India: US imperialism’s new cop on the South Asian beat

By Kavita Krishnan

June 11, 2008 -- The Indian ruling class is striving to forge what it calls a ``strategic partnership’’ with the United States, and in this aim the major ruling-class political parties are united. The previous government -- a coalition termed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) headed by the Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- which was in power from 1999-2004, had in the wake of 9/11 strived to prove to the US rulers that India was a more stable and suitable ally on the subcontinent for the US ``war on terror’’ than Pakistan.

The BJP-led NDA government even proposed a grandiose ``Triad Against Terrorism’’ comprising India, Israel and the US, thereby overturning decades of Indian foreign policy that had favoured the Palestinian cause. The BJP is known for its viciously anti-Muslim agenda, is notorious for the state-sponsored pogrom which killed thousands of Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, and its goal is to turn secular India into a ``Hindu’’ nation. The BJP, drawing on the ``clash of civilisations’’ notion of Christians, Jews and Hindus against Muslims, spoke of a supposed ``natural affinity’’ between India – the ``Hindu homeland’’ – besieged by the terrorism of its Islamic neighbour Pakistan, and Israel – the ``Jewish homeland’’ – besieged by ``Muslim’’ Palestine’s ``terrorism’’. In May 2003, India's national security advisor Brajesh Mishra, addressing a meeting of the American Jewish Committee – a Zionist outfit – in Washington, called for a ``core, consisting of democratic societies ... which can take on international terrorism’’ – and the Indo-US-Israel axis was to constitute this ``core’’. The NDA government had even been willing to send Indian troops to assist the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq, but nationwide protests resulted in a unanimous vote in parliament against such a move.

When the NDA government was badly defeated in the May 2004 Indian parliamentary elections, it was succeeded by the United Progressive Alliance government, a coalition led by the Indian National Congress and dependent on the crucial support of the bloc of left parties led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI (M) -- and the Communist Party of India (CPI). The UPA government’s ``Common Minimum Programme’’ (a document representing the coalition’s united manifesto for governance), even as it promised to ``maintain the independence of India’s foreign policy position on all regional and global issues’’, also declared, in the same breath, its intention to pursue ``closer engagement and relations with the USA’’. So the doors were left wide open for continuing with the NDA government’s policy of ``strategic alliance’’ with the USA while genuflecting to the principle of an ``independent’’ foreign policy.

The new prime minister, Manmohan Singh, did not waste much time showing that he had every intention of intensifying India’s ``strategic’’ ties with imperialist nations. On his way to deliver his first address at the UN General Assembly in September 2004, he had his first direct encounter with both British PM Tony Blair and US President George Bush. Manmohan’s joint declaration with Blair talked of a long-term comprehensive strategic partnership between Britain and India: specifically over defence cooperation, joint military training and exercises, and cooperation between police and other law enforcement agencies in the criminal justice system. At a time when Blair was beleaguered by protests at home over the lies he told to justify his role in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Manmohan made it a point to declare that the war on Iraq was a chapter of the past, and short of committing Indian troops to Iraq, he offered all kinds of assistance in policing Iraq. The joint statement issued after Manmohan’s hour-long meeting with Bush described Indo-US bilateral ties to have ``never been as close as they are at present’’, and emphasised ``expanded defence cooperation … (as) an integral aspect of the expanding ties’’. Nepal and Myanmar [Burma] were also prominent issues covered during Manmohan’s breakfast meeting with Bush.

Strategic partnership

It is worth examining the ``strategy’’ involved in the ``Indo-US strategic partnership’’ touted by India’s ruling parties. A report was commissioned by the US Defence Department in 2002, titled *Indo-US Military Relations: Expectations and Perceptions’ outlines exactly how India fits into the US’ strategic requirements* (see *Liberation*, July 2003, ``US Eying Military Bases in India’’). In that report, senior Pentagon officers speak of the need to have access to Indian bases so as to be ``closer to areas of instability’’. Also, in order to avoid the gaze of Indian public opinion, which is quick to see ``colonialism through the back door’’, they remarked that the US Navy may be a good place to begin, since the US Navy can conduct joint exercises conveniently ``out of sight’’ and without leaving any telltale ``footprints … on the ground’’ in India! A key US strategic objective is to contain and encircle China; and ``strategic partnership with India’’ is obviously an important means of achieving this objective.

