Manipal, India — Unlike in the West, where couples meet, mate and then decide on marriage, in India it is parents, family and friends that substitute for Cupid. Not accidentally, few such pairings are driven by romantic considerations. Instead, an assessment is made of how the two families can benefit from the match, rather than simply the individuals on whose behalf a decision on pairing is being taken.
Unsurprisingly, the choice of Mom, Dad, Uncle and Family Friend is seldom that which either the groom or the bride would have selected, had they the right to do so. Interestingly, most such marriages work, usually much better than in societies where personal choice is given precedence over family needs.
Over the past five years the United States and Indian militaries have been discovering each other, much like a couple brought together under family pressure. Fresh from their interaction with counterparts in Pakistan -- whose military goes ape at the prospect of a U.S.-India alliance -- and loaded with tales originating from the time of the Indian-phobic Winston Churchill about the " unreliable" Indians, those within the U.S. military that began dealing with the Indian army, navy and air force came prepared to dislike their new contacts.
If the Americans were distant, the Indians were paranoid, and several promising careers within the three services were blighted on the charge of "fraternization" with a U.S. officer, usually female. Not merely more private actions, but even an exchange of "inappropriate" emails was cause for retribution. Only very recently has the Indian establishment come to accept that a consensual relationship between two adults, each of whom may wear the uniform of what is today an allied country, need not be treated as a security disaster.
These days, the now regular and increasing interaction between selected units of the two militaries is characterized by a bonhomie that resembles the settling down of a pair who has had to go through an "arranged" match but discovered, once together, that neither partner has horns, and is in fact great to be with.
Despite the efforts of the communist parties to generate public sentiment against the recent visit of a nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier to an Indian port, only a few dozen of the faithful gathered to protest. Finally, from declaiming against this sign of an "immoral military alliance" between India and the United States, critics of the visit were forced to play on fears of radiation to get support, a ploy that failed. Small wonder, as the United States enjoys as positive an image in India as it does in Israel, a country with which Washington's links are numerous and long-standing.
It is taken as a given by the Indian public that the United States and India are on the way to becoming military allies, despite five decades of mistrust caused by their respective alliances with China and Pakistan in the case of the United States, and the Soviet Union in India's case. By now, China has long ceased to be the "strategic ally" praised by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1998, and is perceived as a threat to U.S. positions in Asia, and now in Africa and South America as well. As for Pakistan, the steady implosion of that country has made even architects of Pakistan policy such as the CIA and the State Department aware of the need to look elsewhere for a reliable partner in the region.
Well before President George W. Bush steps down from office in 2009, three developments are likely to have taken place that will have a transformational effect on India-U.S. ties. This does not include the nuclear deal -- a poorly thought out construct that is dear only to the two bureaucracies -- but the signing of an agreement that would allow the U.S. and Indian militaries to use each other's facilities for maintenance and replenishing, the purchase of 126 U.S.-made fighters for the Indian Air Force and the setting up of campuses of U.S. universities in India.
The first is scheduled to be signed by the end of this year, and the multiplication of contacts this will result in would enable the two militaries to understand each other's reflexes and chemistry, prerequisites for a successful battlefield alliance. While the United States has devastating air- and sea-based capabilities, the army -- as well as the much-hyped Marine Corps -- suffers from severe limitations in its ability to hold on to territory without alienating local populations.
The U.S. army is about as welcome as a swarm of locusts, once it has settled in an alien environment, as first Vietnam and now Iraq have demonstrated. The close combat that warfare in significantly populated areas entails predicates a strategy that is willing to accept manpower losses in order to prevent loss of civilian lives and infrastructure. In contrast, force protection is at the core of U.S. army tactics, a fact that results in tactics being adopted that severely damage infrastructure, inflict collateral damage routinely, and create hatred within the affected population.
In contrast, the Indian army has, over decades of conflict in Kashmir and the country's northeast, perfected ways of fighting that accept higher troop losses rather than adopt the tactics of the U.S. army in Iraq. As a result, as Somalia and other theatres have demonstrated, Indian troops have been much more successful in holding populated areas in manner that does not provoke resistance. A link-up between the U.S. Air Force and Navy with the Indian Army would be a world beater with the capacity to not simply subdue but pacify, and the soon-to-be-signed pact on mutual access to facilities will bring such a partnership closer.
As for the purchase of fighter aircraft, it is a no brainer that U.S.-made aircraft would result in much better interoperability than the Russian or French models now favored. However, for this to happen, the United States will need to be willing to sell aircraft types more advanced than the obsolescent F-16, and ensure that the disruptions in supply of spares that is such a ubiquitous feature of U.S. purchases is avoided by legislative and executive commitments. Should Washington be able to satisfy New Delhi on these two counts, the United States could very soon displace Russia as the biggest supplier of defense equipment to India.
Important though such steps are, the biggest long-term impact will be when U.S. universities surmount the resistance of the Indian bureaucracy and the communist allies of the Manmohan Singh government to set up campuses in India that can give U.S. education and degrees to not simply the 40,000 Indian students who for various reasons could not complete the lengthy visa procedures for study in the United States, but the much larger number of those coming from families with the ability to pay U.S.-level fees but unwilling to send their charges abroad for an education.
In addition, students would come from the Middle East and from Southeast Asia, for the same reasons, to study in the Indian campuses of known U.S. universities. While these would make money, India would both save foreign exchange as well as subject its dysfunctional higher education system to a competition that could transform it in the way globalization has Indian businesses.
While the Indian system of education has been effective in churning out literally millions of trained doctors, engineers and other professionals each year, it has totally failed to nurture the "peaks" of excellence -- exceptional students -- that the more flexible U.S. system is best at.
Should Manmohan Singh and George W. Bush pay more attention to such an educational partnership between the United States and India, they would promote India-U.S. ties in a way that the flawed nuclear deal that both are desperately seeking to clinch will not. Although the emerging alliance between India and the United States is less the result of heady romance than a practical arrangement, it appears likely to thrive in the same way that most Indian "arranged" marriages have.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat)