Pinaki Bhattacharya: Indian Elite’s Existential Angst

India’s elite have quaint apprehensions about their US counterparts. On the one hand, the former covet the material well-being of the US elite, seek the latter’s globe girdling influence and power, and model themselves in their light. On the other, though they seek closer bonding with the USA, they are intensely suspicious of having to cede power and autonomy to the fraternal powerbrokers of the distant land.

These contrary phenomena were much in evidence this week in the national capital of New Delhi following the visit of the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Clinton came on the previous weekend, landed in Mumbai (Bombay) — the heart of Indian capitalism — and schmoozed with the power elite. She made the right sounds about terrorism, environment, and support to India. Things went fine till then.

On the first business day, last Monday she met the country’s external affairs minister, and talked about a deal that had been in negotiation for three years. It was the End User Monitoring Agreement to be signed between the countries to facilitate India’s acquisition of high technology from the US now that the restrictive barriers of yore are melting away with the conclusion of the Indo-US nuclear deal. The agreement provided for periodic US inspection of exported material, including weaponry for the three armed services.

This raised a huge hue and cry. The Parliamentary opposition, Bharatiya Janata Party staged a walk-out — the second in succession in two weeks over a foreign policy issue. The government was roundly criticized for agreeing to this “intrusive” inspection regime and the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh was pilloried for being too pro-US.

Some commentators pointed out that this standard text for end user agreement would actually standardize end user clauses in technology or product purchase agreements thus limiting the scope for discretionary compromises on the part of individual Indian agencies on a case by case basis.

One Indian journalist based in Washington even pointed out that assorted defense ministry officials had agreed to even more deleterious end user clauses in individual agreements in their desperation for getting American “war toys.”

The tone and the tenor of the debate were hectoring. The issue of intrusive American meddling in the affairs of India’s security was debated at length albeit inconclusively much after the dust of the Hillary Clinton visit had settled.

Not many in the country noticed the little business the two countries transacted when the prima donna US secretary of state was in town. No one commented on the bland nature of the joint statement the two representatives of the two countries issued.

There was no discussion on the US’s policies on Afghanistan or India’s role in that country. There was not even a mention about Pakistan and its splendid obsession about Kashmir. There was no talk about nuclear proliferation and places like Iran that have earlier militated the interaction between the two countries. There was no expression of congruence of views about China. It almost seemed that Hillary Clinton was just another foreign dignitary who happened to pass through India on a long journey home.

The spin that was put on the lack of substance in the business conducted between the two countries was on predictable lines. It was said that as the relations between India and the USA matures headline grabbing attention may not be required each time someone from either country visits the other.

The truth about the low key nature of Hillary Clinton’s visit to India possibly lay elsewhere. It might be that the Barack Obama administration is yet to formulate a view on the recent ally, India. It could also be entangled in the reported differences between the Obama White House and Clinton Department of State.

Whatever might have been the cause, the lack of the customary bells and whistles struck a discordant note in the minds of the Indian elite. So, they were left with only one cause celebre: and that was the end user agreement, which has not even been signed. They reacted to it with uncharacteristic venom, and from such unfamiliar quarters like the BJP.

Had the left parties just protested on it, it could have been written off as the habitual reaction of anti-US forces in the country. But the fact that the BJP, which earlier sought validation and legitimacy for its own rule from its proximity with the USA — twelve rounds of strategic dialogue between BJP’s own Jaswant Singh and Bill Clinton administration’s Strobe Talbott in evidence — was so critical of the unsigned agreement made it clear that the Indian elite was deeply insecure.

Their insecurity stems from the fact that they are unsure about their own power to influence events in India to serve their best interests. But on top of that, they are yet unsure about their standing in the US scheme of things. And that makes them so tetchy and sensitive to the slightest change in the set pattern.

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