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THERE’S A LIMIT TO BEING NICE
- New Delhi can never compete with Islamabad in wooing Washington

Nearly a decade of being “nice” to the Americans as a policy is coming to its logical cul-de-sac in New Delhi’s Raisina Hill. That policy started with stray, isolated gestures during the days of P.V. Nara- simha Rao’s prime ministership, when South Block was told by 7, Race Course Road, the prime ministerial home, that the United States of America was the most important foreign policy priority for India and that the Americans needed to be wooed.

These individual instances of taking that extra step to please the Americans became sacrosanct and was converted to policy once Frank Wisner arrived in New Delhi as the US ambassador. The mandarins of South Block are sticklers for protocol. They were horrified when the then foreign secretary decided to invite Wisner to his official residence at 3, Circular Road for dinner within days of his arrival.

Not even a tentative date had been discussed for Wisner to present his credentials to the rashtrapati. Diplomatic convention dictates that a new ambassador does not meet officials of his host country until after he has presented credentials. Such a convention is not limited to India. It applies to all world capitals except a few like Washington, where the president has no time for ambassadors for months and months after they have arrived.

Or Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein may never receive an ambassador’s credentials at all, as it happened to the previous Indian ambassador to Iraq. In Washington, they get over this problem by asking ambassadors to function as ambassadors right away after the state department goes through the formalities, pending the formal credentials ceremony at the White House.

In Baghdad, on the other hand, several meetings are fixed with the president, the ambassador is driven to different locations, his cars are switched for reasons of security and the ceremony is aborted at the 11th hour and 59th minute as a message comes on the cell phones of protocol officials that Saddam feels it is unsafe for him to present himself at the ceremony. With several such aborted credentials ceremonies behind him, the ambassador finally starts work in sheer desperation after handing over his letter of credence to the Iraqi foreign ministry.

But to get back to Wisner’s experience, the foreign secretary’s dinner invitation to the new US ambassador was viewed by many then as an affront to the president. Rashtrapati Bhavan was then engaged in an exercise of streamlining its dealings with foreign missions and the ministry of external affairs. The foreign secretary’s office first tried to bully the president’s secretariat and get Wisner ahead of the queue of ambassadors waiting for their first formal meeting with the head of state. The invitation for dinner was extended when the president’s secretariat refused to be bullied and told South Block that Wisner would have to await his turn like every other envoy who was new to India. But the cosy dinner chat at 3, Circular Road was a signal from the MEA that Wisner could start functioning as “His Excellency” without waiting for the president to receive him, as protocol required.

In the years that followed, as the print media and television created illusions of a special relationship between India and the US, it became an unwritten rule not only in South Block, but also in North Block — even in Akbar Bhavan where protocol, customs and other issues concerning foreign missions are handled — that officials had to go that extra mile to be extra nice to the Americans.

Even as other diplomatic missions grumbled, the US embassy in New Delhi received special treatment in the issuance of cards which allowed diplomats access to airports right up to the departure gates to the aircraft, to mention one example of little consequence. But the trouble with such an attitude, especially in a foreign office, is that once you bend the rules, there is no limit to the requests you get and the concessions you are able to make.

That was what happened in the run-up to Bill Clinton’s visit to India in March, 2000. The Americans told the Indian embassy in Washington that the US marines who were going into India in connection with the visit would land in New Delhi without visas. The embassy was appalled. But the Americans said that the Marines were used to going into countries without having to carry their passports. In fact, many of them had no passports. But the embassy stood its ground, and in the end, every US Marine who went to India carried a valid passport with a visa for India duly stamped on the document.

More recently, when the secretary of state, Colin Powell, was going to New Delhi, some smart alec in the Indian government proposed that journalists accompanying Powell should be issued gratis visas by the Indian mission in Washington. The proposal may have been carried out but for another official who said it would create a scandal in the Indian media. Because the US embassy and consulates in India charge the usual fees from journalists — even those accompanying Indian prime ministers to the US. Reciprocity, for a change, won the day.

