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‘Two sets of entirely different perceptions’

DISCUSSIONS | May 31, 2006

Arun Chacko, New Delhi

1978 Nieman fellow; Director, Press Institute of India

Indians who think about the United States have two sets of entirely different perceptions for it. The first relates to bilateral relations between the two countries that have rarely been better. Here the Indian perception of the U.S. is by and large positive.

The second perception relates to America’s role in world affairs, excluding the Indian subcontinent, since the arrival of the first Bush Administration and thereafter. Here the perception is just the opposite.

First the good news: for a variety of reasons the view of India as a potential ally in American corridors of political and financial power has obviously changed for the better. These are India’s growing economic clout, its enormous market, democracy, relative political stability, potential as a counterweight to China and ally against Islamic fundamentalism among others. They also no longer equate it with Pakistan – a country one-tenth its size - in geopolitical games.

For India, which shares many of the values and institutions of American democracy, and where so many of its people have been educated, made a home and prospered, this is a belated though welcome recognition, even though at personal levels the relations between Americans and Indians have always been very good. It wants these official bonds to grow and strengthen.

Today another powerful vested interest for furthering Indo-American relations is a resurgent, increasingly confident, corporate India. It wants economic relations to thrive, seeing increasing benefit for itself in penetrating the U.S. market, creating more links with and integrating its businesses more fully into the U.S. economy, much like the Europeans and Japanese have done.

Now the bad news: in recent years Indians also see the United States as an irresponsible and dangerous superpower in a unipolar world. To take the charitable view, it has little understanding of the long-term implications of its actions, and little concern for the rest of the world.

While unequivocally condemning 9/11, few were particularly surprised that the U.S. was seriously hit by the same terrorism it fostered and encouraged around the world for decades. After all both Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are former U.S. allies, not to mention the Islamic fundamentalists in both Pakistan and Afghanistan – long recipients of U.S. arms and aid before the tide turned.

The U.S. role around the world has always been a cause of concern, but in recent years what it has done in Iraq, after trotting out the most questionable evidence as reason for doing so, what it has done to the Palestinians, and what it threatens to do to the Iranians on the nuclear issue, is neither just nor likely to make it any more secure. The same is true about global warming, and these are only some examples.

The Nieman Foundation should be particularly concerned about what the world thinks about the U.S. media. Today, they have an extremely low credibility, and some international credibility rating agencies put them well below many third world countries, including India. Most refuse to take them seriously, if they bother to read or view them at all. For them the U.S. media with extremely rare exceptions have invariably been an embedded watchdog, which doesn’t make for credible journalism. Only, today they are much more blatant than before. 

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