Uncle Sam in South Asia (Waiting for “imperial overstretch”)

Jawaharlal Nehru would have been shocked. His daughter Indira would have been outraged. Rajiv Gandhi would have been paralysed. But the person in charge of carrying forward the Nehru-Gandhi legacy these days is Sonia Gandhi. Being born in Italy, Sonia probably knows the literal meaning of the Green Berets' motto, "De oppresso libre" – but as yet a greenhorn in Indian politics, she is unlikely to comprehend the true significance of an elite American corps' mission of "liberating the oppressed". It seems the saffronite dispensation in New Delhi has fully resigned itself to a subservient role even in South Asia. The United States of America is now the real overlord this side of the Himalaya. Chacha Chaudhary in New Delhi, Mama Abdul in Islamabad, Granny Bandarnaike in Colombo, Begum Didi in Dacca and Sanu Bhai in Kathmandu, please line up and applaud. Uncle Sam will presently take a bow.

The heartland

When Coca-Cola staged a comeback in the Indian market, it chose to launch its products from Agra. And when American paracommandos decided to conduct their first joint exercises with the Indian Army, they too opted for a site close to the Taj Mahal. Such coincidences are not uncommon; there is a precedence of the American army marching along in the footprints of US multinationals. Coca-Cola and Pepsi – along with Microsoft, Murdoch and many other industrial motors run by Wall Street investors – are here to stay in South Asia. And so the US marines that will protect their interests must come over for a recce, and a taste of the mid-May loo.

Given the location, nature and timing of this joint exercise, public opinion in India should have questioned the propriety of bringing in the Green Berets next door to New Delhi. But much of the reporting in the Indian media was celebratory. Comments of the opposition leaders were congratulatory. And the consuming classes of urban India seemed to revel in this as a signal of America's support for India, interpreted in India as a decline in America's support for the land across the Wagah border. Very few appear to be bothered about the long-term significance of GI Joe and Jawan Ram Singh parajumping arm-in-arm.

The new-found camaraderie between the Pentagon and Raisina Hill is a direct result of the changed circumstances since 9/ 11, although its origin does go back to the arrival of Bill Clinton on Indian shores. Sensing an opportunity of setting an incensed Bush against a cornered Mush, Jaswant Singh immediately expressed willingness to help America every which way. But New Delhi's calculations were off. General Musharraf took no time in doing an about-turn. He not only abandoned the Taliban, but also actually joined America's 'War on Terrorism' without a moment's hesitation.

The abruptness of this somersault in Islamabad's strategy left South Block's design, of lumping the jehadis of Kashmir with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda and getting the Americans to fight them simultaneously in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in tatters. Colin Powell decided to tackle one enemy at a time, and Pakistan was after all a frontline state in the 'War on Terror'. But the larger Indian interest lies with India.

Apart from assuring the multinationals that it has not ignored their interests in one of the biggest emerging markets of this century, the Americans want to keep India in good humour for another important reason. The Pentagon brass wants the second biggest defence force of the world on board in its mission to ensure peace in an endemically volatile region. Crudely put, Fort Bragg was perhaps testing its sub-contractors in the scorching pre-monsoon heat of Agra. Bush's boys probably wanted to see whether they could depend on an elite Indian corps raised on a staple of roti and anti- Pakistan rhetoric.

Uneasy partners

The ruse of the two largest democracies of the world being natural allies notwithstanding, the partnership between Washington and New Delhi is not a long-term arrangement. At best, it is a 'living together' experiment that may or may not end up in a marriage of convenience. To wipe off the history of animosity that dates back to the 1950s – when the Americans put their money on Pakistan and India gravitated towards Moscow – is not as easy as it seems. Already the more principled among New Delhi academics who have chanted the anti-American mantra through their professional lives are finding it difficult to make this geo-strategic about-turn, and are chafing at the collar.

For the present, however, there are four objectives that the USA seeks to achieve by backing India. First, the Americans want to defuse the possibility of nuclear confrontation in what George W Bush's predecessor termed 'the most dangerous place in the world'. Second, the Indian Navy can be a handy instrument for policing the sea-lanes all the way from Saudi Arabia to Japan. Arundhati Ghosh (the former firebrand South Block warrior, not to be confused with the other more famous Arundhati) once boasted to Saarcy that New Delhi considered the stretch up to the Malaccan Straits as its area of influence despite the US base in Diego Garcia. Evidently, the Americans want the Indians to continue believing that fiction – the invitation extended to New Delhi to participate in the East Asian security meet in Singapore is an indication of this – so that they can concentrate their energies in West Asia for the present.

