Following President Barack Obama’s much celebrated visit to New Delhi in February 2015, there is renewed enthusiasm in both India and the United States to expand what National Security Adviser Susan Rice has described as “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.” Monitor 360 held on 11 March an off-the-record discussion among U.S. government officials and non-governmental experts to consider the wide-ranging opportunities for the U.S. government to fulfill the vision articulated in New Delhi by President Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi for more meaningful cooperation on bilateral, regional, and global issues. The conversation focused on the narratives held by Indian elites about the United States and India’s role in the world. Some of these narratives may drive the two countries closer together, but others will need to be navigated carefully to prevent popular and bureaucratic pressures from restraining this vital partnership.
Social Media Reactions to the Summit
Policy elites in India and the United States generally regarded the visit as a resounding success. They also expressed optimism over the potential for the two governments to make progress in advancing the U.S.-India partnership across a wide range of issues such as trade, climate change, and defense cooperation. An analysis of over 500,000 tweets, sourced during and in the three days following the President’s visit to New Delhi, echoed this ebullient optimism.
By analyzing these Tweets through social sentiment analysis tools, a series of patterns emerged and were translated into “reaction vectors” or aggregated social sentiments. Within these vectors, 31 percent of Tweeters commented favorably about the close personal relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Modi. Another 29 percent expressed excitement that the partnership showed meaningful signs of progress. A further 10 percent remarked favorably about heightened collaboration between the two countries against common threats. However, policy elites and Tweeters alike also observed the disruptive potential of unresolved tensions in the U.S.-India partnership, ranging from Afghanistan and Pakistan to commercial trade.
With this in mind, the group considered the wide-ranging landscape of Indian elite narratives and identified opportunities that could fulfill the Summit’s vision for more meaningful cooperation on bilateral, regional, and global issues. Understanding these beliefs is key to overcoming many of the strategic challenges still present in the relationship. To that end, Monitor 360 deployed its proprietary Narrative AnalyticsTM method to surface, articulate, and quantify the range of narratives, or stories, held by Indian elites. Narratives are stories that reflect deeply held beliefs about a community’s identity and experiences and explains its hopes, aspirations, and concerns. Narrative AnalyticsTM is a systematic approach that uncovers these narratives and evaluates and interprets them. Monitor 360 looks at narratives in many contexts and topics areas—ranging from cyber cooperation to education reform—to better understand and ultimately shape beliefs.
Moderated by Monitor 360 Partner Peter Lavoy, the discussion allowed participants to explore new ideas for amplifying narratives that align with U.S. interests and reframing negative narratives that detract from or complicate the U.S.-India partnership. The conversation focused on four broad themes: how to address opportunities and challenges presented by India’s place on the world stage; how to overcome conflict and mistrust about U.S. relationship with Pakistan; how to amplify narratives about neglect in India’s armed forces; and how to understand narratives at a more granular, state-level as power and decision-making authority in India becomes more diffused.
India’s Continuing Aversion to Entangling Partnerships
Monitor 360 identified “Multipolar Maneuvering” as a popular narrative that highlights the deeply held belief by Indian elites that India should not align itself with any country, including the United States. According to this belief, India must pursue its own interests and navigate great power relations to its own advantage without allowing itself to be dragged into global problems or entangling commitments.
Although President Obama’s visit demonstrated that government-to-government relations are improving, many Indians still regard America with distrust and apprehension, a sentiment particularly pervasive in the English language media. Underlying India’s skepticism of enduring partnerships, participants observed that the trust deficit between the United States and India could continue to hinder cooperation between the two nations. Many Indian elites believe that while the United States has been and can be a force for good in the world, its international policies and actions have created complications for India. Recognizing this perspective, participants highlighted the importance of identifying practical areas of bilateral cooperation to diminish the trust deficit and to institutionalize patterns of partnership.
Participants also observed that if Indian officials return to a tested practice of balancing their military and political engagements with the United States through commensurate adjustments in their relations with China and/or Russia, there would be fewer opportunities for Washington and New Delhi to partner in earnest on global and regional challenges. Some participants went so far as to caution about India’s “fear of the foreign hand” and suggested that even if Prime Minister Modi seeks a strategic partnership with the United States, bureaucratic and popular pressures could torpedo meaningful change.
Some in the group suggested that the United States should craft new ways to engage Indian counterparts to assuage concerns that America’s interest in India is self-centered and disregards India’s own aspirations. To that end, the discussion pivoted from India’s distrust of major powers to its goal of becoming a key player in international affairs. This idea was best captured in the “India Rising” narrative that portrays India’s strategic policy shifts in light of its ever-growing global stature. The group coalesced around the idea that this friction point presented an opportunity for Washington to engage the Indians in areas even outside traditional government-to-government relations.
