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America From Abroad : U.S.-India Relations Turn Sour : Both are democracies with values in common. U.S. investment pours in. On one level, ties have never been stronger. So what's wrong?

March 15, 1994|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW DELHI — One country is the world's most populous democracy, the other its wealthiest. Both cast off the yoke of the same colonial power but kept its language. One has the biggest free-market economy, the other is moving in the same direction.

Why, then, have relations between India and the United States seemed so sour lately?

The top U.S. official for India, Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel, is due in New Delhi next week. "It's unlikely that the inventory of the protocol division of the Ministry of External Affairs includes a black carpet," snapped the Hindustan Times newspaper. "But there is still time to acquire one."

Vice President K. R. Narayanan, who was his country's envoy to Washington in the early 1980s, is said to have observed that India and the United States are nations divided by the same political system. And Dennis Kux, a career Foreign Service officer, pointedly titled his new history of Indo-U.S. relations "Estranged Democracies."

Superficially, events over the past six months seem to bear them out.

In October, Raphel--a former diplomat in New Delhi, a friend of President Clinton's and the first head of the State Department's new Bureau for South Asian Affairs--made some remarks on the sensitive issue of separatism in the northern Indian state of Kashmir.

Kashmir joined India 47 years ago because of a maharaja's wish. When Raphel suggested that might not be enough to grant India perpetual title, Indian correspondents treated her off-the-record comment as tantamount to a U.S. statement putting India's territorial wholeness in doubt.

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Two months later, the White House added fuel to an anti-American blaze already raging in Indian dailies. A form letter to a pro-secessionist Kashmiri group, bearing Clinton's signature, said, "I look forward to working with you and others to help bring peace to Kashmir." In another missive to a congressman about conflict in the Indian state of Punjab--cradle of the Sikh minority and also home to a secession drive--Clinton wrote of the need to safeguard "Sikh rights."

A gleeful band of Sikhs who accuse India's Hindu majority of genocide of their people bestowed on Clinton the honorary title of nawab. But much of the Indian Establishment fumed at what they interpreted as Washington's trafficking with its enemies. The Press Trust of India said that a "virulent group of anti-Indian officials" had grabbed control of U.S. policy. The Pakistani high commissioner, Riaz Khokhar, noted with amused satisfaction that he was no longer the most unpopular person in Delhi.

But the outrage of journalists, politicians and participants in orchestrated protests on the broad streets near the U.S. Embassy is just one theme in the schizophrenic story of U.S.-Indian relations these days.

Dig deeper, and it becomes clear that ties between this former Soviet proxy and Moscow's chief Cold War adversary have never been sounder or broader-based.

In a more open India, more than $1 billion in new U.S. investment was approved by the Indian government last year--more than in all the other years since Indian independence combined. Two-way trade was around $7 billion, with India the net leader by about half a billion dollars.

In January, India's president, Shankar Dayal Sharma, used the tried-and-true language of anti-colonialism to reject foreign "interference" but was chauffeured to an official function in a Chevrolet. And a leftist-proposed boycott of Coke and Pepsi this month fizzled before it began.

U.S. and Indian diplomats are co-sponsoring U.N. resolutions on controlling weapons proliferation; last year the two navies held their first joint exercise.

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Much of the sound and fury may be a last gasp of the anti-Americanism that was once rife in the Indian political and foreign policy Establishment. To many, the United States was the architect of Union Carbide's deadly plant in Bhopal and, most worrisome of all, an ally of archfoe Pakistan.

In larger terms, the collapse of the Soviet Union left India without its most influential friend on the diplomatic scene and tore the rudder off its foreign policy. It is still seeking a new course in the post-Cold War world.

Some Indian journalists blame their colleagues assigned to Washington or the foreign affairs beat for blowing largely harmless remarks out of proportion.

"They don't understand what they're writing about," said Subhash Chakravarti, diplomatic editor of the prestigious Times of India. India's leaders are said to be unfazed.

"The government at the top is more inclined to look at the opportunities rather than the problems," a high-ranking U.S. diplomat said. On the most important issue for Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao's government, economic reform, U.S. support has been steadfast and tangible.

There is no single Indian viewpoint, of course, but many Indians feel Americans don't pay enough heed to their sensibilities.

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