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CLEARING THE AIR
- Thanks to Mukherjee, America is now willing to listen to India

If defence minister Pranab Mukherjee's two days of talks in Washington this week are indicative of what to expect during Manmohan Singh's visit to the White House on July 18, the prime minister will be no pushover for the Americans.

It was refreshing to see Mukherjee tell the Americans unequivocally ' and without being offensive ' where India stands on issues that affect not merely Indo-US relations, but India's external affairs as a whole. Not since Atal Bihari Vajpayee's national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, put across to the Americans a set of ideas some four years ago, which concretized into the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership, has anyone in the Indian government clearly answered the question: what does India want from the United States of America' A huge cloud of uncertainty over India's objectives and expectations in its relations with the US has been lifted by what Mukherjee said in Washington in the last two days, both in public and, more forcefully, in his private meetings ' including one with the man whom most people consider to be the real president of the US, the vice-president, Dick Cheney.

Mukherjee's presence in Washington, in fact, achieved much more than that. He pulled up by the bootstraps those groups in American society which traditionally contribute a great deal to any Indian state visit to Washington. These groups ' Indian-Americans with a network that spans the partisan political network, the large number of India's friends on Capitol Hill, Indophiles in the American decision-making network not just in Washington but also in the states ' have all been depressed and largely out of the loop in the efforts so far to make Manmohan Singh's visit to Washington fruitful.

They have been depressed ' indeed bewildered ' by the advice they have been receiving from 'official' India not to make an issue of the single-most potentially divisive issue in Indo-US relations since the United Progressive Alliance government came to power just over a year ago: the Bush administration's decision to rearm Pakistan. For decades, these groups have been primed to instinctively oppose, on India's behalf, any effort in Washington to supply offensive weapons to Islamabad. Even before the decision to send F-16s to General Pervez Musharraf was announced in Washington, some of these groups were preparing to go to battle over that line within the Bush administration. But the advice they received from India in Washington was to soft-pedal the issue. In fact, for at least six months before the decision on F-16s became public, Indian delegations arriving in the US capital have been getting controversial ' and highly debatable ' advice from Indian officials in Washington that they must not put Indo-US friendship at risk by raising the subject of arming Pakistan!

Doubts among Indian-Americans and American friends of India about the wisdom of not having forcefully questioned the Bush administration's decision to sell F-16s to Pakistan will not go away because of Mukherjee's words and actions in Washington this week. These groups continue to believe that India lost heavily, both in leverage and bargaining power, by New Delhi's mealy-mouthed response to the Bush administration's military policies towards the Musharraf junta and its advice to these groups to follow a similar line.

What Mukherjee has done, though, is to take preparations for the prime minister's upcoming visit way beyond this confusing scenario, which threatened to deprive Manmohan Singh's talks with President George W. Bush and others in his administration, on Capitol Hill, among the Indian-American community and America's corporate leadership, of strategic clarity. Singh will arrive in Washington in an environment which has greeted no Indian prime minister before him. India is now the favourite flavour in the US. When India talks, there is, at present, a willingness in America to listen, which was not there at any time since independence. Partly, it is because stalwarts in the National Democratic Alliance government, like Jaswant Singh and Brajesh Mishra, changed the tone of the discourse between New Delhi and Washington. They stopped lecturing the Americans.

During his two visits to Washington and in interactions with a stream of American officials and public figures, who have been descending on New Delhi since the Bush administration settled down to its second four-year term, the external affairs minister, K. Natwar Singh, did try to take the discourse back to the days when India was viewed by the Americans as little more than an irritant on the international scene. But other high profile visitors from the UPA government to America, such as the finance minister, P. Chidambaram, the science and technology minister, Kapil Sibal, and the petroleum minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, made the Americans realize that the external affairs minister was an odd man out in the Manmohan Singh government, which did, indeed, want to positively engage the US. Manmohan Singh's talks with Bush too confirmed this impression.

What was lacking in the discourse, especially in the run-up to the prime minister's visit, was a clear enunciation of what India wanted from America. In private meetings in re- cent months, Bush administration officials have been asking their In- dian counterparts precisely this question: 'Tell us what you want from us.'

Since there is an unprecedented willingness in Washington to accommodate India, the question made sense. But except for Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram, who have partly answered this question in their public pronouncements, the Indians seemed unable to answer this persistent American query with any clarity. And under those circumstances, the Americans have been setting the agenda for Indo-US engagement.

In two days of intense interaction with the Bush administration, Mukherjee has corrected this record. To start with, he has been disarming in his admission that the last time he was in Washington was exactly a decade ago. Everything in Indo-US relations was different and Mukherjee, as external affairs minister in the P.V. Narasimha Rao government, was at the receiving end of the perception in the Clinton administration at that time that Kashmir may well fall into Pakistan's lap like a ripe apple. That perception found its clearest articulation in the now infamous remark of the then assistant secretary of state for south Asia, Robin Raphel, questioning the legality of the instrument of Kashmir's accession to India.

Mukherjee has told every American he met during his current visit how things have changed in 10 years. But he has not been hesitant to add a rider: perceptions may have changed, but India's interests remain the same. He has left the Americans in no doubt that notwithstanding the Bush administration's ham-handed handling of the global terrorist threat and despite what it intends to do with Pakistan, India's interests in Afghanistan and beyond, in central Asia or south-east Asia, cannot be wished away. He has made it clear that the expansion of India's navy, Mani Shankar Aiyar's petroleum diplomacy, New Delhi's engagement of Teheran are all part of a strategic vision and that demands in Washington for political correctness will not make India compromise on its vital regional or global interests.

Mukherjee's great advantage in dealing with the Americans is that unlike some of his colleagues in Manmohan Singh's cabinet ' and, for that matter, in Vajpa- yee's cabinet ' he is a man of few words. Sometimes this makes the Americans he deals with uncomfortable.

During the last visit of the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to New Delhi, the American minister was holding forth about how much the Bush administration wanted to cooperate with India militarily, all the while surreptitiously preparing the ground for the sale of F-16s to Pakistan. Among all those who dealt with Rumsfeld in New Delhi, Mukherjee was the only one to call the defence secretary's bluff, which he did in one sentence. 'You are not a reliable partner', Mukherjee bluntly told Rumsfeld. Shortly thereafter, Bush's secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, arrived in New Delhi and her mantra throughout her talks was that the US wanted to be India's 'reliable partner' in defence matters, thanks to that blunt remark.

Mukherjee's talks in Washington have come just a few days after India decided to stick with the group of four at the United Nations in their pursuit of security council reform and reject US attempts to split the group. Hopefully, the clarity with which the defence minister outlined India's world view and its principled stand on UN reform will convince the Americans that New Delhi's ill-advised decision to soft-pedal the F-16 issue should not be seen during Manmohan Singh's visit to the White House as a sign of weakness.

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