The Magazine

Currying Favor with Washington

Is this the beginning of a beautiful U.S. India friendship?

Sep 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 03 • By MELANA ZYLA VICKERS
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The State Department's skittishness may be somewhat unwarranted, but it will continue until India and Pakistan can improve their relations, poisoned by the violent politics of disputed Kashmir. It's encouraging, therefore, that India has responded to pressure from Washington by holding elections in the territory, due to be completed in early October. If the elections are relatively calm and turnout is fair, Washington will be able to nudge the two countries toward talks. If instead the South Asian enmity continues, or the State Department remains overly cautious, the emergent United States-India relationship will be prevented from deepening. If ever there were a love triangle in foreign policy, Washington-Delhi-Islamabad is it.

India has more to lose than the United States should their new ties weaken. Indian officials are forever reminding their American interlocutors that they're new at this, and they don't want to get burned. Already, Prime Minister Vajpayee faces domestic criticism for abandoning leftist India's precious policy of "nonalignment." If India can't point to clear benefits from its U.S. relationship--an increase in international prestige, or growing trade, or assistance in acquiring high-tech military equipment--the critics will howl more loudly, putting the ruling party at risk in the next elections.

Tangible benefits are beginning to flow: The United States sold India advanced weapon-locating radars this year, and the Bush-Vajpayee talks last week cleared the way for more cooperation in space, civil nuclear energy, and advanced technology, according to a U.S. Embassy spokesman. Nevertheless, some observers have concluded that Washington already shows signs of loosening the embrace it tendered in the fall of 2001.

"The sense that U.S. policies are unpredictable is a very strong one in Delhi," says Lt. Gen. (Ret.) V.R. Raghavan, a former director-general of military operations who now heads a think tank called the Delhi Policy Group. Rather than a lasting partnership, India's relationship with the United States "can only be a patron-client relationship," he says, adding, "They will dump you like they have so many others."

It's up to a jumpy State Department to prove that isn't so.

Melana Zyla Vickers is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum and a defense columnist for