President Obama’s decision to visit India last weekend instead of joining other heads of state at the 70th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation heralded the importance the United States attaches to building a strategic partnership with India.
Prime Minister Modi and President Obama displayed remarkable political leadership in establishing a whole new footing for their countries’ strategic partnership. But to truly become “best partners” on the international stage, the United States will need to understand and navigate the dominant narratives of the Indian population, which have impeded past efforts to build a meaningful partnership. These narratives are the stories that reflect a community’s identity and experiences, or articulate its deeply-held hopes, aspirations, and concerns. Appreciating the nuances of Indian narratives will enable the United States to more effectively identify areas of cooperation, draft resonant messaging for Indian audiences, and craft policies that align with Indian priorities.
Understanding the Narratives of Indian Elites
To begin understanding Indian views of the challenges that India faces and the strategies available to address them, Monitor 360 leveraged its proprietary Narrative AnalyticsTM tool to analyze elite narratives in 364 English-language Indian media sources. These narratives reflect data that was synthesized from traditional media sources, blog posts, and forums between May 2014 and mid-January 2015. The Indian media landscape featured a diverse, sometimes conflicting, set of eight core narratives driving the conversation among Indian elites. The five narratives that dominate Indian media are described below as they might be articulated by those who hold them:
Less dominant narratives in the media landscape focused more specifically on Indian relations with the United States. One such narrative asserted that India should not align with any country, and particularly not with the United States, if it wishes to pursue its own interests and effectively navigate great power relations to its advantage. An opposing narrative highlighted renewed Indian optimism for a more productive partnership with the United States, particularly in light of the tremendous opportunity to reset U.S.-India relations presented by Modi’s election. However, the narrative noted that the onus is on the United States to prove its reliability as a long-term partner. Identifying a reliable partner was also the focus of the final Indian narrative, which embodied Indian frustration with its outdated military equipment and its need for a defense trade partner to provide a technological edge.
Navigating the Narratives of Indian Elites
Understanding these narratives alone will not unlock the U.S.-India relationship. To build a meaningful strategic partnership, the United States will have to incorporate insights derived from analysis of Indian narratives into its own strategic approach. Three observations for managing U.S.-India relations follow from this analysis.
It’s Not about the United States
Indian elite conversations focus mainly on how India can address regional security challenges and enhance its global influence, rather than fixate on how to manage relations with the United States. In fact, discussion of the United States and the U.S.-India relationship itself is limited. (See the figure for analysis of the most frequently referenced countries in Indian media.) Instead, elites are more concerned with how New Delhi can leverage its relationship with Washington to achieve other goals at home and abroad. And to the extent elites are interested in engaging the United States in these efforts, many expressed mistrust of U.S. motivations and political compulsions that make them wary of working too closely.
Regional Solutions to Regional Problems
Discussion of regional security threats dominates the Indian media landscape. Indian elites believe that past governments have mismanaged relations with neighboring states. Moving forward, they want to see India’s “good neighbor” rhetoric turned into effective action. To the extent that Indians believe outsiders can help New Delhi achieve its regional security objectives, they prefer to work with Asian states rather than the United States because of their view that Americans tendency to meddle, lecture, and fixate on issues mainly through the lens of their effects on U.S. interests.
Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Washington last September raised expectations of rapid improvement in bilateral relations, but many Indian elites believe the United States remains an unreliable partner because of its differing interests, priorities, and modes of behavior. While some Indian defense experts believe the United States is best suited to help India modernize its defense industry and bring its military capabilities up to competitive standards, these views have little resonance in the media conversation.
Analysis of the Indian media landscape reveals clear, actionable insights on how the United States can better support and interact with India in the near-term. However, narrative landscapes are dynamic. Just as popular views shift following key events, so too does the prominence of key narratives in the media landscape. By consistently refreshing this analysis of Indian elite narratives, Monitor 360 can identify patterns and emerging trends to help analysts, communicators, and policymakers build an enduring US-India strategic partnership.