Make no mistake though. The Indian Ocean is precious to America and while they may be intending to hire a security service in the form of the Indian armed forces, they are by no means transferring the title deed to the chowkidar. The third, and perhaps most important, reason behind the infatuation is a desire to preclude a bhai-bhai rapprochement between Beijing and New Delhi. The distance between Moscow and New Delhi has already increased and Washington DC would be happy if the Indians had nowhere to go other than into the embrace of its military-industrial complex for all their future needs. The fourth strategy is a long-term one that Chris Patten seemed to sense when he visited the Indian and Pakistani capital cities in May: the Americans are laying the groundwork for the day when the European Union will be competing for spheres of influence with them. Moscow itself may have forgotten the imperial directive, but there are historically conscious strategists in London and Paris who realise the enduring importance of Article VIII of Peter the Great's will: "Bear in mind that the commerce of India is the commerce of the world, and he who can exclusively command it is the dictator of Europe."

Goaded by the consuming classes and the influential Indian diaspora, the saffronites of New Delhi think they have no choice but to take shelter under the US security umbrella. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, for all his poetic abilities, lacks the vision to draft a long-term strategy for Indian foreign policy. Jaswant Singh, at the helm of foreign affairs, has a military background and cannot see beyond the reign of the generalissimo in Islamabad. If General Musharraf poured ghee over the ongoing fire of conflict with his inflammatory 27 May address, the very next day Mr Singh added some more verbal firewood to feed the inferno.

New Delhi seems to be under the impression that the cowboy combatants of the 'War on Terror' may not be against a direct assault on jehadi camps across the Line of Control in Kashmir if such a campaign were to be accurate, swift and successful. General Musharraf too appears to have realised that the Americans are getting impatient with his impotence in restraining Islamic fundamentalists. It must be this realisation that has made the general refer to his 'strategic weapons' so often lately. Ironically, the more Mush talks of a nuclear war, the louder the alarm bells go off in Western capitals, strengthening New Delhi's case that Pakistan is on the verge of going renegade. Have you noticed how, in the middle of all this, India has successfully diverted world attention away from the state-condoned pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat?

Enduring allies?

Elsewhere in South Asia, Americans already hold sway. Sri Lanka is on the verge of signing a military pact with the United States even as New Delhi pretends not to see the emerging alliance. Earlier, when President Jayawardane had tried to tow his tiny island to the US dominated ASEAN, there was a huge hue and cry in the Indian capital. This time, American overlordship is being accepted as a fait accompli.

Despite the rise of Talibangla (the Bangladeshi version of hardcore Islamists) in Dhaka, both the begums of the country are committed to courting Washington. Dhaka intellectuals openly say that it is helpful to have the US on their side in dealing with the domineering power of the region. Besides, American investors eyeing deposits of natural gas in the Padma basin already enjoy considerable influence in the corridors of military power in Bangladesh. Multinationals instinctively know who controls the real levers of power in a poor, emerging democracy.

Even though precariously placed between Mao's China and Nehru-Gandhi's India, Nepal remained loyal to the West throughout the Cold War. (For almost a quarter of a century, Kathmandu was the only South Asian capital to have an Israeli embassy.) When President Bush agreed to grant an audience to Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in the White House Oval Office and Prime Minister Tony Blair graced a discussion between an aide and the visiting counterpart at 10 Downing Street, conservatives in Kathmandu went wild with joy. Perhaps it was the steroid of promised Western support that pumped Premier Deuba into going against his own party before mopping up the Maoist insurgency, dissolving parliament and promising a mid-term election even though the government's writ runs no further than district headquarters in much of the country.


To describe the strength of an empire unparalleled in human history, the French have coined an apt term: the USA today is not just the sole super power, but it is a hyper-power. Forces opposed to it cannot cause the downfall of a hyper-power. Rather, the world has to wait for it to extend itself beyond its capabilities and reach what the historian Paul Kennedy has identified as the point of "imperial overstretch". Meanwhile, we have no option but to put up with the imperious guest in the region, credit for inviting the camel into the tent going to the leaders of South Asia.

Now that dancing to the tune of Born in the USA has become inescapable, all that we South Asians can do is insist that the music be played on the tabla, flute and sitar. The militarisation of polity, privatisation of economy and McDonaldisation of culture that often follow the Americanisation of society must be resisted at all cost. Leaders of South Asia have failed to resolve the internal conflicts of the region, making the entry of the global hyper-power inevitable. It is left for the people and culture to bend 'Amrika' to their own image.

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