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Quid Pro Quo?

The Question of India’s Subordination to the ‘American Narrative’

Vijay Prashad (vijay.prashad [at] teaches at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009.

In April 2011, the Wall Street Journal’s South Asia columnist Sadanand Dhume published a piece entitled “It’s Time to Re-Align India.”1 Meeting in Hainan, China, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) called for a multipolar world (i.e. one no longer dominated by the Atlantic powers, led by the United States) and for a less militaristic approach to common problems—with special reference to the imbroglio in Libya, fast becoming the twenty-first century’s Yugoslavia. Focusing on India, Dhume wrote in response: “Like a monster in a B-grade horror film, India’s love affair with non-alignment refuses to die. The end of the Cold War should have ended this approach to foreign policy. Unfortunately, it hasn’t.”

What Dhume did not realize is that the BRICS dynamic is precisely a post-Cold War phenomenon. The major powers within the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) recognized in the 1990s that the United States had come to dominate world affairs, and that their main instrument, the UN General Assembly, had been set aside. NAM had few institutional forums through which to try and exert the power of the planet’s majority. The demographic minority exerted their domination through the UN Security Council, the Group of Seven (G7), NATO, and the GATT: this is what George H. W. Bush called the “new world order,” one that emerged out of the detritus of the Iraq war of 1990–91. It was in the 1990s that the large states of the South began to consider a new approach to protect ideas of multipolarity and development against NATO’s Kosovo model of political relations and the G7’s neoliberal economic policies. Various platforms were tried out, such as the NAM’s G-15, the IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) group and eventually, with the addition of Russia and China, the BRICS. These are potentially robust forums to provide an alternative to what many see as the failed policies of the G7 both in political and economic terms.

India was not only central to the Third World Project (from Bandung to the formation of the NAM in 1961), but it was also crucial to the rethinking of the post-Cold War landscape—being a member of the G-15, the IBSA and the BRICS. In the early years after the Cold War, India positioned itself to exert its power on the world stage and yet, contradictorily, not to do so in an antagonistic manner to the Atlantic powers, whose own appetite for sharing the stage remains modest. The formal Liberalization Policy inaugurated in 1991 came with much fanfare, and with considerable nudging from the IMF and IMF-oriented economists within India (such as the current Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh). With Liberalization came a reorientation of foreign policy: there was an assessment in the early 1990s that the shift from a dirigiste economy entailed a friendlier attitude toward the West. The emergent consensus among the New Delhi elite was that “normal” relations with Israel would send a signal to Washington of Delhi’s seriousness toward the established power equation. Non-alignment was to be squandered on behalf of a new alliance policy with the United States, a kind of alliance that might mimic the “special relationship” between Israel and the United States.

It was toward this alliance that the Congress (led by Narasimha Rao, 1991–1996) and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, 1996, 1998–2004) pushed, with a brief interregnum that tried to return the country to both the dirigiste economy and the non-aligned foreign policy (led by Dewe Gowda and Inder Gujral, 1996–1998). These governments ran roughshod over a recalcitrant Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), where the habits of Nehruvian statecraft remained. (When Natwar Singh returned to office in 2004–2005, an MEA bureaucrat told me that they hoped for a revitalization of the NAM dynamic; it was not to be.) The principle mode of the Congress and BJP governments has been to engineer a “strategic partnership” with the United States.

Other currents remained, however, such as the recognition amongst sections of the elite and in the MEA that the United States was a fickle friend, in need of its alliance with Pakistan (particularly after 2001), and unwilling fully to commit to making India a partner in the first circle of world affairs. This latter recognition reinforced the long-standing ideological commitment to non-alignment amongst sections of the Congress, whereas the former problem (the U.S. link to Pakistan) reproduced distrust amongst sections of the BJP. It was never going to be an easy sell, to disrupt India’s own various international entanglements and the various theories of its national interest in order to become the subordinate partner in an alliance with the United States (as all those who partner with it are subordinate; there are no equals).

On the plane of Indian parliamentary politics, it was only the Communist Left that was ideologically opposed to an alliance with what they saw as the central political spear of imperialism. Others had various pragmatic disagreements with the alliance, or else had ideological misgivings that could otherwise be set aside once in a while (such as the socialists). That is precisely why it was the Communist Left that provided the parliamentary backbone to resist sending Indian troops to join the U.S. adventure in Iraq. One forgets that even Natwar Singh, the lonely standard bearer for the NAM in the halls of the MEA, had indicated in a July 11, 2004 press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that India was “delighted” with the UN Resolution on Iraq (1546) and it might reconsider the issue of troops to Iraq. It was the Communist Left that persisted with its warnings about various aspects of Indian foreign policy, in particular the assertions by the U.S. embassy that India adopt three pillars, essential to Washington:

  • Close relations with Israel.
  • Intensified Military and Commercial ties with the U.S. armed forces and firms.
  • Isolation of Iran.

The Indian government recognized the state of Israel in January 1992, and over the course of the decade developed close ties for the import of military hardware and intelligence software. As well, India tempered its previously resolute backing for the Palestinian struggle. This was an important signal to Washington. It meant that India was willing to sacrifice its own ideological and institutional commitments for a narrative of the world favorable to Washington. If India could become close to Israel, the door to the special relationship that really mattered (with Washington) opened wider.

By the late 1990s, the Indian government turned toward increased arms purchases from the United States and welcomed U.S. military personnel to train with the Indian armed forces. This close relationship (“interoperability”) sent the next hint. Since much of the military relationship is also commercial, it is fitting that these two elements (the military and the commercial) remain side-by-side. In the Clinton years, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen repeatedly said of India that its middle class is the “size of France,” and so is capable of buying much that U.S. firms produce (even as the production sites moved to China!). The “special relationship” therefore had a very prominent commercial angle—with agricultural businesses interested in drastically changing Indian agriculture (to a more agro-business model) and energy firms invested in the privatization of the forecasted energy boom. Cargill and Enron, General Electric and ADM lined up with as much enthusiasm as the major banks, who wanted to open up the money markets to predatory “hot money.”

The parliamentary Left was unable to prevent the rapid—much of it secret—alliance with Israel. (Efraim Inbar, director of Israel’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, who is actively involved in the Indo-Israeli contacts, recognizes the political problem, “this kind of cooperation needs to be secret if it can be,” he told Newsweek.) The commercial and military ties also came upon the country like a tsunami, but here the Left, in alliance with sections of the Congress and the BJP, was able to stave off the elimination of protections against finance capital, after having been less able to hold back the energy and the agricultural transformations. The protection against financial “openness” saved India during the credit crunch of 2007 onwards, and the recession that followed.

The battlefield that turned out to be the most contentious was the question of Iran. It was the test case of India’s subordination to the U.S. narrative of world affairs. The Bush administration was adamant that Iran be isolated, despite Washington’s appalling adventure in Iraq and its own isolation from the world community of the UN General Assembly. The problem of Iran is not about the Iranian government and the Iranian people. U.S. foreign policy is not grounded in the aspirations of the peoples of far-off lands. Iran poses a threat to the establishment’s order of things in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). By the establishment, I mean the United States, Saudi Arabia (and its satellite emirates), Israel, and the European players. For the MENA establishment, Iran has been a threat since 1979, and this is precisely the reason why they: (1) encouraged the 1980 Carter Doctrine (that the defense of the Persian Gulf region was a vital national interest for the U.S.); (2) pushed Iraq to go to war with Iran (1980–1988); and (3) formed the Gulf Coordination Council, the Arab NATO (1981). Iran poses a political threat to the establishment’s order of things, and it has long been its policy to reduce Iran by military and political means. Corralling India into this policy has been U.S. policy since the early 1990s, and over the past decade it has come close to fruition.

In January 2004, the Bush administration sent a man of the banks (U.S. head of Credit Suisse and previously senior advisor to the Saudi Arabia Monetary Agency), David Mulford, to be the ambassador to India. Mulford remained at this post until 2009. It was a crucial period. When Mulford came to India, relations between Teheran and New Delhi were on a reasonably good footing: congruence on Afghanistan was the most recent foreign policy linkage, but so too was the question of energy (India had long been in talks with Teheran and Islamabad to allow a natural gas pipeline to run from Iran to India). Mulford’s brash and arrogant style mimicked that of his then-president Bush.

The deal from Washington was simple. India would soft-pedal the natural gas pipeline, and it would be given assistance in building up its nuclear sector (to be built, largely, by U.S. firms). Any disentanglement from Iran would allow India freedom of maneuver toward the U.S. narrative of world affairs. When next the United States needed a vote to sanction Iran, in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or in the UN, it might have to call upon India, and thereby confuse the NAM bloc, which was often led by India on some of these matters. To make the case, Bush sent his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to India in 2005; she got what the United States wanted from India, but gave very little. India did not get a commitment to U.S. support for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, and the United States would not go back on its commitment to sell Pakistan a new batch of F-16s. Rice lobbied hard for India to abjure the peace pipeline and to adopt the nuclear road. It was clear by 2005 that the nuclear deal was a quid pro quo for scuttling the peace pipeline and for giving the United States political cover in the NAM-type forums in its policy to isolate Iran. When External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh said at a press conference that India has “good relations with Iran,” Rice grimaced.

The best case scenario for nuclear power, according to energy analyst Prabir Purkayastha, was that it would provide no more than 5 percent of India’s primary energy needs by 2015—hardly a solution to India’s energy problem. It was, rather, a political matter: an India now anointed as a legitimate nuclear power, and emboldened to seek its proper place in the Security Council must earn that role by acting “maturely,” namely working with the “international community” (viz. the Atlantic powers) to isolate revisionist powers, such as Iran. That was the bottom line. The aggravations of David Mulford come out clearly in the cables he sent off to the U.S. State Department (revealed by Wikileaks). In early September 2005, prior to India’s vote against Iran in the IAEA on September 24, Mulford met Shyam Saran, at that time Foreign Secretary, the top Foreign Service position in the Ministry of External Affairs. In Mulford’s rendering, he “delivered the mail (wrapped in a brick).”2 This is the kind of aggressive language that he often used. Mulford “took Saran to task” for Natwar Singh’s statements during a visit to Teheran and told Saran that “the time was drawing near for fence-sitters to make hard decisions.” Then comes the clear quid pro quo: “Many in Congress and throughout Washington, [Mulford] reminded Saran, were watching India’s treatment of Iran prior to Congressional debate on the U.S.-India civilian nuclear initiative.” One could only come if the other was demonstrated. Why was India’s vote so important? “India had a key voice in the NAM and could swing opinion in the [IAEA Board of Governors]; it was time, [Mulford] said, for us to know where India stood.” From the U.S. side, the “nuclear deal” was about nuclear energy (and $60 billion promised in purchases for nuclear hardware), but more so it was about cementing India’s shift from its non-aligned foreign policy to being a subordinate ally of the U.S. narrative.

But the irritant to Mulford was neither the BJP nor the Congress. On December 28, 2005, BJP National Executive Member Seshadiri Chari told the U.S. embassy that they should not “read too much into the foreign policy resolution [of the BJP national council meeting], especially the part relating to the U.S.”3 This was just “standard practice,” the BJP leader told the Embassy—rhetoric for the elections. On October 21, 2005, BJP leader Jaswant Singh met with Nicholas Burns, no. 3 at the U.S. State Department, and the point person for the nuclear deal. Singh complained about U.S. support of Pakistan and other such points. But the main message that Singh delivered was that the Congress “does not have the intellectual commitment to improve U.S./India relations.”4 The Congress is hampered by the Communists, who are bent on “hollowing out” the Congress Party by “disapproving anything and everything.” The BJP would govern without any Communist influence, and was therefore a better partner.

