You are here

The Intangibles of the India-US Strategic Partnership

Dr Cherian Samuel is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • June 16, 2008

    With elections looming large in both countries and the Indo-US nuclear deal facing its moment of truth, the inevitable question will arise as to who has gained how much from the Strategic Partnership that was signed with great fanfare in July 2005. This is not withstanding the fact that the failure of the nuclear deal would undoubtedly be a setback for both countries and besmirch the reputations of those leaders who had put their personal prestige on the line. It would also reflect poorly on the political parties and the governments involved in various ways.

    Strange as it may sound, the Strategic Partnership has not been without its intangible benefits to both countries. For the United States, the in-your-face aspect of the partnership and the nuclear deal has served as the proverbial foot in the door. It has lead to changing mindsets and increased understanding of why it does what it does as the world’s leading superpower, something that is apparent from a cursory glance at India-centric discussion boards on the Internet. Indifference towards the United States on the part of the Indian public has been replaced by interest, even in its domestic politics; to Indians, the United States is a much more real and sharper entity than it was a few years ago. Its perceived hostility towards India has largely receded from public memory, as evidenced from repeated opinion polls which show that the US is seen in a favourable light by large sections of the Indian public. In fact, the latest Pew Global Attitudes Opinion Poll shows the United States as having gained even more popularity over the year in urban India, with ratings rising up to 66 per cent from 59 per cent in 2007, second only to Poland in the 24 countries polled. The global sub-prime crisis notwithstanding, India tops the list of those countries that see the United States as having a positive impact on the global economy.

    That the United States understands the increased relevance of people-to-people relations and considers them worth nurturing is evident from the large-scale deployment of its diplomatic officers to India and even in its efforts to streamline visa processing. This would go some way towards explaining why there has been a 38 per cent rise in the number of Indian students going to the United States over the past seven months, at a time when the US is recording the lowest number of international student applicants. In this regard, the US has also met with success in its efforts to widen the ambit of the Fulbright scholarships, with the Indian government agreeing to make it a full fledged bilateral venture, and doubling the number of scholarships available under the scheme.

    India has also benefited in terms of increased mind space, more so especially amongst niche audiences, such as the business and strategic communities in the two countries. As far as the strategic communities in the two countries are concerned, a global book industry has sprung up virtually overnight, either explaining, extolling or bemoaning the rise of India and China. Seminar circuits have also been abuzz with discussions on this phenomenon as well as the strategic partnership between India and the United States. Such publicity is not without its benefits. The “India” effect may also be partly attributable to the speculation that Fareed Zakaria, a card carrying member of this tribe, has been mentioned as a possible Secretary of State in a future Administration. Another India-born strategic analyst, Ashley Tellis, is the South Asia advisor to the presumptive Republican candidate John McCain with unconfirmed reports suggesting that he was initially approached by the Democratic contender Barack Obama’s team to be their South Asia advisor.

    Yet another constituency that has benefited in intangible ways from the focus on India in the United States has been the Indian American community, or more precisely, the professionals in this community. Their role as a bridge to one of the world’s rising powers has boosted their efforts in being mainstreamed into American life. Whilst Indian Americans had risen to the top in the technology industries by virtue of their innate talent and brain power, glass ceilings are being progressively broken in other spheres, ranging from the performing arts to politics, a process that could be said to have been accelerated by increasing awareness of India. The repositioning of the ‘India’ brand and multiple instances afforded to brand recall as a result of the Strategic Partnership have bested what any advertising campaign would have to offer.

    Other intangibles waiting in the wings for the consummation of the nuclear deal include confidence in collaboration in high technology and dual use items, and even global crude prices. No doubt there has been a tremendous improvement in the climate for business and awareness of opportunities. However, businesses have shied away from collaborating in the above fields in the face of the perceived fences that exist or might be created by the US bureaucracies as a result of nuclear proliferation related legislation that, like it or not, hang like a dark shadow over all such dealings. Even though officials in both countries have gone to great lengths to convince businesses that most of the obstacles have been removed, as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.

    Sharp swings in global crude prices in response to events ranging from natural weather calamities to rebel insurgencies have shown that they are, on the one hand, speculation driven, and on the other, draw inspiration from the futures market. The only weapon in the armoury of major oil consuming nations to counter this is renewed emphasis on alternative sources of energy. With India’s rising demand for energy, the green light to turn to nuclear energy in a big way might even conceivably prick the oil price bubble and might conceivably prove to have been the biggest intangible benefit of the Strategic Partnership. The question whether this will prove to be an eternal wait. And till then, the benefits scale would appear to be tilted in favour of the US.