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Why US think tanks are tapping desi experts

May 17, 2013 18:52 IST

Vikram Nehru and Sadanand Dhume are among the growing crop of Indian-American experts being called upon to testify before Congress. Aziz Haniffa reports 

There is a growing crop of second-generation Indian-American policy experts being recruited by leading Washington, DC think tanks to their South Asia Policy programmes in recent years -- from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to The Brookings Institution and The American Enterprise Institute to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Some of these rising stars have now been called upon to testify before Congress, seemingly replacing some of the entrenched ‘usual suspects’ among the South Asia experts.

Last month was one such instance.

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Asian and the Pacific, with jurisdiction over matters pertaining to South Asia, had as its lead witnesses Vikram Nehru, senior associate, Asia Programme of the centrist Carnegie Endowment, and Sadanand Dhume, resident fellow at the neo-conservative AEI, to educate lawmakers on ‘The Rebalance to Asia: Why South Asia Matters,’ after the panel had heard from the Obama administration officials.

Nehru said, “Engaging with India with the same intensity as China is an equally important priority for America’s rebalancing. India’s pre-eminent position in South Asia makes the Indo-US relationship central to maintaining a counterpoint to China’s emergence as Asia’s predominant economic and military power.”

“There,” Nehru asserted, “is little doubt that the US and India share similar geostrategic interests based on common values, a commitment to democracy and human rights, a common front against radical Islam, and a shared desire for an institutional architecture in the Indo-Pacific that promotes cooperation between countries.”

“The two countries are further drawn together by the shared bond of a large Indian-American community, a common language, and both being multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies.”

Noting that is should not be forgotten that “India’s good standing with Afghanistan’s government makes it a vital partner in pursuing US security interests in the region after 2014,”

Nehru told the lawmakers, “It is unfortunate, therefore, that their divergences have on occasion framed the narrative between the two countries rather than their expanding areas of cooperation and interaction.”

Nehru said, “America should expect neither reciprocity nor alignment from India,” since India had made it clear that its “size, location, complexity, resources, history, and development imperatives demand that its foreign policy retain strategic autonomy.”

Instead, he said, “The success of US policy toward India should be measured by whether India succeeds in developing its national power and becoming a positive force in advancing a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”

He recalled that when President Bill Clinton visited India in March 2000, “The US made a long-term bet that Asia and the world would be a better place with a stronger India. Notwithstanding occasional disappointments since, that bet is still worth making today.”

Despite, what he called, India’s occasionally puzzling foreign policy decisions and its questionable ability to translate aspirations into reality, he insisted, “India’s entrepreneurs and market system, its growing trade and investment links with East Asia, a growing middle class, and an electoral system that is beginning to reward economic performance all augur well for the country’s future growth and development.”

Among some of his policy recommendations for US strategic support to India were -- US exports of shale gas, transfers of energy-efficient and low-carbon technologies, setting aside disappointments with the medium multi-role combat aircraft deal and responding positively to India’s modernization needs, using America’s leverage to reduce the risk of hostilities between India and Pakistan, championing India’s membership of APEC, and US officials and businesses reaching out to Indian states.

Echoing similar recommendations, Dhume called for continuing “to encourage Indian integration into Asian political and economic structures… (and) closer strategic and economic ties between Japan and India, Asia’s second and third largest economies.”

He too suggested engaging “more robustly with India’s best-performing states” and ensuring “that events in Afghanistan and Pakistan don’t destabilize South Asia and prevent India from playing a wider role in Asia.”

Dhume warned, “If the US is seen as cutting and running by its Islamist foes, and this results in an upsurge in violence in both Afghanistan and India as in the 1990s, it will reduce trust between Washington and New Delhi and force the latter to focus more on interests closer to home than farther afield in East Asia.”

“India’s failure”, he acknowledged, “to pass a nuclear liability bill that allows US commercial firms to benefit from the pathbreaking nuclear deal has damaged its stock in Washington.”

In some Washington circles, he said, “there’s a danger of so-called India fatigue setting in.”

But, he argued, “The US should not lose sight of the deal’s non-commercial objectives, including building trust with India and integrating it into the international system.” 

Aziz Haniffa