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Otto Von Bharat

Assuming the friendship of “the world’s largest democracy” is a dangerous misconstrual.


Onomastic controversy rarely makes headlines. This week saw an exception. India, the host nation for the weekend’s Group of 20 summit, sent out invitations to dine with Indian head of state Droupadi Murmu under the unfamiliar title “President of Bharat”—the Hindi moniker for the subcontinental republic. (A number of outlets have claimed that it is the Sanskrit name for India, which is almost but not quite right—it would be भारतदेश, Bhaaratadesha.)

The tone of coverage has mostly been curious, dominated by the question of whether India will change its English name, as Turkey attempted to do last year. (At The American Conservative, it will always be Turkey—and, for that matter, India and Burma.) There have been the usual ambivalent references to Narendra Modi’s nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the current party of government.


Ambivalent because Americans rather badly want India to be a friend. There is a certain rose-tinted view of India that obtains in the U.S., in part a credit to the canny P.R. operation run by the founding generation of the modern Republic. (Few remember Gandhi’s desire to sit out Americans’ favorite mythologized crusade, the Second World War, and his equivalence of Hitler’s Germany and Churchill’s Britain. The corrupt oligarchy of the Republic’s first decades and Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship? Forget it.) “The world’s largest democracy” will stand at America’s side, countering China much as it countered “terrorism” in the recent past. 

This naive attitude fundamentally misunderstands India. Any expectation for India to play a supporting role to U.S. foreign policy on ideological grounds is dangerously misguided.

Before the British departure, India had never existed as any kind of nation-state; rather, it had always been imperial. Whatever unity it had came through individual polities’ allegiance to a sovereign crown without reference to each other. The end of this model of sovereignty in preference for a national parliamentary republic—which, despite its federal nature, still posits a single national polity—was a constitutional sea-change. (A sea-change that underlined the embarrassing fiction of the “Commonwealth,” which as an entity has slightly less oomph than the Schengen zone.) The closest comparison in Western history is the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire and the emergence of the modern nation-states of Europe in its former territories. India is having its Bismarckian phase.

Unsurprisingly, India’s dominant concerns are those of a still new nation: strengthening its state, fighting off challenges to state power, and controlling territory. These are internal affairs; external adventures, expansive or “liberal,” are the luxury of mature nations.

Indian state capacity remains on largely pre-modern footing. There are about 2.6 million law enforcement personnel in India total; civil police account for a bit under 2.1 million. This gives India one of the lowest police-to-citizen ratios in the world. It is thus little surprise that corruption, which was already so entrenched as to be proverbial in the native police forces of Kipling’s day, remains a feature of daily life. (When I lived in India in 2016, the backstop solution for dealing with bureaucratic problems was bribing the local chief of police.) The Modi government has made the usual gestures at reforming state officialdom, but, more strikingly, it has ferociously attacked the non-state centers of power that use and enable official corruption—the holders of so-called “black money,” which was the object of 2016’s massive and chaotic currency reform. 


India is still engaged in the most basic level of state consolidation, securing its territory. East-central India continues to be home to a decades-old insurgency carried on by the Naxalites, a confederation of far-left splinters from the Communist Party of India. In 2019, the Indian parliament amended the constitution to bring an end to regional autonomy in Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir, a province claimed by the neighboring Pakistan. The pacification of Kashmir has been accompanied by lockdowns, curfews, and a media blackout—and, because of that final bit, who knows what else—although you would hardly know from the Western press. (An amusing exercise when reading the news: Replace every instance of “Xinjiang” with “Kashmir” and think about India and China’s relative standing with the American public.) 

The on-and-off war with Pakistan, and the sectarian overtones of the conflict, provides a convenient focal point for national ideology. Simply put, the Indian armed forces are hugely popular, and most popular of all when they’re sticking it to their Pakistani counterparts. When I lived in India, billboards advertising milk would celebrate the army’s latest raids against the northern neighbors—a level of jingoism unimaginable in modern America, even during the most perfervid days of the War on Terror. 

This is of a piece with the ongoing persecution of Christians and Muslims within India, and the jockeying between various ethnic and caste groups for government protection—and, for that matter, this week’s experiment with “Bharat.” India is becoming a nation with a particular national identity, at the cost of subsidiary or alternate identifications—including Anglophilia or friendliness to the West. (My colleague Sumantra Maitra has written superbly and at length about these topics.) Bismarck’s specter smiles and nods. 

The simple matter of it is this. India is constrained by internal economic and political dynamics from becoming the Asian sidekick to an American world policeman, even were its ruling class inclined to embark on our crusades. This has borne out at practically every juncture in Indo-American relations, from the Nehru government’s friendly relations with the Soviet Union to Indira Gandhi’s war on foreign capital to the Modi government’s blithe disregard for sanctions on Russia. 

Friendship is an equivocal and impermanent concept in international relations. India is a more equivocal friend than perhaps Americans are used to; unlike most European countries, which must bow and scrape to retain their hiding-places under America’s nuclear skirt, India has an independent nuclear deterrent. It may cooperate when convenient—e.g., using the Global War on Terror as a nice bit of cover for increasing state capacity and doing down Pakistan—but is hardly a reliable ally for a difficult task of uncertain reward. As always, the best dictum in the Indo-Pacific, as in every other theater, is America First, and, perhaps, America Alone.