An unlikely ally.

John McCain's India Moment

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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What ails relations between India and the U.S.? Nothing, if you were to believe the leaders and diplomats tasked with keeping the road between the two well-lit and clear of obstructions. The relationship between America and India links the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest one, between the great beacons of democracy in the West and the East.

The contact between our peoples grows ever more robust and more diverse. Immigration, tourism, education, culture -- each has a burgeoning place in this story. We have similar visions of democracy and are committed to a secular state that best liberates the potential, and ensures the fundamental rights, of their multiethnic societies. As liberal democracies, we also have a common vision of a stable world order. Indo-U.S. trade has more than quadrupled since the turn of the century, the sign of a welcome --

Uh, my iPad battery just died. What, there’s no electricity? Don’t get me wrong, but India really needs to sort out its basic problems if it wants to keep up this conversation. Driver! Take me to the nearest bar. What do you mean, Gujarat is a dry state? Didn’t Prime Minister Narendra Modi ever need a martini when all those human-rights crusaders kicked up such a fuss over that communal violence in 2002?

Well, perhaps my fancy begins to wax into excess here, but you see the point. There’s nothing wrong with Indo-U.S. relations, but given what the countries share, they could be so much better. The history of the two countries in the last six decades is of the people taking every chance they can to forge enduring links while their governments fail to achieve meaningful amity (for a host of reasons, including the Cold War, the Kashmir dispute and the war in Afghanistan), then miss each new chance to redefine the relationship because of mistrust, disinterest or inertia.

I can’t say I’ve ever given a lot of credence to U.S. Senator John McCain’s opinions on foreign policy, especially because they usually involve more airstrikes than conversations. But earlier this week I heard him speak on the subject of U.S.-India relations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, and I thought he made a lot of sense -- and achieved a meaningful rather than banal use of the word “strategic,” which in our time is no small thing -- when he said:

Too often, our relationship has felt like a laundry list of initiatives, some quite worthy, that amounts to no more than the sum of its parts. Too often, we have been overly driven by domestic politics and overly focused on extracting concessions from one another, rather than investing in one another’s success and defining priorities that can bring clarity and common purpose to our actions. In short, our strategic relationship has unfortunately devolved recently into a transactional one.

My sense is that Prime Minister Modi wants India to do its part to change this -- and that he wants India and the United States to lift our sights once again, to think bigger and do bigger things together. I fully agree. And I see the prime minister’s visit to the United States this month as an opportunity to renew our partnership and regain a proper strategic focus.

McCain also spoke for the Indian side (and perhaps for the Republican side) when he declared, “Many Indians I have met are concerned that the United States seems distracted and unreliable, especially in its relations with India.” He’s right: For at least half a century now, India has been nowhere near as high on America’s list of priorities as it should have been.

Worse, America’s wars abroad and indulgence of Pakistan have often imposed unreasonable costs on India and generated intractable sticking points in the conversations between the respective regimes of the day, whether Republican or Democrat on the U.S. side or the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party on the Indian side. (Another thing I liked about McCain’s talk was his assumption that everybody in the audience did, or should, know the basic acronyms and ideological divides of Indian politics.)

To the student of Indo-American relations, a romantic haze attaches itself to the days when John F. Kennedy took a great interest in the problems of newly independent India, committed a vast sum to India in aid, and sent to India as ambassador perhaps the most influential American in that position to date: the charismatic and influential economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

Even that rare moment of optimism and initiative soon broke down when an aging Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister of India since independence and himself unreasonably cool toward the U.S., visited Kennedy in 1961. The two men didn’t get along. Kennedy later described the encounter to special assistant Arthur J. Schlesinger as “a disaster … the worst head-of-state visit I have had.”

At least that sets the bar so low that almost any meeting between the leaders of the U.S. and India can be confident of a better result. Later this month, Modi will visit the U.S. for the first time. He has made no secret of his desire to make a new place for India in the world’s imagination, and a substantial part of that agenda would necessarily involve setting India’s relationship with the U.S. on a new footing.

President Barack Obama should respond to that energy instead of trying to deflect it into initiatives that would once again be “no more than the sum of their parts.” It’s essential he contemplate India without the shadow of American interests in Pakistan and China falling over those thoughts. If for no other reason, it would show respect for the aspirations and realities of India's 1.2 billion people.

It’s hard to see when there has been a more opportune moment to put down on a clean slate a vision of ties between the U.S. and India for the 21st century, commensurate to political first principles and to the ties the two countries have already forged as societies and as economies. “Historic” is another overused word, but it would be a waste of the capital granted uniquely to political leadership if this month were not a historic one for U.S.-India relations.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net