March 26: Before the arms race, the credit race.
President George W. Bush's all-clear to the sale of F-16 fighters to Pakistan has ignited a scramble in Delhi and Washington to establish that India has not lost out in the dash to be in the good books of the world's sole superpower.
Keen to balance the sale scales, the Bush administration has offered Delhi a larger number of F-16s and possibly the advanced F-18s in addition to access to America's nuclear and space technology. India has been denied access to US nuclear and dual-use technology since the mid-1970s.
Bush had called Manmohan Singh on Friday evening ' the eve of Holi in Delhi ' to convey the sale to Pakistan, drawing an expression of 'deep disappointment' from the Prime Minister.
However, a few hours later, a bleary-eyed damage-control bid had stirred off the ground. The foreign ministry spokesperson held an unusual midnight briefing, explaining how America has offered to sell India F-16s or F-18s.
By this evening, unnamed US officials in Washington were also talking of 'upgrading and broadening' the strategic partnership with India by exploring the possibility of cooperation in early warning and missile defence systems.
The officials also hinted at cooperation in civil nuclear energy and nuclear safety and co-production of certain defence items but they refused to go into 'specific terms'.
A US team is expected to be in India soon.
Defence minister Pranab Mukherjee said if the American proposal matches India's requirements, it would be considered.
That is a big if because the perception in the Indian defence establishment is that America is an 'erratic and unreliable' arms merchant that can choke supply at will. Besides, the IAF's inventory does not have US-made combat aircraft, a factor that makes compatibility difficult.
But what nobody would admit in public was the inevitability of a fresh arms race in the subcontinent. India, which is ready with a multi-billion-dollar defence shopping list, will have to pump in more resources to maintain the current level of asymmetry with Pakistan once the new F-16s land in Islamabad.
Pakistan welcomed the news of the F-16 sale with glee. Not only Pakistan, Bush's home state Texas, too, is happy. Lockheed Martin Corp, the builder of the planes, had warned it would have to close the production line that employs about 5,000 workers in Fort Worth, Texas, if it did not get new orders.
But officials in Delhi hope that Pakistan will be less happy when the full impact of the Indian package sinks in.
Hours after clearing the deal, the US renewed a warning against travel to Pakistan.
The gains and losses should not be judged by F-16s alone, the officials added, hastening to point out that US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice took the trouble of tracking down foreign minister Natwar Singh in Yangon.
She told him that Washington had decided to offer India not only a much more robust defence partnership but also access to America's nuclear and space technology.
The US offer of access to its nuclear and space technology also holds out the hope that Delhi will not have to worry about supply of fuel for Tarapur or getting new reactors.
The telephone calls by Bush and Rice show that Washington wanted India on board before announcing the decision, the Indian officials said.
Rice's predecessor, Colin Powell, during a visit to the region last year, had sprung a surprise on Indian leaders when he announced the US decision to grant non-Nato ally status to Pakistan.