Build expertise on America in India - Hindustan Times

Build expertise on America in India

Jan 16, 2024 09:42 PM IST

The depth of Delhi-DC ties demands greater scholarship of history, actors, motivations, and society. Both government and academia need to invest more

After this newspaper reported that the Indian ambassador to the United States (US), Taranjit Singh Sandhu, is wrapping up his stint in Washington DC, historian Tanvi Madan of Brookings pointed out on X that Sandhu’s effectiveness showed why India would benefit from not just developing China, Russia, and West Asia hands in its foreign ministry but US hands as well.

A lot is happening on the India-US front. (Shutterstock)
A lot is happening on the India-US front. (Shutterstock)

She is right. Sandhu was effective because the government of India invested in him and sent him to the US thrice (with two stints in DC) before he became the envoy. But he is more an exception than a norm. India needs more US experts for at least three reasons.

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For one, a lot is happening within the US. Just glance at events over the past week. The Republican primary caucuses began in Iowa, inaugurating Donald Trump’s run to be the party’s nominee for president. The US Congress saw continued tensions between the Right and far Right. President Joe Biden launched strikes against Houthi capabilities in Yemen. He said the US won’t be able to offer additional support to Ukraine unless the Congress passes the required funding. And a massive march took place in DC against Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, a sign of the deep fracture in the US.

Two, a lot is happening on the India-US front. Just glance at some of the bilateral developments in just the past two months. The foreign and defence ministers of both countries met for a 2+2 annual dialogue. The US department of justice implicated a government of India official in an assassination plot on US soil. India’s commerce and industry minister was in San Francisco with his American counterpart in November and then hosted the American trade representative in Delhi this week. Secretary of State Antony J Blinken called external affairs minister Dr S Jaishankar hours before the US launched its strikes against Houthis, and soon after, Jaishankar departed for Iran, the often invisible other side in the West Asian conflict. Top officials held a midterm review of the initiative on critical and emerging technologies (iCET) and US NSA Jake Sullivan is expected in Delhi for iCET’s annual review.

And finally, examine how developments within the US have an impact on the world and US-India ties. Who wins in the presidential elections in November will affect ties with India. How the US approaches Russia both before and after polls will shape the Indian security calculus. Whether the US can restrain Israel will shape West Asia, and thus, India’s interests. How the US-Iran/Houthi conflict evolves will determine global energy prices and trade flows with a direct impact on India. Whether America is able to sustain its competitive actions vis-à-vis China will impact India. How Biden’s domestic manufacturing, semiconductor and climate legislations lead to a reset of global supply chains will impinge on India’s own plans. What the US administration will do on immigration policy and illegal immigrants will affect Indian citizens. How the divisions within the Indian diaspora play out will shape both American and Indian politics.

Anticipating, preparing and managing the implications of these require a deep understanding of history, institutions, processes, actors, motivations, and society. And expertise appears fairly limited.

Take the government first. India is fortunate that its foremost America expert is the foreign minister. S Jaishankar spent time at the US desk and then at the US embassy in DC in the 1980s; he served as a joint secretary of the Americas desk in the ministry of external affairs (MEA) in Delhi; he spent time in China which gave him a unique view into the US-China relationship; and then he served as the ambassador to DC. What he learned in each role has helped India navigate the complex currents of US politics as he rose to become a top official and then minister.

But look around and barring one or two other serving officers, there is poverty of experience, if one uses a posting or two on the Americas desk in Delhi and a term in DC, or multiple stints in DC, as a parameter. It doesn’t help that the language requirements push officers to develop expertise largely in non-English speaking regions. And the perception that everyone knows the US, primarily because of the hegemony of its popular culture and the reach of the western media, breeds complacency. In recent years, the MEA has consciously sent bright young officers to the US and hopefully, they will maintain an interest and expertise, just like their minister did. But this gap also applies to the security-intelligence establishment and other ministries. The breadth of cooperation with the US demands officials across the government who know America’s internal bureaucratic and legislative processes, political drivers and constraints, past and present, and its external relationship with other actors.

Or think of Indian academia and it is hard to recall a single big book on America itself, as distinct from US-India ties. American academia, of course, has a resource advantage, but there are now enough Indian public and private institutions that can deploy resources if there is will. The buzz on the knowledge partnership is largely confined to STEM, which is good in itself but inadequate.

Think tanks fare somewhat better, especially because growing India-US ties have introduced a generation of scholars to the US. For instance, given its work in helping both governments deepen their technology cooperation, Carnegie India now has developed expertise in the intricacies of US tech policy. Observer Research Foundation-America is the first US think tank with Indian institutional roots. But such institutions are too few and the wider research ecosystem suffers from constraints. Policy wonks often don’t have the mandate to do long-term work and are subject to the whims of what’s the big bilateral subject at that particular moment.

As the Indian State turns towards the West strategically, as Indian society’s connections with American society deepen given the diaspora, and as the US witnesses a dramatic internal political churn with major external ramifications, India must invest in understanding the US better.

The views expressed are personal

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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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