In 2005, once again the Indian government made several leaps ahead in cementing the partnership with US imperialism. Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee, during his visit to the US in June, sealed a 10-year Defence Framework – the Indo-US ``Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP)’’. This was followed by another visit by Manmohan Singh to the US. Both the text of the NSSP and Manmohan Singh’s speeches invoked the rhetoric of ``natural partnership’’ and ``shared concerns’’ between the ``two democracies’’ – a favourite theme for rulers of both nations. Manmohan Singh’s speech declared that ``Democracies provide legitimate means for expressing dissent’’. Did the US government heed ``dissent’’ when it railroaded the antiwar protests and invaded Iraq?

Manmohan glossed over such inconvenient issues, and having paid lip service to democracy, proceeded to suggest, not so subtly, that democracies were especially vulnerable to terror (thereby implying that curbs on freedoms were called for to fight ``terror’’). ``Terrorism exploits the freedom our open societies provide to destroy our freedoms’’, said Manmohan. The clear implication was: Muslim immigrants in Britain and the US, as well as Muslims in India, bite the hand that feeds them – and that’s why draconian acts like the PATRIOT Act in the US and the Prevention of Terrorism Act in India are needed. Several elements in the Defence Framework indicated the UPA government’s readiness to help the US in the arduous task of policing Iraq and other ``trouble spots’’ in Asia: the framework spoke of commitment to ``multinational defence operations’’; to ``defeating religious extremism’’; to ``spreading democracy worldwide’’; ``peacekeeping’’ in Asia and so on. Clearly, for the US, India is a suitable candidate to be a tough cop in what Pranab Mukherjee during his 2005 US visit called a ``dangerous neighbourhood’’!

Manmohan Singh, like Bush and Blair, deliberately ignored the fact that terrorism, far from being the scourge of ``open societies’’, in fact harvests the seeds obligingly sown by imperialist aggression and state-sponsored racism and communalism. In India, the problem of terrorism has overwhelmingly been the result of unresolved domestic crises. By joining the US ``war on terror’’, India would in fact be inviting the ``global’’ variety on its soil! This is one of the reasons why Indians have been vehemently against Indian troop deployment in Iraq. The other powerful historical reason being the legacy of two centuries of colonial rule and anti-colonial struggle in India, which has left Indians with a strong affinity for the struggles of the occupied peoples of Palestine and Iraq.

Rulers embarrassed by India’s anti-colonial sentiment

However, for the Indian ruling class that legacy of anti-colonial struggle is an embarrassment – an impediment in cementing the much-coveted bond with imperialism today. Manmohan Singh, just prior to his 2005 US visit, delivered a speech in his alma mater Oxford University in August 2005, in which he sought to correct what he called ``perceived negative consequences of British imperial rule’’. Praising the British sense of ``fair play’’, he claimed that the Indian freedom struggle against colonial rule ``did not entirely reject the British claim to good governance’’, rather it ``merely asserted our natural right to self-governance’’.He claimed that the values and institutions of modernity and democracy in India were ``fashioned in the crucible where an age old civilisation met the dominant Empire of the day’’. Manmohan Singh was not simply trying to please his hosts: these are views he has expressed at home in India too. Addressing a District Collectors’ Conference in Delhi in the same year, he had declared that the British Empire was ``an act of enterprise, adventure, creativity’’.

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What makes it necessary for an Indian prime minister to turn the infamy of two centuries of colonial exploitation and brutal domination – the racism, the massacres of thousands of freedom fighters, the devastation of Indian agriculture that resulted in terrible famines – into a feat of ``adventure and enterprise’’? The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano has remarked that, ``To turn infamies into feats, the memory of the North is divorced from the memory of the South, accumulation is detached from despoliation, opulence has nothing to do with plunder. Broken memory leads us to believe that wealth is innocent of poverty ... amnesia that makes history repeat itself, repeat itself as nightmare. Amnesia implies impunity, and impunity encourages crime.’’