Additionally, In order to overcome the glaring trust deficit, participants advised the U.S. government to exercise caution in its statements and actions as India watches carefully for any signs that could validate their mistrust. Some in the group suggested that one other opportunity to erode distrust would be to carefully highlight and increase areas of alignment on the basis of Indian elite concerns about a rising China and a treacherous Pakistan. Further punctuating the complex relationship was the idea that increasing the pace of engagement with India could positively impact the Indian media landscape.
The Curious Absence of the Indian Armed Forces in Security Narratives
A striking feature of Indian media narratives is an apparent dichotomy between “Neglected Borderlands,” which rated highest among all issues for Indian elites, and “Neglected Forces,” located at exactly the opposite end of the spectrum. Many observers expected to see a close correlation in popular attitudes about regional insecurity, on the one hand, and the Indian armed forces, on the other hand. But in the English language media, security narratives contain scant reference to the well being of the Indian military.
In Washington’s perspective, deeper bilateral military cooperation is seen as vital to addressing issues such as terrorism, maritime security in the Indian Ocean region, and transnational crime. The analysis of Indian media narratives, however, suggests that real progress in improving defense ties will occur only if the Indian elite associate military cooperation with the United States with real progress in improving India’s regional security environment. Otherwise, the Indian government may remain hesitant to embrace a deeper military partnership.
Pakistan’s Problematic Place in Indo-American Relations
Although President Obama’s visit highlighted the multi-faceted progression of relations between the United States and India, Pakistan still looms large as a friction point. Indian sensitivities about its turbulent western neighbor, along with with Washington’s continued cooperation with Islamabad in the struggle against terrorism, consistently have soured relations between New Delhi and Washington. Similarly, Afghanistan, because of the strong connection to Pakistan, also has been a sore point between Washington and New Delhi.
Although there is no easy solution to this problem, it was suggested that the United States might be able to create new avenues of collaboration with India by prioritizing transparency on matters regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan. Openness, the group argued, is a necessary condition for improving U.S.-India relations, but it was also seen as insufficient because Indian elite beliefs about Pakistan’s perfidy are etched very deeply in the Indian media landscape. Thus it was suggested that the United States should seek to make tangible actions to ease Indian concerns over Washington’s relationship with Islamabad and developments in Afghanistan. In particular, addressing sensitive issues such as the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks directly with the Pakistani’s likely would be interpreted positively by the Indians.
The discussion highlighted that U.S. policymakers often exhibit a tendency to avoid conflict by not discussing their bilateral relations with a third country. Yet this approach can come at a high cost. Notably in India, this unwillingness to engage has perpetuated the generalized sentiment of distrust and anger. Pakistan and Afghanistan probably stand as the greatest obstacles to the American desire to deepen its relations with India. Understanding the salience of Pakistan and Afghanistan in Indian elite narratives is a vital first step in surmounting this obstacle. The group agreed that further cooperation would be difficult without a coherent strategy on this issue.
The Diffusion of Power to Indian States
Participants observed a trend in India for political power to shift from the central government in New Delhi to the states. One example of this decentralization of power was apparent during President Obama’s visit when critical agreements were signed by state-level Chief Ministers who sought to forge direct relations with the United States. Thus a recurring question in our discussion was how U.S. officials and observers could understand and respond to the narratives held by state-level officials who are exerting increasing influence over Delhi’s policies and outcomes.
It was also pointed out that just as American government and business leaders have seen an uptick in visits from Indian Chief Ministers, and while U.S. business leaders have a robust relationship with their counterparts, it might be wise for U.S. government officials to follow suit and capitalize on the current upswing of trade and economic cooperation with the Indian states. Doing so could leverage an existing, underutilized avenue for resetting the relationship.
Navigating India’s Narrative Landscape
The U.S.-India relationship is indeed likely to be a defining partnership of the 21st century. President Obama’s visit highlighted many exciting avenues for cooperation, yet numerous challenges will have to be overcome if the Summit’s ambitious vision is to be realized. Through an in-depth analysis of India’s English-language media narratives, four discreet narrative-driven policy vectors were delineated and analyzed for possible engagement opportunities.
The group concluded that for the United States to capitalize on the Summit and catapult the relationship forward, Washington ought to build an engagement strategy with India that centers firmly on convergent interests such as trade, maritime security, climate issues, and India’s “Act East” policy. Certain issues that India perceives as contentious, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, will continue to cause friction in the Indo-American relationship, but the group concurred that this challenge could be countered by greater U.S. transparency regarding its engagements with Islamabad and Kabul.
The group proposed that U.S. officials would be wise to focus on narratives that lend themselves to identifying convergence and how that convergence could be strategically exploited for the benefit of improved strategic relations with India. Ultimately, the continued success of this relationship rests on the ability of policymakers to understand these nuanced concepts and craft targeted and impactful strategies that successfully navigate India’s narrative landscape.