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US-India: The moral dimension

December 26, 2006 14:35 IST
If the man who has lost his way in the morning -- so runs the Indian saying -- shows up in the evening, he is not called lost.

The United States-India relationship, which may now be arriving at the point where it should have been all along, is perhaps the 'lost man' of the saying.

US President George W Bush is to be credited for his bold -- if largely unappreciated -- efforts to steady the course of this hitherto erratic and distrustful relationship. More than any of the previous presidents, he has shown a respect for India's stature and a touching affection for its "dazzling" culture.

Affiliations between nations grow not unlike those between individuals. Based, of course, on mutuality of need and interest, they evolve also from a similarity in values, outlook and purpose.

The Bush visit: complete coverage

However, one more ingredient is required -- a perception of mutual respect and of equality, without which the rest cannot be put together.

This ingredient, President Bush has provided.

Despite the vicissitudes of the policies of their governments, emotional bonds have already existed between the two countries, certainly from the Indian people's side.

Repeated polls have shown that the people of India have been favorably disposed towards the United States -- more so than the European allies of America.

It is the preferred country to emigrate to. And once they reach there they do better than almost any other ethnic group. Why?

For the very good reason that there is an affinity of cultural ethos -- of openness and enquiry -- and of political outlook -- secular and pluralistic.

Both India and the United States have an unfettered intellectual culture and a tradition of open debate. It is not merely a fit of fate that they are among the two most free and spontaneous peoples, and that they are powered up by vigorous democracies and -- by golly -- fearsome free presses.

Americans excel in pragmatic-political action: Action makes truth. And Indians in philosophical-political thought: Truth makes -- right -- action.

President Bush seems to have pragmatically concluded that India, a non-signatory of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty, has been far more honorable in the cause of non-proliferation than some others who signed the treaty but continued to violate it.

'Bush is one of the strongest friends of India'

"How important is India? " is the way Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, had summed up the issue of the US-India nuclear agreement while introducing legislation for it in the US Congress.

Though the senator's question was valid in the narrower American context, the issue is of wider import.

The more cogent question is: How important is the US-India friendship to the emerging 21st century world?

Both modern India and "modern" United States emerged in their contemporary 'avatars' as products of the Second World War.

With the sunset on the British Empire, an independent India and an ascendant America entered the global political arena and gradually -- to put it somewhat grandly -- into an inter-civilizational dialogue, eristic and annoying at times but nonetheless sustained.

Both were large, idealistic nations with all the makings of a future solid friendship -- which did not occur!

Each carried a baggage of bias and stereotypy. Jawaharlal Nehru and John Foster Dulles carried jaundiced cultural images. Winds of self-righteousness also puffed up the respective ships of state, sending them adrift.

Lawrence Kaplan, senior editor at the US periodical, The New Republic, was on the mark when he said in an engaging article some time ago: "...the most compelling argument for closer ties between India and America is neither political nor economic. It is moral."

The world needs India: Bush

The word 'moral' has become apoplectic to the present-day sensibility especially in a political context - so suffused are we in the 'culture of the realpolik.'

Still, it is at the very least one salient dimension among others -- economic, ecological, strategic, political -- that can be now adduced for stronger ties between India and the United States.

Although failing at times -- and sometime even failing badly, as in invading Iraq -- there is no denying that on the whole the United States has been a moral force in world affairs.

Partly as a result of its leadership, we have come some way from the savagery and rank exploitation of what Mark Twain called "the sceptered land-thieves of Europe."

Independent India, with its distinguished history of millennia-old peaceful existence, has been a moderating influence in the contemporary political world. It, too, has failed at times -- as in its muted response to Communist Russia's tanks subduing the uprising in Hungary and, more surprisingly closer to home, in its "tolerance" to China's violent aggression against the Tibetan people.

However, India has followed a middle path -- carved in its history long, long years ago -- and did not fall into extremist gutters that exist on either side.

On the whole, it has steered a morally upright and thoughtful course, despite being situated between vast expanses of populations headed by rulers and political parties of extremist persuasions.

Thus, there is a commonality of moral purpose between America and India.

Even as perfection remains a distant and an unattainable goal that "this world suggests, approaches, and misses" -- as Santayana put it in his exquisite prose -- we may at least hope that if India and America were to come closer, they could perhaps synergistically nudge the international politics into a slightly more principled direction.

This cannot be said of the more cynical Europeans or the utterly focused Chinese.

The hawks and experts in India are now busy magnifying the flaws in the US-India nuclear agreement.

But the larger truth is that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush have grasped the gestalt of the situation and caught the right 'international moment,' so to speak, for the two great democracies to come together, politically as well as culturally.

Two nations with visions of manifest destiny

This does not mean of course that they would always see eye to eye.

Stephen P Cohen of The Brooking Institution has in the past stated that India is a civilizational state and would not be subordinate to others.

In the euphoria following President Bush's visit to India, The Times of India on its front-page carried the headline "Ind-Us Civilization." The reference -- if a bit over the top -- to the Indus civilization is revealing.

It alluded to an ancient bond. Today, English connects India and America and the UK -- the language of the call centers, outsourcing enterprises and the academia.

And yesterday, Sanskrit and its derivatives connected the Indo-Europeans. Language and culture being deeply related, much can be said about the consanguinity between the civilizations of India and the West.

Does India even belong in Asia?

Some decades ago, when I first went to America, a girl from Communist China abruptly told me at a students' meeting that I was not from Asia. I felt greatly insulted.

She may have been right after all.

Dr Shashi K Pande is a psychiatrist who has taught at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and the Central Institute of Psychiatry, Ranchi.

 

Dr Shashi K Pande