Can America and India Fall in Love at Last?

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If, instead of being a wary political animal, the U.S. was a hardheaded corporation looking for a partner in South Asia, India would seem a perfect fit. The world's largest democracy contains a vast untapped market of 1 billion citizens, more of whom speak English than the entire U.S. population. It has one of the largest computer software industries outside of the U.S. and may be currently be the largest foreign pool of the programmers and computer engineers required by America's "new economy." And as a militarily powerful, nuclear-armed state, India also arguably offers a natural counterweight to the region's key strategic player, China.

But like awkward teenagers at a disco, neither India nor America seems to have the wherewithal to get the other to touch-dance. President Clinton is set to visit India in March, but the tentative nature of this week's talks between Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and their Indian counterparts underline the fact that relations between these "natural partners" remain bedeviled by history and geopolitics.

The most immediate obstacle to improved ties remains India's testing of nuclear weapons two years ago, and the subsequent U.S. sanctions. "Washington's primary concern in dealing with India right now is avoiding a nuclear flashpoint in South Asia," says TIME State Department correspondent Doug Waller. "Although both India and Pakistan now have explosive nuclear devices, they haven't instituted the vast intelligence and command systems needed for safe deployment of those weapons. With neither side even having the ability for advanced surveillance of the other, there's plenty of opportunities for a disastrous mistake as a result of one side's misconstruing the other's intentions."

In India, though, foreign policy hawks cite U.S. concern as vindicating India's decision to go nuclear. "Some thinkers fairly close to the government argue that the U.S. began to take China seriously only after Beijing developed nuclear weapons in the '60s, and that India had to do the same to get Washington to treat it with respect," says TIME New Delhi correspondent Maseeh Rahman. "There's a basic feeling in New Delhi that the U.S. doesn't take India seriously — after all, the leading Republican presidential candidate couldn't even name India's prime minister."

That complaint may be valid. "Britain considered India the cornerstone of its empire," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. "Much of British foreign policy was designed around protecting its access to India. But the U.S. hasn't taken India nearly as seriously, partly because of the leftist slant of most of its post-independence governments." New Delhi's nonaligned position during the Cold War (which often put it in the Soviet camp, diplomatically) was underscored by the socialist orientation of most of its governments since independence. Relations particularly deteriorated in the early '70s, after the Nixon administration aligned Washington closely with India's archrival, Pakistan, as part of its efforts to outflank the Soviets and improve ties with China (which had a long-running border dispute with India). Pakistan's importance as a Washington ally grew after 1980, when the country became the staging ground for U.S. efforts to assist Afghan resistance fighters against the Soviet invaders.

But Washington's response to last year's Pakistani incursion onto the Indian side of the cease-fire line in the disputed territory of Kashmir marked something of a shift, in that the U.S. came down hard on its traditional ally and insisted that Pakistan withdraw. "Even then," says Rahman, "New Delhi's historical suspicion of American motives remains. India is riled by the fact that the U.S. won't treat it as a responsible nuclear power, and it deeply resents being viewed in the same category as Pakistan."

After all, India has more than seven times the population of the breakaway Muslim state created by Britain in 1947. And while it may be impoverished, India's economy is essentially self-sufficient compared with Pakistan's, which remains a basket case. And despite the fragility of its coalition governments of recent years, India is a stable democracy, while Pakistan has been perennially plagued by military coups and religious extremism. "Its socialist attitudes have hamstrung economic development, but India is a forward-looking democracy," says Dowell. "Pakistan remains a more feudal society whose political elites have kept it mired in its own mess." Given its population size, economic potential and strategic significance, India wants to be thought of as being in the same league as its eastern neighbor, China. India's rationale for developing nuclear weapons, for example, was based on China's nuclear arsenal rather than on any threat posed by Pakistan.

"India's problem is that it's an unrealized superpower," says Rahman. "Its policy makers believe the country has the potential to be a superpower and should be treated as such, but they also know they don't carry that kind of clout."

But the expansion of China's relationship with Washington has been based less on nuclear weapons than on investment opportunities. Even though its culture and political system remain closed, China's economy has been open to the West for a quarter century. India, in contrast, made wary by the experience of centuries of exploitation by the British, has for the most part kept the doors to its economy firmly closed.

And New Delhi's caution over trade and investment policy is the primary lock on an improvement in the U.S.-India relationship. "If the economic relationship had developed quickly, the strategic relationship would fall into place," says Rahman. "But India has been struggling to open its markets."

Although successive governments have shared this goal throughout the '90s, the problem in part lies in the fact that India is a democracy. China is able to liberalize its economy from the top down and its population simply has to accept the consequences, which in the short term inevitably involve hardship.

"In a democracy, those hardest hit by the impact of liberalization measures can use the democratic process to fight back," says Rahman. "So when it comes to India opening up its markets, it's inevitably one step forward, two steps back. And that slow progress creates caution on both sides of the U.S.-India relationship." A pity, it would seem, because apart from being a vibrant democracy, India has been culturally integrated with the West for as long as Englishmen have been drinking tea, wearing khaki, playing polo and using words such as "pajama," "pundit" and "pariah" (all of which were imported from the Raj). Dowell concurs: "Despite its vast potential and wealth of human capital, U.S. investors see the country hamstrung by the remnants of a socialist administration — realizing the vast potential of this relationship will require that the U.S. be educated about what India really is, but also that India overcome the internal factors that have restrained its growth. When it does, it will be a major power."

For now, however, the Washington-New Delhi courtship may remain like the English who vacated the government buildings in New Delhi: polite but disengaged.