After a brief flutter during the summer, when it seemed that India was in a mood to respond favourably to the Anglo-American request to send peacekeeping troops, Iraq has vanished from public consciousness. Last week’s United Nations security council resolution legitimizing the role of the occupation army and the Iraqi governing council drew a stony non-reaction in South Block. The prime minister, A.B. Vajpayee, having informed President George W. Bush in New York last month that India had its domestic constraints — a euphemism for it being perilously close to the general election — the issue of an Indian military role in Iraq has quietly dropped off the public agenda.
Politically, keeping our hands clean is a safe and acceptable option. Never a popular war, except in the charmed circle of American neo-conservatives, the difficulties faced by the occupation army have reinforced the conviction that removing Saddam Hussein was easier than transforming Iraq into an oasis of democracy. Anti-Americanism being a recurring state of mind, there is, indeed, a measure of quiet satisfaction that Washington’s gung-ho diplomacy is suffering a setback. The corresponding fear of the horrifying consequences of an American failure in Iraq is, for the moment, being kept in abeyance. As far as India is concerned, Iraq is an additional problem it can do without.
Yet, India’s non-involvement in Iraq, while eminently palatable in the short-term, may have unfavourable strategic consequences. Having taken a considered decision to not be a part of America’s grand design, it would be prudent of India to at least consider the fallout and, perhaps, design a course of damage-limitation.
For the moment, the biggest casualty is India’s standing within the power circles of Washington. Since the 9/11 outrage and even earlier, India was increasingly being perceived as a potential strategic partner. The realization that the world’s biggest democracy counted for something was based on two factors. First, India’s democratic traditions were favourably contrasted with the authoritarian regimes that dot the landscape of Asia. Coupled with its reputation as a vast reservoir of scientific talent and entrepreneurship, India stood out as a subcontinent of stability that also upheld values Americans cherish. Second, India was projected, particularly by influential Republicans, as an emerging counterweight to China. The discovery of India in Washington bore a direct correlation to rising Sinophobia.
Within the Republican establishment, the neocons were the most ardent advocates of India. The New Right may be a snarl world for the pink-liberal establishment that still calls the shots in Delhi, but India’s lobbyists recognized them as natural allies in the cumbersome power-play in Washington involving the multiple centres. The neocons and the formidable Jewish lobby, for example, proved invaluable in offsetting the state department’s traditional wariness of India. The personal rapport between John Ashcroft and L.K. Advani, and between Donald Rumsfeld and Jaswant Singh, not to mention the quiet work of Henry Kissinger and Ambassador Robert Blackwill’s forthright Indophilia, also helped establish, for the first time in living memory, a non-hyphenated role for India.
It may not be an exaggeration to suggest that in the aftermath of the cabinet committee on security decision — disingenuously posited as being based on the lack of a UN mandate — much of this relationship lies in a shambles. Since the Iraq war was in many ways its signature tune, the neocons in particular have taken India’s reluctance to join the fight as evidence of chicken-heartedness and unsuitability to play in the big league. Although there are suggestions that the White House understands Vajpayee’s electoral compulsions — politicians appreciate these things better than unelected ideologues — there are two areas where America’s disappointment with India will be felt.
For starters, India can say goodbye to all hopes of the United States of America endorsing its claim for a permanent seat on the security council. Since this was contemplated as a possible quid pro quo for Indian troops undertaking peacekeeping responsibilities in northern Iraq, the suggestion is not all that remote as may appear. Indeed, with a hostile Germany being the other claimant, there is every likelihood of the matter going into deep freeze for at least a decade. Second, there are suggestions that progress on the so-called trinity issues, involving hi-tech transfers, may not be as marked as earlier imagined. Since reciprocity is an unwritten rule governing international relations, India will have to bear the cost of its failure to secure a domestic consensus on Iraq.
The biggest setback, however, is likely to stem from the larger failure of the neocons to push the Sinophobia agenda further. It may well be argued that this dread of China was unreal and based on a spurious alarmism. That may well be true but India was nevertheless an unintended beneficiary of the American wariness of Chinese power. In the aftermath of the neocons setback in Iraq, there is evidence of a new Sino-US cosiness. American observers have detected the first signs of an important shift in the Bush administration with China coming to be perceived as a strategic partner rather than a strategic competitor. China, for example, placed no hurdles in the path of the US securing the security council’s stamp on its bid to enlarge its Iraq operations. This shift has no direct bearing on Sino-Indian relations that have acquired a momentum of their own, but it will reflect on America’s larger Asia policy.
The person who is certain to be happiest with recent developments in Washington is Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf. It is not that the general ever intends sending Pakistani forces to Iraq. Any such proposal will be domestically hazardous and could well be unacceptable to the Iraqi governing council. His real fear was that if India accepted the challenge in Iraq, Washington would act on its assurance to raise Indo-US relations to new heights. Among other things, it would involve the US coming down hard on cross-border terrorism against India and at the same time pressing Pakistan to take on the rump taliban operating from Afghanistan. The US, in short, would have had to be mindful of the concerns of one of its partners in Iraq.
With India out of the reckoning, Musharraf has reason to breathe easily. He has deftly sold his credentials as a modernist Muslim and Pakistan’s indispensability in the war against the taliban. The Pakistani army has indeed stepped up its operations along the Durand Line, but not before indicating to the US that it has to allow the Islamists a necessary but controlled outlet in Kashmir, if only to force India to the negotiating table. The US seems inclined to meet Pakistani concerns half-way. In May, for example, the White House overruled the Pentagon and refused to resume the sale of F-16 aircraft to Pakistan. This followed Advani stressing to Bush its ominous implications for Indian security. Now, five months down the line, the US is willing to resume F-16 sales to Pakistan via Belgium. The shift is significant and coincides with the feeling that India is a difficult customer.
It is this heightened comfort-level with the US that has emboldened Islamabad to use Saudi Arabia to make an issue of Indo-Israeli defence cooperation. Three months ago, a defensive Musharraf was even considering the possibility of establishing diplomatic ties with Israel, not least because it would dilute the hostility of the neocons towards Pakistan. These are preliminary trends that could well be offset by imaginative Indian diplomacy and free market economics. But before remedial steps are undertaken, it would be healthy for New Delhi to discard the fiction that nothing has changed between India and the US.