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AMBIVALENCE IS THE BEST POLICY
- There is respect in the Bush administration for the Indian position on Iraq

The most popular television newsmagazine in the United States of America, 60 Minutes on CBS, telecast a programme last weekend on the Indian Institutes of Technology, which got India more mileage in American drawing rooms than all the promotion in recent years as the world’s biggest democracy or as a major emerging market on the globe. Americans gasped as N.R. Narayana Murthy, chairman of Infosys, said on the programme that “my son...wanted to do computer science at IIT. To do computer science at IIT, you have to be in the top 200 and he couldn’t do that, so he went to Cornell instead”.

Lesley Stahl of CBS, who travelled to India to do the programme, responded: “Think about that for a minute. A kid from India using an Ivy League university as a safety school. That’s how smart these guys are.” Thomas Friedman, one of the more respected voices in the US media, wrote in The New York Times last month that France should be voted off the United Nations security council and replaced by India. “Why replace France with India' Because India is the world’s biggest democracy, the world’s largest Hindu nation and the world’s second-largest Muslim nation, and, quite frankly, India is just so much more serious than France these days,” Friedman wrote. “France is so caught up with its need to differentiate itself from America to feel important, it has become silly. India has grown out of that game.”

Charles Krauthammer enjoys much less prestige as a columnist compared to Friedman. Despite his Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary in 1987, a decade and half of writing since then does not appear to have done much to improve his insights. Yet, he has a powerful platform in the US: the editorial page of The Washington Post. There he wrote last week, assailing France’s opposition in the UN to US war plans in Iraq: “We need to demonstrate that there is a price to be paid for undermining the US on a matter of supreme national interest. First, as soon as the dust settles in Iraq, we should push for an expansion of the security council — with India and Japan as new permanent members — to dilute France’s disproportionate and anachronistic influence.”

Lest anyone in India should be carried away by all the praise from these two columnists — and several others in the American media lately — it should be understood that none of this is going to happen. If anything, as a consequence of the clash between the US and the major European powers in the UN over Iraq, reform of the security council — to include India, among others, as a member — is as good as dead in the foreseeable future. But that is beside the point. What is important about the way South Block has handled the Iraq crisis so far is that its leadership is at long last beginning to learn from the Chinese. Beijing has long conducted its foreign policy on the premise that national interest is above principles or ideology.

Whether Yashwant Sinha’s commendable decision to take a leaf out of China’s diplomatic book has anything to do with the influences on him in South Block is a matter of conjecture. Sinha’s son-in-law, Ashok Kantha, now India’s consul general in Hong Kong, is a China expert. The director of Sinha’s office in South Block, R. Venu, has already had multiple postings in Beijing, speaks fluent Mandarin and knows aspects of China, which are often grey areas for many Indian Sinologists, like the back of his hand. There are other Chinese influences on Sinha, but that is not the subject of this column.

Friedman hit the nail on its head when he wrote that “India may be ambivalent about war in Iraq, but it comes to its ambivalence honestly.” Until the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government came to power, India’s foreign policy establishment had seldom seen virtue in ambivalence. South Block often rushed in where angels feared to tread.

Actually, India has made its opposition — sorry, concern — about the coming war in Iraq unambiguously known to Washington through multiple channels. The key word here is “concern”. Opposition is based on ideology, but concern is based on reality. When Robert Blackwill, the US ambassador to India — whose influence in the Bush administration goes beyond that of a plenipotentiary — was in Washington recently, he spent considerable time discussing these Indian concerns with the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.