`Green Revolution’; nuclear deal

Manmohan Singh’s myth of the benefits which followed when Indian civilisation ``met’’ the ``dominant Empire of the day’’ is an act of amnesia which the Indian ruling class needs as it ``meets’’ the dominant empire of today – the USA. In the US visit that followed on the heels of his Oxford speech, Manmohan Singh laid the foundations for the Indo-US nuclear deal, which under cover of exemptions from norms to regulate nuclear proliferation, will essentially tie India’s diplomatic relations, foreign policy, as well as its domestic energy policy, to US diktats. Interestingly, during the same visit, Manmohan Singh also announced the launch of a ``second generation of India-US collaboration in agriculture’’. Much in the same manner as he had praised the generosity of British colonialism, he claimed that India’s first Green Revolution in the 1960s, which according to him ``lifted countless millions above poverty’’, were thanks to the ``agricultural universities you (America) helped establish’’.

Quite a joke, given the revelation that Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State in 1971, had said that ``What Indians need is a mass famine’’! The first Green Revolution is now reaping its harvest of famine and suicides in India, in the very Indian states like Punjab and Maharashtra which were the Green Revolution showpieces – and the second ``green revolution’’ is further preparing to enslave Indian peasants to US multinational corporations. Manmohan Singh was finance minister in the early 1990s, and is credited with ushering in the policies of liberalisation. Those policies today have reduced India to the same levels of hunger that India last experienced during the colonial Raj-era famines. No doubt India’s rulers are happy to be providing the same standards of ``good governance’’ as their colonial forbears!

In his conversation with Bush during the 2005 US visit, Manmohan Singh also rued the fact that domestic opposition was placing hurdles in the path of the Indo-US nuke deal. On the question of economic policy, too, Manmohan Singh lamented the Indian handicap of ``democracy’’ which has slowed the pace of structural adjustment, assuring Bush, however, that ``reforms’’ were ``durable and irreversible’’.

India joins US campaign against Iran

Increasingly, the Manmohan regime began to appease the USA by echoing the latter’s ``concern’’ (in other words, endorsing the threats) regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The UPA government is supposed to be committed to a project of procuring natural gas through a pipeline from Iran; but on occasion after occasion when Iran is threatened and bullied by the US, India’s government has chosen to help the US camp to corner and coerce Iran, rather than opposing Washington’s moves to extend its Iraq war to Iran. On two separate occasions, India has done a volte face in its foreign policy direction, and has voted against Iran at the IAEA. For all Manmohan Singh’s assurances that India is ``not a client state’’, it is transparently obvious that the Indo-US nuclear deal has been the instrument that has eroded India’s sovereignty and has bent India’s foreign policy in the direction desired and dictated by the US.

In May 2006, eight prominent US senators, including both Republicans and Democrats, sent a letter (in the context of the Indo-US nuke deal) to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calling on India to ``sever’’ military ties with Iran and ``terminate’’ all cooperation with Iran in the energy sector. The letter declared: ``It is difficult for us to fathom why India, a democracy engaged in its own struggle against terrorism, would want to enhance security cooperation with a repressive government widely regarded as the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism.’’ The letter objected to ``the exchange of visits between high-level [Indian] officials, enhanced military ties, and negotiations of agreements to establish closer economic relations’’ with Iran. It demanded that India ``publicly declare your intent to refrain from further cooperation with Iran’’.

The US senators, of course, failed to see that the Indian people cannot fathom why their government is drawing their nation into the embrace of the world’s foremost sponsor of colonial occupation, racist Islamophobia, repression, war and terrorism! The Hyde Act passed by the US Congress in December 2006, the enabling legislation for the Indo-US nuclear deal, further spelt out the Indian obligation to help the US contain Iran. In Section 105 of the Act, the US president is called upon to submit a ``written determination that … India is fully and actively participating in United States and international efforts to dissuade, sanction, and contain Iran for its nuclear program consistent with United Nations Security Council resolutions’’.

The Bush visit to India in March 2006 marked another watershed in the changing contours of India’s foreign and domestic policy. Bush in India had proclaimed, and India’s ruling establishment agreed, that the Indo-US nuclear deal would provide India with ``clean energy’’ to meet the growing electricity needs of India in order to match its economic growth. The fact, however, is that the US itself meets only some 20% of its energy requirements from this source and in India even the ambitious official estimates are unable to claim that nuclear energy from the deal will be able to provide more than a small fraction of India’s energy needs. There is only one gainer from the Indo-US nuclear deal: the crisis-ridden nuclear power industry in the US and other industrialised countries, which will now find a ready market for their products in India. Soon after the deal was mooted, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote in a leading US daily that India is going to import about 12 nuclear reactors in the next few years, and even if just two of these orders come to the United States, that will mean a lot in terms of profits and jobs.


In his speech at the Purana Qila (the Old Fort) in Delhi, Bush claimed that India and Pakistan were now better off because they have developed closer relations with the US and therefore urged India ``to continue to lift its caps on foreign investment, to make its rules and regulations more transparent, and to continue to lower its tariffs and open its markets to American agricultural products, industrial goods and services’’. ``Americans who come to this country will see Indian consumers buying McCurry Meals from McDonald’s, home appliances from Whirpool’’ – Bush enthused – ``they will see Indian businesses buying American products like the 68 planes that Air India recently ordered from Boeing’’. He also called upon India as a ``strategic ally’’ of the US, to help carry freedom and democracy to ``the darkest corners of the earth’’ (regime changes in Iran, Venezuela etc.?). Not long after Bush’s promotion of the business interests of US corporations on Indian soil, then US ambassador David Mulford spelt out the quid pro quo for the nuclear deal: ``There is an expectation among US companies, the public and the political class that we have helped India, and that the US companies should get a favourable treatment’’, Mulford’s remarks came in the context of an exhibition in Bangalore by the world’s top aeronautics companies that are exploring partnerships with local firms and lobbying defence officials. Executives from 52 US companies (more than ever before) attended the event.

The Bush regime’s National Security Strategy (NSS) released on March 16, 2006 reiterated India’s role in the US strategic game plan. While admonishing China’s leaders for ``holding on to old ways of thinking and acting that exacerbate concerns throughout the region and the world’’, the document went on to note that ``South and Central Asia is a region of great strategic importance where American interests and values are engaged as never before. We have made great strides in transforming America’s relationship with India … India now is poised to shoulder global obligations in cooperation with the United States in a way befitting a major power.’’

Of course, Pakistan will continue to be a favoured ally of the US: its impeccable 60-year track record of steadfast allegiance, its location on the border of Afghanistan and many other factors ensure that it will retain a very important place in the US scheme. But with respect to size of market, economic growth rate and political stability, the US finds India a far better candidate as the number one US partner in the subcontinent. While Pakistan remains a hotbed of so-called ``Islamic terrorism’’, which the US demonises, Hindu fundamentalism and communalism in India are regarded as much less of a problem in Washington, if not actually helpful in fighting ``political Islam’’!

Left allies refuse to withdraw support

India has not as yet been able to complete the formalities that would bring the Indo-US nuclear deal into effect. The pace has been slowed by the opposition of the UPA government’s left allies, mainly the CPI and the CPI (M). Unfortunately, these left allies have kept their opposition within self-proscribed limits, and have made it clear that despite repeated threats, they will not withdraw support to the UPA government on account of the nuclear deal. While the CPI and CPI (M) have kept up a facade of guarded opposition, the UPA government has gone ahead with the task of framing modalities with the IAEA. Whether the nuclear deal comes into being or is stranded indefinitely remains to be seen. But the fact will remain that India’s ruling-class parties are fast proceeding with their plans to ensure India’s subservience to US imperialism.

Humiliatingly, US undersecretary Nicholas Burns in an interview patronisingly referred to India as ``the country whose nose was pressed against the glass and the great powers of the world wouldn’t let it in’’, as though India were a poor cousin, a waif wistfully gazing at a toy shop, who has been allowed to come in and play as a Christmas gift by Uncle Sam. In spite of such offensive treatment, the Indian ruling class is continuing to compromise India’s self-respect and sovereignty by further tying India to US strategic requirements.

[Kavita Krishnan is an editorial board member of Liberation, central organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) -- CPI (ML) Liberation.]