The United States was not convinced that the Congress was the problem. It was the Communist bloc that was obdurate. Jaswant Singh told Burns, “The Communists will obstruct the policy and the PM should deal with this problem. Singh emphasized that the United States should not have frontloaded the relationship with nuclear issues but should have waited to construct a large political base first.” To pass the U.S. nuclear deal through the 14th Lok Sabha without the support of the Left parliamentary parties eventually required the Manmohan Singh government to engage in massive vote-buying of MPs. This has now been confirmed by the publication of a secret cable, sent from New Delhi on July 17, before the Lok Sabha vote of confidence, attesting to U.S. prior knowledge of the vote-buying scheme.5

For the “strategic relationship” with the United States fully to emerge, the communist bloc in the parliament had to be cut down to size. It helped that at this opportune moment, the Left Front government in Bengal ran into trouble with its attempt to acquire land for a Tata factory in Singur. The slide downhill for the Left Front’s popularity could be gauged by the events in Singur of 2006, just when the nuclear situation with Iran began to heat up. The Left Front suffered in the panchayat elections (2008), the Lok Sabha elections (2009), the municipal elections (2010) and the Assembly elections (2011). The four parties that comprise the Left bloc in the parliament (the two parliamentary communist parties, the Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party) saw their membership in the Lok Sabha drop from 58 (in the 14th Lok Sabha, 2004–2009) to 24 (in the 15th Lok Sabha, 2009–present)—out of a total of 543. A weaker Left presence in the parliament has strengthened the ability of the Congress more fully to adopt the U.S. narrative of world events.

Another problem for those who wished to consolidate the U.S.-India relationship was the inherited people and ideas inside the Foreign Service. Prior to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to India in late September 2008, the MEA went into turmoil. It released an official statement that the U.S. embassy in Delhi characterized as “an anodyne draft statement that reiterated standard Indian talking points on Iran.” MEA Joint Secretary (Americas) Gaitri Kumar had shown the draft to the Political Counselor at the Embassy, and told him, “India’s growing relationship with the U.S. had split MEA into two camps.”6 A member of the MEA who was against the strong relationship wrote the draft, which enraged Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, who was in Beijing on a visit. The U.S. embassy registered “its protest against the MEA’s offensive statement on Iran,” and pushed on with its attempt to strengthen its allies in the MEA and weaken its adversaries.

One example of how the U.S. government influenced the Indian External Affairs bureaucracy is in its attempt to undermine Nirupam Sen, the Indian Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Sen had come to the UN from his post as Indian Ambassador to Sri Lanka. An intellectual with a seasoned understanding of world affairs, Sen threw his energy into a push for more democracy in the UN and less fealty by the NAM bloc and India to the tantrums from Washington (the Bush administration sent as its Representative John Bolton, whose perspective on the UN can be summarized in his view that, “the Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference”). Sen was well-liked among the representatives from the South, and earned the respect of the UN establishment (upon his departure from the ambassadorship, Sen became Special Senior Advisor to the President of the UN General Assembly). But he was despised by Washington. A cable from Bolton about Sen offered the full view of why he was disliked: “Sen’s arguments consistently attack the Charter-based rights of the Security Council and the P-5 [the five permanent members] in particular. He routinely characterizes the P-5 as an exclusive club attempting to perpetuate an historical dominance within the international community that no longer reflects reality and does not acknowledge rising powers. (His statements along these lines, particularly as they coincide with the [U.S.] Administration’s efforts to achieve an historic nuclear deal with India, strike us as terribly anachronistic.).”7 Bolton suggested that Sen was an “unreformed Communist.”

Remarkably, at a lunch meeting between Sen’s Deputy, Ajai Malhotra, and Bolton’s Deputy, Alejandro Wolff, the Indian said that he “had been sent to New York with instructions from Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran to cooperate with the USG [U.S. government] on the broad range of issues,” and, as Wolff put it, “to check his boss’s antiquated instincts.” Malhotra criticized Sen’s “confrontational attitude to the USG,” which led Wolff to his own assessment.8 In May 2009, the Indian government ended Sen’s tenure, and sent as his replacement Hardeep Singh Puri, whose appointment pleased the U.S. government. In a meeting on May 1 with Political Counselor Ted Osius in New Delhi, Malhotra indicated that he wanted to increase U.S.–India engagement “to a higher degree of convergence.”9 Head of the India-U.S. Forum of Parliamentarians, Ramesh Chandran put it plainly, “Noting Puri’s Moscow-educated, UN predecessor Nirupam Sen’s proclivity to cling to a leftist non-aligned mentality, Chandran favorably compared Puri whom he contended has a much more modern and twenty-first century way of thinking”—in other words, one subservient to the U.S. narrative of world affairs.

The U.S. architects of the new “strategic relationship” with India must see their work as a success: their junior partners atop of the Congress-led government have freed themselves of pressure from a weakened parliamentary Left, and dissent within the Foreign Service to an abject subservience to the U.S. narrative has been silenced. In Dhume’s essay, he asks two questions that have been largely answered by the events detailed above: “Will New Delhi back tougher sanctions, and possibly military action, against Iran should the Islamic Republic refuse to abandon its rogue nuclear program? Will it publicly stand by Israel, a stalwart friend and close defense partner?” The answer to both questions is most likely to be yes, but events are not so easy to define. Despite the housecleaning in the MEA, it is still only a minority in the Foreign Service who would allow U.S. interests to trump India’s historical role among the developing nations in asserting the relevance of international law and morality.

Recent events, including the damning Wikileak revelations, have weakened the position of the key Congress leaders most openly subservient to U.S. dictates, Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram. It is much easier to align India’s own foreign policy ambitions to those of the BRICS project, which has the ear of the majority of countries in the UN General Assembly and has the respect of many. Unwilling to be antagonistic to states like Iran, or to the revisionist currents in the Middle East and North Africa that emerge out of the Arab Spring, the BRICS favor a less militaristic view of the world than the United States and Israel, and NATO. There will always be quid pro quo deals in the world of international relations, but these will not necessarily be premised upon subordination or the creation of cliques to bully those who refuse to be cowed. Much of the Indian political class, and scribes like Dhume (who is a resident fellow at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute) might wish that India become the new Israel; but the interests of the planet (and of India) lean in a different direction, toward the strengthening of a multipolar world that is defined less by conflict and more by cooperation.


  1. Sadanand Dhume, “It’s Time to Re-Align India,” Wall Street Journal Asia, April 21, 2011, The article can also be found at the American Enterprise Institute website ( where Dhume is a resident fellow.
  2. Cable from U.S. Embassy New Delhi, “A Nuclear Iran Still Unacceptable To India, But Delhi Questions Eventual Armed Confrontation,” September 6, 2005, Wikileaks ref. 05NEWDELHI6840, http://
  3. Cable from U.S. Embassy New Delhi, “The BJP Attacks UPA Foreign Policy,” December 28, 2005, Wikileaks ref. 05NEWDELHI9761.
  4. Cable from U.S. Embassy New Delhi, “Jaswant Singh Believes The UPA Is Incapable Of Managing The Indo/US Relationship,” October 24, 2005, Wikileaks ref. 05NEWDELHI8231.
  5. Cable from U.S. Embassy New Delhi, “Untitled,” July 17, 2008, Wikileaks ref 08NEWDELHI1972.
  6. Cable from U.S. Embassy New Delhi, “Indian Iran Retort Might Lay Groundwork For Nuclear Movement,” April 24, 2008, Wikileaks ref. 08NEWDELHI1134.
  7. Cable from U.S. Embassy New Delhi, “India And The U.S.: Bilateral Ties Not Reflected In Multilateral Fora,” June 21, 2006, Wikileaks ref. 06USUNNEWYORK1254.
  8. Cable from U.S. Embassy New Delhi, “Indian DPR Pledges To Cooperate With USG On Nepal, Un Budget, And Syg Selection,” May 19, 2006, Wikileaks ref. 06USUNNEWYORK1033.
  9. Cable from U.S. Embassy New Delhi, “India Selects Hardeep Singh Puri As Its New UN Permrep,” May 1, 2009, Wikileaks ref. 09NEWDELHI877.
2011, Volume 63, Issue 05 (October)
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