| Senator John Kerry and his wife Teresa embrace after the victory in Washington, DC. (AFP)
Washington, March 3: A close fight for the White House in November between George W. Bush and John Kerry will mean that after three years of unexpected comfort levels in relations with the US, India faces considerable diplomatic challenges in the months ahead.
Nearly two months before Kerry was virtually anointed as the challenger to Bush yesterday, the Massachusetts Senator got into hot waters when he referred to Sikhs as terrorists and was forced to apologise in the face of an uproar by Indian Americans.
The faux pas was not untypical of Democrats. A quarter century ago, President Jimmy Carter, unaware that the microphone was on at a civic reception during his visit to New Delhi, told his secretary of state as thousands of people listened in amazement that he would write a tough letter to Indians on the nuclear issue when he got back to Washington.
More recently, Senator Hillary Clinton cracked a poor joke about Mahatma Gandhi, apologised for it and then made amends by attending Indian ambassador Lalit Mansingh’s Republic Day reception on January 27. Republican leaders like Bush and Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, are only guilty of ignorance. Bush, the candidate in 2000, could not name India’s Prime Minister and did not know who General Pervez Musharraf was. They are usually less harmful for countries like India.
Part of the popular enthusiasm for Kerry in the unfolding presidential campaign stems from his promise to stop outsourcing American jobs to India and other countries.
If his expedient campaign bite is to be tempered into harmless — even if louder — barks in the event of a victory for Democrats in November, New Delhi has to start coordinating efforts to prevent a backlash from outsourcing.
Yesterday when victories in party primaries in 10 states and rival John Edwards’ decision to withdraw from the race all but crowned Kerry as the presidential nominee of the Democrats, it also became clear that outsourcing would be an explosive poll issue.
In Florida, the fight over export of American jobs spilled over into the streets when a group of protesters chanting “stop outsourcing” trespassed into Walt Disney property to attack those attending a conference on outsourcing.
An agenda for action by India is falling into place. Some 200 trade bodies, which want to continue outsourcing, such as the US Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the American Bankers Association, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Information Technology Association of America, have got together to create a Coalition for Economic Growth and American Jobs.
India will have to lean on this coalition in the coming months also in order to ensure that H1-B visas for Indian information technology professionals continue to be available. Those who oppose the import of Indian professionals have a major voice among Democrats, whose pleas Kerry will find hard to ignore.
Kerry is already on record asking India to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). His endorsement of India’s claim to a permanent seat in the US Security Council is also conditional and half-hearted.
“While I think that in may ways India would be a good candidate, there is one notable problem. India is not a party to the NPT. All the nuclear powers on the Council not only directly shape the NPT, but also are parties that abide by it. This may be the most serious issue with respect to India’s candidacy and one that must be addressed by India.”
And yet, Kerry is no non-proliferation zealot. Two days after India’s second round of nuclear tests in 1998, the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence called CIA director George Tenet to testify on what many Senator’s thought was America’s intelligence failure in not knowing about the tests in advance.
Kerry was pragmatic that day. “India has broken into the nuclear age,” he acknowledged. “Unless tremendous restraint is practiced, so will Pakistan... People should stop finger pointing. We need to look at our own level of involvement in weapon sales. There is enough blame to go around”
All of which means the Indian embassy here, its lobbyists, the Indian ambassador-at-large B.K. Agnihotri with his political contacts across the board and the Indian American community have their task of putting New Delhi’s outlook across to Kerry and his team cut out for them in the coming months.