historical record wherein most powers in the modern era — Great Britain, pre-1917 Russia, Meiji Japan, the Soviet Union, Communist China — became great on the basis of first acquiring incontestable military and strategic reach and clout.
But a warped sense of history and a deep-rooted mother vein of servility mixed with complacency prevail in New Delhi. From which perspective, one can see why no Indian government after Jawaharlal Nehru's in the early years, has had the conviction, much less gumption, to articulate a grand geo-strategic vision and game plan, why the easy option of riding another state's coat-tails — America's, Russia's, China's, take your pick — is considered reasonable, and why India will continue to be what it has always been, a big little country bobbing along like cork in water — all buoyancy and drift, and no substance.