The change in attitude that Raisina Hill is now going through does not mean that officials will henceforth be nasty to the Americans. Not at all. It only means that protocol will strictly apply to the Americans just like anyone else. Several factors have prompted such a change. There is a new minister for external affairs and his minister of state has put in his papers. South Block also has a new foreign secretary. Unlike his well-liked, but comprehensively ineffective predecessor, Kanwal Sibal is determined to exercise his authority, judgment and discretion.

So when Powell packed his bags to leave for New Delhi in July, it was put to the new minister in South Block, Yashwant Sinha, and to the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, that protocol should take precedence over gestures. Sinha was convinced that Powell should only meet him and not the prime minister.

This was not meant as a snub to the visiting secretary of state. Sibal took the view that all visiting foreign ministers should only meet their Indian counterpart and not run around New Delhi chatting with everyone from Sonia Gandhi to Chandra Shekhar. That was no way to do business with foreign governments. Powell would not have met either Vajpayee or the deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, in July if the Indian embassy in Washington had not raised Cain.

The Indian ambassador to the US, Lalit Mansingh, pointed out that the president, George W. Bush, had received Jaswant Singh, Sinha’s predecessor in South Block, in the Oval Office. Bush had spent 25 minutes with Advani while he was meeting the national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice, in her office. The defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had received Jaswant Singh, when he was defence minister, with special honours.

The ambassador’s rationale was grudgingly accepted at 7, Race Course Road, but in the process neither the British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, nor his French counterpart, Domin- ique de Villepin, who were both in India around the same time as Powell, got to meet Vajpayee. Protocol could not be jettisoned again and again.

Sinha and Sibal also believe that niceties are no substitute for policy. Being nice can help, but only upto a point. Besides, south Asia, they reckon, is entering a new period of hard, often uncomfortable, realities in its dealings with the US. Look carefully at what is happening within Pakistan. And the changes that are taking place in US-Pakistan relations.

Most people in India did not even notice a prophetic statement to Pakistan television by Richard Haass, the director of policy planning at the state department, when he was in Islamabad after his visit to India last month: “I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say that out of all of our bilateral relationships, probably the US-Pakistani relationship is the most changed for the better over the last year or two years. This change was already happening before September 11th. When we came into office, we were determined to improve the US-Pakistani relationship — which, by the way, had begun to improve somewhat even under the previous administration, toward the end. It is quite remarkable how far we have come. Pakistan now is, I think, one of the top four recipients of US assistance programs...Our militaries are cooperating much more...So I think there has really been extraordinary progress.”

The question that was asked of Haass did not require such an effusive reply. He could have got away with much less. That he said what he did only shows that he meant every word of it. And that is something which South Block is beginning to grasp as the dust settles on the events since September 11, 2001. Meanwhile, within Pakistan, the only common thread among the various political parties — make no mistake on this score — is their competing claims to get into America’s good books. Soon after the elections in her country, Benazir Bhutto was in Washington trying to convince the assistant secretary of state, Christina Rocca, that her party was the best bet for the Americans.

The very first statement, after the elections, by the alliance of Islamic parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, said: “We are ready to cooperate with the US in the war against terrorism, but the Americans should not expect support from us in the war against Islam or Muslims.” Why, right from the morrow of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the MMA had word from Bush himself that America’s war is against terrorism and not against Islam.

So the Islamic parties in Pakistan would have reason to cooperate with the US if and when the need for such cooperation arose in Washington. In any case, Indians should not forget that Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the MMA’s choice for prime ministership, used to be an honoured guest at the state department in the first half of the last decade when he was chairman of the Pakistan national assembly’s foreign relations committee and an ardent international lobbyist for the taliban.

In the final analysis, the whole of Pakistan and its political establishment — including the Islamic parties — are like ripe fruit for the Americans to pick from. India is different, and therefore, New Delhi can never compete with Islamabad in wooing Washington. Which is why there is a new, hard look at foreign policy now under way in the MEA and in the prime minister’s office.

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