NEW DELHI — U.S. President Bill Clinton’s weeklong tour of South Asia has caused an outbreak of Clinton-mania in the region, generating bloated expectations. In the Indian cities on his itinerary, streets have been cleaned, signposts washed or repainted, and tree branches cut back. The Great White Messiah is finally here.

India’s history since independence is one of missed opportunities. If India is to not miss further opportunities, especially in relation to the United States, it will have to understand certain harsh realities and get rid of false hopes and illusions. Clinton-mania is only the latest affliction, a telling reminder of why India gets paired not with a coldly pragmatic China, but with the much smaller and pushy Pakistan.

America’s importance for India is self-evident. In a world in which most nations of consequence are in economic and military alliances, India stands out as the only major state without a real ally. Moreover, it faces in Asia a growing imbalance of power, at the center of which is an increasingly powerful and assertive China that successfully keeps India boxed in on the subcontinent and compels New Delhi to pay obeisance to it.

A U.S.-Indian strategic partnership could profoundly change Asian geopolitics. But as the past decade of missed opportunities shows, this is not going to happen anytime soon despite the marked change of attitudes in both capitals. First, the terms of strategic engagement remain unclear. Second, each side’s frame of engagement is sharply divergent from the other side’s. The U.S. seeks engagement in South Asia, while India looks beyond that framework.

Despite many positive developments, the negative elements in the relationship have not sufficiently decreased for India. The U.S. remains the wielder of pressure on Kashmir and nuclear nonproliferation and the architect of various types of sanctions. As if to control the outbreak of Clinton-mania in India, a chorus of top U.S. officials, including Clinton himself, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, made it clear before reaching New Delhi that not only will this not change, the onus is on India to facilitate a qualitatively better relationship by complying with U.S. demands.

India has to assume more blame than the U.S. for lingering bilateral problems. Even when U.S. officials publicly express concerns and demands, Indians pick on positive comments about India or negative remarks on Pakistan, but overlook the central message. Take Albright’s March 14 speech to the U.S.-based Asia Society. While jubilant that she had called for respect for the Line of Control in Kashmir and for addressing “the effects of terror on Pakistan’s neighbors, notably India,” India ignored her core message — that Delhi has to accept nuclear and missile restraints and resume talks with Islamabad if it wants closer political ties with Washington.

In contrast to the blunt U.S. talk, Indian leaders balk at even articulating India’s concerns about U.S. policies or its unwillingness to invoke — as it did against New Delhi in 1998 — the nonproliferation provisions of its domestic law against China for its continuing nuclear and missile transfers to Pakistan.

India has to ask itself whether it is seen in Washington as a potentially reliable ally. But how can a country that doesn’t have clear goals nor has shown unwavering determination be regarded by the world’s sole superpower as a credible partner?

Unless India adopts hard-nosed realism, a serious partnership with the U.S. will never emerge. Why should Washington accommodate India’s strategic interests when it gains increased access to the Indian market and extracts Indian concessions in strategic, foreign-policy and economic fields without a quid pro quo? As Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh said smugly, “A great country like India does not believe in quid pro quos.”

In just two years, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government has opened more lucrative market opportunities for U.S. businesses than any previous Indian administration. And despite India abjuring further nuclear tests, going slow in the missile field and accepting global negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty, 20 months of U.S.-Indian diplomatic negotiations, according to Albright, have failed to “create sufficient common ground” on the divisive issues.

There has to be a better appreciation by India of the role of hard bargaining rooted in equable realism, leverage building and binding reciprocity. Foreign policy cannot be built on expectations that the other side will see the justness of India’s case and side with it. International relations is an arena not for earning goodwill or dispensing justice,but for naked power politics in pursuit of national interest.

It is time India also overcame its policy schizophrenia toward Washington’s regional role. India wants the U.S. to stop interfering in India-Pakistan issues, but it constantly looks to Washington, as if it were a referee, to censure and exert pressure on Pakistan for its wrongdoings. Vajpayee went to the extent of asking Washington two months ago to declare Pakistan a terrorist state, although he himself has shied away from doing that or taking even simple nonmilitary countermeasures. Pakistan is India’s problem. If India cannot deal with Pakistan on its own, how can it tackle Pakistan’s chief promoter, China? Such schizophrenia only encourages U.S. meddling in regional affairs.

Clinton’s trip to India is good for U.S. business, good for U.S. influence and good for his image. India can expect his visit to help raise its profile in U.S. policy, set in motion a process for closer engagement, and boost international tourism to India. A strategic partnership, however, remains distant.

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