India’s concerns include more than four million of its citizens in the danger zone of war, an inevitable rise in oil prices and the impact on foreign exchange reserves if Indians in the Gulf are displaced and their homeward remittances are disrupted. In Washington, these concerns are seen as real. No one says India is posturing, unlike in 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

The Indian leadership has spoken out in public as well about Iraq. It has expressed its hope for a peaceful solution to the problem of Iraq’s proscribed weaponry. The prime minister himself has made clear his loathing for war. But all that has been done at the level of ideas. None of the pronouncements has been rabid or offensive to anyone the way Indian utterances have been for decades. Consequently, there is respect in the Bush administration for the Indian position on Iraq, born out of the realization that it is the result of how India sees itself as a country which will be affected by the coming war. And that respect within the administration is increasingly reflected in the US media as well.

Last month, at least on two occasions, in two different locations, top functionaries of the Bush administration shared with Indian officials some of their plans for Iraq strictly in the context of New Delhi’s concerns. For a country which is not a US ally in the traditional military sense, India knows more about Washington’s plans than most countries outside what George W. Bush calls the “coalition of the willing”. That knowledge, in turn, has injected greater realism into New Delhi’s thinking. It has made the prime minister’s office realize that there is very little that India can do now to influence the course of events in the Gulf one way or another.

All the same, both the Indian and the US governments have taken out the insurance necessary to protect their respective stands in the eventuality that those positions may be overrun by circumstances that were not foreseen. A statement by the defence minister, George Fernandes, foreswearing any help for the Americans for their war, which drew attention in Washington, is seen as part of that insurance: just in case the Americans asked for help.

The Bush administration’s decision to pile fresh sanctions over the existing ones against an Indian company, NEC Engineers Pvt Ltd., for aiding Iraq’s weapons programme was a similar insurance policy taken out by the Americans: a warning that the US has recourse to coercion, if need be, against friends who prove to be too troublesome.

So far so good. But there are pitfalls. A section of opinion-makers, intellectuals and strategy analysts in India, who have found virtue in New Delhi’s realistic stand on Iraq, are being way off the mark on the aims or the outcome of the war. It is difficult to fault them because many of these are the very people who supported Saddam Hussein nearly 13 years ago when he invaded Kuwait. Their support for Saddam, they claimed in 1990, was because Iraq is secular. Kuwait, some of these intellectuals went so far as to say, had it coming. In order for them to support regime change in Iraq now, a rationale has to be spun out of thin air.

It is, therefore, being suggested that the long-term result of a US victory in Iraq will be the reform of Pakistan. According to this scenario being painted for Indians, the US drive against militant Islam will begin in earnest, once the Ba’athist symbols are taken down from palaces in Baghdad by the GIs. Some Indians have even ventured to suggest that once the US deposes Saddam, the next logical step would be for them to take control Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

If all that was indeed true, Charlotte Beers would not have resigned on Monday. Beers — once head of the advertising giants, J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy and Mather — was handpicked by Bush after September 11, and appointed under-secretary of state for public diplomacy to refurbish America’s image among Muslims all over the world. Her resignation underscores the daunting task that Washington faces in dealing with the Muslim world and its failure so far to deal with that challenge. No one — not even Saddam Hussein this time round — is in any doubt that America’s military might will overwhelm Iraq.

But that will only be the beginning of problems which America and its people are ill-equipped to cope with. A country like France which has lived with militant Islam for decades and coped with terrorism far more successfully than most others knows this. So does Germany, which faced some of the worst terrorist outrages with firm resolve in the Seventies and Eighties. Israel, whose inputs into the current White House policy on Iraq have been crucial, has always lived dangerously and will face the fallout of anything that happens in west Asia.

But where does all this leave the Americans once they have invaded Iraq' Almost three decades ago, they had the option to flee from Saigon and find safety in distance and geography. In any case, the Vietnamese were not going to pursue the Americans once they vacated Indo-China.

Does India, which has the second biggest Muslim population in the world, want to be part of a monumental folly which is being rehearsed by the Bush administration, which will have implications for generations to come' Clearly not, judging by the wise policy which New Delhi has adopted so far on Iraq. But as the going gets tough after — yes, after — the US victory over Saddam, India must have the will to resist attempts to move it away from its current policy of ambivalence.

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