Seldom do career diplomats have the privilege or satisfaction of seeing something they have undertaken reach its final or productive phase. Because they are moved from one station to another every three or four years, most of them leave their initiatives in the hands of successors. More often than not, it takes two or three such successors to bring truly worthwhile projects to fruition.
A significant exception to this common professional hazard is India’s high commissioner designate to Singapore, Alok Prasad. It is easy to forget in today’s bonhomie between New Delhi and Washington that Prasad became the point person for the United States of America in South Block at a time when India was viewed with no less hostility than Iraq by the “Ayatollahs of non-proliferation” in the corridors of the now-defunct Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in Foggy Bottom.
The Americans had thwarted P.V. Narasimha Rao’s efforts to prepare the Pokhran site for a second nuclear test, and Arundhati Ghose, who became a household name among television news-watchers and newspaper readers as the formidable Indian ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, was undermining Washington’s grandiose plans for a universal comprehensive test ban treaty. From that low to the nadir in Indo-US relations after Pokhran II, and then to last week’s announcement by the president, George W. Bush, that “the vision of US-India Strategic Partnership is now becoming a reality” has been a long and bumpy road. Keeping the vehicle of Indian diplomacy ship-shape throughout that difficult journey has been the task of two career diplomats.
Prasad will leave his post as the number two man at the Indian mission in Washington, in a fortnight, with the satisfaction that an objective which seemed foolhardy and adventurous with the Americans when he took charge of South Block’s America division eight years ago has painstakingly borne fruit with last week’s statement by Bush.
The other member of this duo who helped in changing fundamentally New Delhi’s equation with Washington, Rakesh Sood, will take the baton at the embassy from Prasad: it will be his job in the next three years to see that the door to India’s entry into the nuclear and missile club of the world’s most powerful countries, which has been left ajar by the Bush announcement, is pushed open further, bit by bit, until New Delhi’s de facto status as a nuclear power is legitimized and acted upon.
Those who criticized India’s national consensus to block CTBT in Geneva at the risk of incurring the wrath of the big powers ought to look back and concede that such a historic consensus in 1996 was, in fact, the turning point in what is now praised the world over as the country’s emerging status as a global power. The Americans took the lead and succeeded in isolating India then: yet New Delhi stood firm in its opposition to CTBT in Geneva. It was that bold act which made Washington realize that a way has to be found for dealing with New Delhi that was different from merely offering carrots or sticks — or a deft combination of the two, the diplomatic panacea to such problems.
Bill Clinton’s commitment to non-proliferation was strong; the commitment of his vice-president, Al Gore, on the other hand, was missionary. It was India’s principled intransigence on CTBT, coupled with Hillary Clinton’s fascination with India — which she relayed to her husband — that was a major factor in the then president’s decision to change his policy towards New Delhi. Clinton would have visited India sooner, but his quest for better relations was stymied by political uncertainty: the H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral governments fell in quick succession, and with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government came the nuclear tests.
As New Delhi sees it, the biggest difference between the Clinton and Bush administrations is that — even making allowances for CTBT, India’s political instability in the mid-Nineties and the nuclear tests — it actually took Clinton seven years to change policy towards India. But Bush came to power determined to develop close cooperation with New Delhi. Just as it is easy to forget the other day’s lows in Indo-US ties, it is equally easy to forget, in the wake of Iraq, the Bush administration’s war on many values dear to India since independence. In the temptation to pander to anti-Americanism, it was also forgotten that the stage was set for an intense Indo-US engagement almost as soon as the present administration came to power at a meeting in Germany between the national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, and the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.
On the eve of a policy speech by Bush on May 1, 2001, when he announced plans for national missile defence, his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, took the unprecedented step of telephoning the then external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, to brief him on the president’s speech. Ten days later, the deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, was in New Delhi for consultations on the president’s speech. India was one of only three countries that Armitage visited: the others were Japan and South Korea, both staunch US allies.
Bush’s enthusiasm for India remains undiminished by India’s opposition to the war in Iraq and its subsequent refusal to contribute troops to stabilize post-war Iraq. The challenge for New Delhi in following up Bush’s promise of cooperation in civilian nuclear activities, non-military space programmes and high-technology trade stems from the handicap that a top to bottom approach has been necessary at every stage in pushing the pace of Indo-US engagement under the current administration.
Opposition to strategic initiatives with India from Washington officials who have the responsibility of implementing policy obliged Mishra at every stage to intervene personally with Rice to make progress on the “trinity” issues outlined by Bush. Because the progress achieved last week has been in the making for more than two years and would not have seen the light of day without Mishra’s periodic intervention, the Indo-US strategic partnership is apt to be described as the Indian national security adviser’s labour of love.
For those like this columnist covering the story in Washington, it seemed odd that even after a very positive statement by Bush last week, state department officials found it necessary to call a media briefing to introduce caveats to what the president was initiating and clearly wanted done. For this reason, Kenneth Juster, the senior commerce department official who heads the US side of the high-technology cooperation group, found it necessary to give a subsequent interview to Doordarshan emphasizing the positive aspects in the Bush initiative and setting at rest negative speculation that resulted from the state department’s briefing.
Indeed, according to Washington grapevine, the state department is unhappy about a book being written by Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, who was Jaswant Singh’s counterpart in the 1998 to 2000 marathon non-proliferation dialogue, and would prefer not to record for posterity the dramatic story of how India and the US made up after Pokhran II.
It may reasonably be argued, citing Indira Gandhi’s momentous meeting with Ronald Reagan in Cancun and Rajiv Gandhi’s later visit to Washington, that Indo-US relations have always been a top-to-bottom affair in terms of producing results. With Clinton too, this was the case, but only partly so. For those writing on South Block in those days, stories of preparations by Prasad and Sood for Singh’s meetings with Talbott and rehearsals for every round of those meetings were the stuff of diplomatic folklore. With the Clinton team, the top-to-bottom approach was required only in initial phases of the changing Indo-US relationship. The desire to change the relationship was very much in evidence across the administration.
As relations between New Delhi and Washington enter a new phase, it will be necessary for both sides to give some thought to creating a similar atmosphere within the Bush administration, without which there is every danger that last week’s Bush initiative may remain only a pious declaration of intent.