WHEN it comes to engaging with India, United States is an open door. “You (India) can push on that door and the answer will be yes, most probably. But what does India want? And in order for India to decide what it wants, it needs to have a strategic conception of its place in the world, its place in Asia, and it doesn’t right now,” said Fareed Zakaria, international affairs columnist, CNN news host and author, in response to a question on whether India has come to enjoy bipartisan support in the US as a strategic political ally.
“Prime Minister Modi says his policy is multinational — I can’t remember the exact phrase he used — but, you know, I am going to be nice to everybody. But that is the opposite of having a foreign policy. Foreign policy is making choices. You have to make strategic choices and orient yourself in a direction and some people will be happy and some people will be unhappy. I think if India were to decide that it wants a strategic partnership with the United States centred around co-operation and shared information and know-how on technology, energy, education and defence, that will be a transforming relationship for India and the United States,” he added.
Zakaria was speaking at the Express e-Adda, in conversation with Anant Goenka, Executive Director, The Indian Express Group, and Vandita Mishra, National Opinion Editor, The Indian Express. A detailed transcript will be published next week.
Making sense of an unstable world and foreshadowing change have been Zakaria’s forte, and, in an engrossing session, the author, most recently of Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World,covered a broad sweep of subjects: from the chaos on Capitol Hill to the hardening divides in his native Maharashtra; the “clean” and “dirty” versions of right-wing politics and how trying to play both sides is getting difficult for politicians.
“The lesson of the deterioration of democracy in America is this…that institutions are human, they are fragile by definition, that at the end of the day, an institution is only so strong as the people who are willing to defend it, people who are willing to uphold it, and they can shift very easily,” he said, speaking on the rise of majoritarianism in the US and its fallout, in particular after the violence in Washington on January 6 by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump.
And yet, Zakaria underlined, the good news was that democracy triumphed in the US, all the legal challenges to the election were rebuffed and the attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government failed.
Zakaria grew up in Mumbai before moving to the United States in his teens. While he continues to visit the city, Zakaria said his travels also take him deep into the heartland of Maharashtra, where his father, Rafiq Zakaria, a politician, had set up many charities.
The India that he now finds in these places, he said, is a lot less syncretic. “It’s much more communal. The level of tension, antagonism, suspicion, the lack of co-mingling is so much greater. When I was growing up, we celebrated Holi, we celebrated Diwali. At our Eid parties, half the people there would be Hindus. We even celebrated Christmas.
This was all done in a very conscious effort to build a kind of national secular democratic character of the country,” he said.
Speaking on the rise of China and the possibility of it dominating the world order, Zakaria said, “I continue to be something of an optimist. If democracies can get their house in order, if we make some wise choices over the next 10 or 15 years we will live in a messy, chaotic but open and somewhat liberal world and that China will not dominate…If you look at China externally, what is striking to me is Xi Jinping’s foreign policy has basically been a failure. I mean what is the goal of your foreign policy — to win friends, to influence people…set standards around the world…I am looking around China and thinking to myself what neighbouring country has it not alienated in the last five years?”
The Express Adda, held online since the pandemic broke last year, is a series of interactions organised by The Indian Express Group and features those at the centre of change. Past guests include Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman; the Dalai Lama, economists and Nobel laureates Amartya Sen, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo; director of All India Institute of Medical Sciences Dr Randeep Guleria; chief economic advisor Krishnamurthy Subramanian; actors Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Pankaj Tripathi and others.