28 March 2014

America & India -- brothers in arms

America should manage its relationship with India with greater humility, modesty and respect. The world's two largest democracies should be "brothers in arms".

America's relationship with India has recently been shaken by some minor incidents -- like the arrest of a junior Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, in New York for breaching the employment contract of her maid; and American complaints about the quality control of Indian pharmaceutical products.

America may be legally correct in these and other cases. But in a proud country like India, with a millennial history, which suffered centuries of British colonialism, these incidents wreak of bullying by an arrogant superpower.

This is very unfortunate, because America probably has much more in common with India than with other Asian powers like China or Japan. It also has much to gain from a sound relationship with India. America should manage the relationship with greater humility, modesty and respect.

Like America, India is the quintessential multicultural country. It is very different from countries like China and Japan, which are proud of their perceived ethnic and cultural purity, homogeneity, and sometimes even superiority.

Diversity is the very definition of India with its more than 2000 ethnic groups, its over 1000 languages, and the presence of all the world's major religions (Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and others) in its population. And while there have been at times conflict, overall India's diverse peoples live together in relative harmony.

Indian society is like a biryani, that wonderfully delicious rice dish based on a mixture of almost all of India's spices and ingredients. Among the large Western countries, only America could be compared with India for its diversity.

This means that India, with its cacophony of diverse voices, is a natural democracy, like America. Homogeneous societies are much more easily led by authoritarian rulers who can craft a simple and single nationalistic discourse, and support this by cultural brainwashing and restrictions on access to information.

The most important national narrative in India concerns cricket. And nothing could be more pluralistic than debates over Indian cricket.

America and India also both have openly warm and communicative cultures -- in sharp contrast to the reserve and mystery of many other Asian countries. This is an excellent starting point for the relationship.

National politics in the two countries share common features. Both countries are basically federations of states which themselves have great political and economic powers. Thus, while Delhi and Washington, can seem dysfunctional, some states are quite well governed, even if others are not.

This generates much internal migration within the Indian "common market", which means that the country is also a real melting pot. It can also generate healthy inter-state competition. Governance is not unhealthily monolithic in either country.

Curiously, in both countries the most effective national institution is probably the military. Regrettably, they both share the problem of inadequate infrastructure, a failure of governance. And while much is made of India's corruption, America is riddled with its own de facto corruption through widespread corporate capture of public institutions.

Both America and India are countries with great contradictions. These past two decades of globalization have seen immense generation of wealth in both countries. Dynamic global enterprises have driven this growth. But in contrast to China where state-owned enterprises still lead the economy, India's most dynamic ones like Reliance, Tata, Hindalco, Bharti Airtel, Mahindra & Mahindra, and Infosys are firmly in the private sector.

However, one disappointing feature of India's development has been its relatively weak record on poverty reduction, especially compared with China. This is a product of its unequal growth.

For its part, America has seen poverty rise to embarrassingly high levels -- something which is not helped by Congress's recent attack on food stamps. Some 17% of the citizens of the world's richest country now live in poverty. And the figure rises above 25% for African and Hispanic Americans.

Everyone continues to be shocked by the enduring class and caste system in India, despite the progress being made in urban areas. But inequality in America is also reaching worryingly high levels, be it inequality in terms of income or access to education, health and other public services. Life expectancy in some of America's poorest regions is comparable to India. And life expectancy is actually declining for America's poorer citizens.

With at least 12 million migrants in America remaining undocumented, and with little immediate hope of their regularization, America virtually has its own lower caste. As the NGO Human Rights Watch has documented, hundreds of thousands of immigrant farm-worker women and girls in the US now suffer from or face a high risk of sexual violence and sexual harassment in their workplaces because US authorities and employers fail to protect them adequately.

By the same token, the large Indo-American population is much more successful than any other group of the high-achieving Asian Americans, and also much more successful than average Americans. Annual income per head for Indo-Americans is close to $90,000, almost twice the American national average, and well above Americans of Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean or Japanese origin.

In other words, Indo-Americans are now realizing the American dream much more than Americans themselves! Satya Nadella, the newly appointed CEO of Microsoft is just the latest example. Other Indians in America's C-Suite include Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, Sigma-Aldrich CEO Rakesh Sachdev, and Cognizant CEO Francisco D'Souza.

When it comes to international relations, India is not seeking to play an historical blame game. Nor is it not trying to be a rival of America as China is in the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, it is very interested in cooperating with the US as a hedge against the unpredictable feisty behavior of China. India is also not a perplexed junior partner like Japan. It is a proud independent country. And it is a natural friend for America, even if it will always stay independent and keep some distance.

In conclusion, Americans need to have a deeper understanding of how much they and their society have in common with India. Americans probably find India a frustrating country to deal with. And so it may be at times. But the reverse is also surely true.

India is a millennial civilization, with a rich history. It is in the midst of a long and complex process of modernization. This calls for much greater patience and understanding from America. It should exercise much greater humility, modesty and respect in its dealings with India -- even though the two countries' economic and political power are still far from equal.

In short, the world's two biggest democracies should become true brothers in arms.


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: india, america, Indo-American relationship, Microsoft's Satya Nadella, Devyani Khobragade

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