NEW DELHI, INDIA — India is likely to become the most populous country on earth this year, yet outside of the US embassy in New Delhi, there are only four State Department consulates in the country of 1.4 billion people. That’s fewer consulates than the State Department operates in France and fewer offices than the US Embassy in Spain. The Canadian province of Quebec, which has a population of fewer than nine million, deserves two consulates, according to the State Department.
Successive governments have spoken of putting diplomacy first, and nearly all say they need more resources to do so. That argument may be valid, but the amount of money available is irrelevant if the State Department lacks the wisdom to allocate it. Put simply, if US diplomacy is to be effective, it must adapt to 21st-century realities rather than 19th-century realities.
I have previously written about the number of US policy blind spots caused by the State Department’s refusal to establish consulates in key regions such as Somaliland, Nagorno-Karabakh and Syrian Kurdistan. Perhaps none, however, has consequences on the scale of neglecting India.
India is of course the largest democracy in the world, so local politics are important. With more than 1,000 spoken languages, it is also among the most diverse countries in the world. India not only has the world’s largest Hindu population, but also the world’s largest Sikh, Jain, and Zoroastrian populations. India hosts the second largest Shia population after Iran. Buddhism originated in India and is still prevalent in Ladakh. Christians number in the millions and India has more Jews than Poland, the Czech Republic or Portugal. Baltis, who practice an eclectic mix of Shi’ism and Buddhism, flee Pakistan to India to practice their faith freely. In addition to its regional diversity and political complexity, it is also an economic powerhouse. It has the world’s sixth largest economy on course to move up several spots if the government can resist populism and have the discipline to continue privatization and reform.
While American diplomats can read Indian newspapers or follow India’s lively television debates, without a constant presence it is impossible to remain adequately informed of developments in key regions. Note that the State Department is still issuing a travel advisory for Jammu and Kashmir “due to terrorism and civil unrest,” even though the state has not experienced any significant terrorism or civil unrest since India normalized its internal status three years ago. Today it is thriving economically and socially and locals feel safe enough to get out and about at any time of the day or night. The State Department should be ashamed that its assessment of a region home to more than 13 million people is outdated; it delegitimizes all travel warnings and raises doubts about the competence of the entire process. Given the ongoing international disputes regarding Kashmir, as well as Kashmir’s intellectual and social importance in India and its role as a year-round tourist hub, it is diplomatic misconduct not to maintain a consulate in Srinagar.
Or think of Punjab, a Sikh-dominant state that will grow in importance as Pakistan cynically seeks to sponsor a “Khalistan” separatist movement there and in the Sikh diaspora in the United States and Canada. Given the number of Punjabis in the United States who travel between the two countries, the omission of a consulate in the Punjabi capital of Chandigarh or its largest city, Ludhiana, is once again a symbol of American neglect.
The computer and technology industry of the United States relies disproportionately on the labor and intellectual contributions of America’s vast Indian-American community. If Silicon Valley is the center of America’s computer industry, then Bangalore is its counterpart in India. The interaction between the two is significant. And yet, while India maintains a consulate in San Francisco, the United States has no equivalent in Bangalore; the nearest American post is more than 200 miles away in Chennai. It doesn’t have to be an either/or decision, but at the very least the State Department should explain why sustaining an investment in Winnipeg, Canada, is more important than nurturing the relationship between two of the world’s greatest technology hubs.
population matters. The United States does not maintain a consulate dedicated to Uttar Pradesh, home to nearly 200 million people, a population larger than all but the seven largest countries. Diplomacy shouldn’t just be about interacting with high-ranking government officials. The most talented diplomats get a pulse of society across all classes. Uttar Pradesh would be ideal for this, the capital of which is Lucknow, the eleventh largest city in India.
However, it’s not just about size. A state wedged between Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh may have a population of less than seven million, but its geopolitical role reinforces its importance. The winter capital of Dharamshala is also the home of the Dalai Lama, who fled China after the communist conquest of Tibet and its central Tibetan administration. A consulate there would be better suited than any diplomatic post in China to handle Tibetan affairs without crossing the line into openly supporting separatism in China.
Realistically, it would be presumptuous to assume that India would welcome so many consulates in quick succession. While New Delhi generally shares Washington’s bipartisan commitment to developing ties, there is still significant local distrust in India of the United States and its diplomats, a legacy of the Cold War and distrust of the non-aligned movement. Certainly India would demand and receive a mutual expansion of their jobs, perhaps in cities like Dallas, where many Indians live, or Seattle and Huntsville, both of which could promote technological cooperation. Still, it is high time that the United States recognized India’s global importance not only today but also in the century to come. Both President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have stated that diplomacy is back. That may be a noble goal, but if such diplomacy is to be truly effective, it is time to reorganize it for the 21st century.
Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.