Global Pairings

America and India: So Much in Common

The world’s two largest democracies are engaged in plenty of unnecessary strife.

Takeaways


  • America should manage its relationship with India with greater humility, modesty and respect.
  • The United States has much more in common with India than with other Asian powers like China or Japan.
  • Much like the US, India is a quintessential multicultural country, with its hundreds of languages.
  • India features much internal migration, which means that the country is also a real melting pot.
  • Everyone is shocked by the enduring class and caste system in India. But the U.S. has its own lower castes.
  • Indian-Americans are economically successful -- and now achieve the American dream more than Americans themselves.

America should manage its relationship with India with greater humility, modesty and respect. The world’s two largest democracies should focus more on what they have in common than what sets them apart.

America’s relationship with India has recently been shaken by some minor incidents – such as the arrest of an Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, in New York for breaching the employment contract of her maid. Or U.S. complaints about the quality control of Indian pharmaceutical products.

The United States may even be legally correct in these and other cases. But it must know that in India, a country no less proud than the U.S. itself – and one equipped with with a history spanning across millennia – these incidents reek of bullying by an arrogant superpower. The memories suffered centuries of British colonialism are not forgotten.

Focus on what unites – or divides?

The tendency to focus on bilateral strife is very unfortunate. The United States probably has much more in common with India than with other Asian powers like China or Japan.

The U.S. also has much to gain from a sound relationship with India. Giving in to its inherent legalistic tendencies may well prevent it from making the most of this potential.

Like the U.S., India is the quintessential multicultural country. It is very different from countries like China and Japan, which are proud of their perceived ethnic and cultural purity and homogeneity.

In fact, diversity is the very definition of India. It has many ethnic groups and over 700 languages. It also features the presence of all the world’s major religions (Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and others) in its population.

And while there have been times of conflict at home, overall India’s diverse peoples live together in relative harmony.

Among the large Western countries, only the United States of America comes close India in terms of diversity.

Natural democracies

India, with its cacophony of diverse voices, is a natural democracy, like the Untitd States. The most important national narrative in India concerns cricket. And yet, nothing could be more pluralistic than debates over Indian cricket.

Moreover, the U.S. and India both have openly warm and communicative cultures — in sharp contrast to the reserve and mystery that surrounds many other Asian countries. This alone should provide an excellent starting point for a constructive and budding relationship.

National politics in the two countries share common features. Both countries are basically federations of states which themselves have great political and economic powers. Thus, while Delhi and Washington, can seem and/or are quite dysfunctional, some states are well governed, even if others are not.

This generates much internal migration within the Indian “common market”, which means that the country is also a real melting pot. It can also generate healthy inter-state competition. Governance is not unhealthily monolithic in either country.

Curiously, in both countries the most effective national institution is probably the military. And regrettably, both countries share the problem of sporting an inadequate public infrastructure, even thought they certainly are at different levels of development.

Two countries with great internal contrasts

Both America and India are countries with great contrasts. The past two decades of globalization have seen immense generation of wealth in both countries. Dynamic global enterprises have driven this growth.

But in contrast to China, where state-owned enterprises still lead the economy, India’s most dynamic ones – such as Reliance, Tata, Hindalco, Bharti Airtel, Mahindra & Mahindra and Infosys — are in the private sector.

However, one disappointing feature of India’s development has been its relatively weak record on poverty reduction, especially compared with China. This is a product of its unequal growth.

For its part, the Untied States, for all its indisputable riches, has seen poverty rise to embarrassingly high levels — something which is not helped by Congress’s recent attack on food stamps. Some 17% of the citizens of the world’s richest country now live in poverty. And the figure rises above 25% for African-Americans and Hispanics.

Everyone continues to be shocked by the enduring class and caste system in India, despite the progress being made in urban areas.

With at least 12 million migrants in the United States remaining undocumented, and with little immediate hope of their regularization, the U.S. has its own lower castes.

As the NGO Human Rights Watch has documented, hundreds of thousands of immigrant farm-worker women and girls in the US now suffer from or face a high risk of sexual violence and sexual harassment in their workplaces because U.S. authorities and employers fail to protect them adequately.

Indians in the United States

The large population of Indian-Americans is much more successful than any other group of the already high-achieving pool of Asian Americans. Both groups are much more successful than average Americans.

The median annual income per head in an Indian-American houeshold is $88,000, about 77% greater than the American national median. And that figure is well above Americans of Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean or Japanese origin.

In other words, Indian-Americans are now realizing the American dream much more than Americans themselves. Satya Nadella, the newly appointed CEO of Microsoft, is just the latest headline example.

Other Indians in America’s C-Suite include Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, Sigma-Aldrich CEO Rakesh Sachdev and Cognizant CEO Francisco D’Souza.

Not hung up on history

When it comes to international relations, India is not seeking to play an historical blame game in the region, as China and South Korea do. Nor is it not trying to be a rival of the United States, as China is, in the Pacific Ocean.

Indeed, India is very interested in cooperating with the U.S. as a hedge against potentially unpredictable and feisty behavior on the part of China.

India also does not act the part of a perplexed, stunningly junior partner like Japan.

True, India is a proud and independent country. But the U.S. government should welcome that. In so many ways, the country is a natural friend for the United States of America, even if it will always stay independent and keep some distance.

For their own good, Americans would be well served to have a deeper understanding of how much they and their society have in common with India.

True, when they engage much openly and more fully, Americans will probably find India a frustrating country to deal with. And so it may be at times. But the reverse is also surely true.

India is in the midst of a long and complex process of modernization. This calls for much greater patience and understanding from America. It should exercise much greater humility, modesty and respect in its dealings with India — even though the two countries’ economic and political power is still far from equal.

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About John West

John West is executive director of the Asian Century Institute [Japan] and author of "Asian Century… on a Knife-Edge: A 360 Degree Analysis of Asia’s Recent Economic Development."

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