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TIME TO CALL THE BLUFF
- The PM knows the US too well to be taken in by its flattery

Every Indian minister, irrespective of party, who goes to Washington boasts of the special treatment he received there. Exploiting that frailty, the Americans, as we now know, lavished flattery on Indira Gandhi even while hating her guts. Manmohan Singh knows the United States of America, where he studied and worked, too well to be taken in. Nor does his candid worldview allow room for self-delusion or posturing. Implicit in his lament of a 'limited mandate' is the admission that conditions at home restrict his foreign policy options.

When he makes that admission in Washington on July 18 ' dissimulation not being his style ' his hosts will press on him their recipe for 'greatness'. They will demand that India break with Iran, get involved in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq, follow the US line on Nepal and Bangladesh, concede Pakistani demands, help to contain China, increase joint military exercises, abolish all import restrictions, privatize all state enterprises and support the Americans in the Doha trade round. In return, promises the US ambassador, David C. Mulford, they will help 'India achieve its vision of being a world power in the 21st century.'

The bait shows that the Americans have the measure of the politicians they are dealing with and know how easily they can be stroked into subservience. Again, the prime minister might be the exception. But he is surrounded by colleagues who are determined, no matter what portfolios they hold, to lay down foreign policy. There are altogether far too many external affairs ministers in a cabinet where, ironically, the exception seems to be the actual man whose job it is to formulate and articulate a rational statement of the country's aims abroad and how they should be achieved.

It would be interesting to know who first thought of the carrot that Mulford and others are dangling before India's nose. Was it a South Block functionary carried away by his own rhetoric' Or was it ' as one suspects ' a state department official who expected India to throw tantrums unless the Americans threw it a sop while granting our neighbour the far more substantial military and financial benefits of a 'major non-NATO ally'

Such distractions are common. When newly independent India was clamouring for arms, equipment, a framework of military cooperation and a system of sharing classified information instead of the one-way flow demanded by the American military attach' in New Delhi, the state department was proud of the sleight of hand it practised on emissaries like Sir Girja Shankar Bajpai. It had countered the 'problem' of Indian importuning, it boasted, 'by: (1) having India classified upwards to the category of countries receiving 'restricted' US military information; (and) (2) making a deliberate effort to furnish the Indian military attach' (in Washington) with relatively harmless but somewhat impressive military information'. Serve the little pest right if his lollipop turned out to be a stone.

Now, Mulford's predecessor, Robert D. Blackwill, has thought of another carrot to tempt India's gullible leaders. He wants the US to 'announce' it will support India's security council membership when the United Nations is reformed, confident that 'this would not happen for many years.' Blackwill may not have thought of this red herring if India had been content, like Japan and Germany, with making out a reasoned case for a seat at the UN's high table and placing it with dignity on the world's agenda instead of displaying all the abandon of a nagging child.

Greatness is hardly a commodity to be bought or bestowed. It was only after his Suez adventure pushed a financially, militarily and intellectually bankrupt country down the last tottering steps to ruin that a vainglorious Sir Anthony Eden proclaimed he would 'put the Great back into Great Britain'. The Chinese, who chant that Mao Zedong taught them how to walk and Deng Xiaoping taught them how to become rich, pay tribute to the hard policies that make for greatness. They are now crowing over the report that Pakistan's 8.4 per cent growth, about the same as Singapore's, is next only to China's 9.3 per cent, and leaves India behind in the Asian growth stakes.

There is no substitute for the economic strength that alone makes a world power. Without that clout but with soaring ambition, India is in danger of regressing to an era when a striking international profile bore no connection to ground reality at home. We owe much to Jawaharlal Nehru's wisdom and philosophical insight, but he displayed shortsighted vanity in seizing on the foreign and commonwealth portfolio in the viceroy's executive council as the be-all and end-all of governance. Though Nehru dismissed other charges as mere local government, it's local government that gives a people their pride and strength and provides the firm base for effective policy at higher levels.

America's purpose, as this week's defence pact confirms, has not changed since the Cold War. The architects of Pax Americana spoke of franchising a trusty satrap in each region long before the Soviet collapse encouraged the US to think of resetting the global compass, as Richard Nixon put it. Though Nehru saw red at the very mention of 'sphere of influence' ' the customary description then for this arrangement ' there is nothing inherently objectionable about it if interests coincide. They did over Operation Cactus in the Maldives. Also in Sri Lanka where India's peacekeeping mission was conceptually sound even if it misfired. But such arrangements also give the US enormous scope for arm-twisting when objectives are not shared.

India's assessments of China and Pakistan, for instance, cannot justify the surrender of its own capacity for independent action. But both countries are also so central to American calculations that any Indian attempt to distance itself from US policy and act on its own would probably invite swift and severe repercussions. India might have got away with it only if it had been of commercial value to the businessmen who forced the administration to resume diplomatic relations with Vietnam even though all the missing US personnel had not been accounted for.

So much for 'natural allies' and 'strategic partners'. Like the Agreed Minutes on Defence Relations, the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership did not allow India the access to sophisticated dual-purpose technology that suspect China enjoyed. Just as Pakistan needs no long-winded pacts and cumbersome bureaucratic structures to get arms, China does not have to cooperate with the US to gain access. The Cox Committee's concern with only the classified information regarding missiles and nuclear technology stolen from the most secret of US weapons laboratories and research establishments distracted attention from the access to impressive sources of information that China enjoys legitimately, thanks to lobbyists like Henry Kissinger. The president can waive many security restrictions on grounds of 'national interest'. Formerly, this meant the Soviet Union; now, it signifies US investment and cheap Chinese imports of ready-mades, footwear and electronics.

No such indulgence is shown to India because it is not in America's strategic or commercial interest to do so. Also, American policy-makers know that most Indian leaders are dazzled by the will o' the wisp of world power just as they were bowled over by an American magazine's cover story on naval might. The danger does not lie, however, in the compliments that his hosts will heap on Manmohan Singh when promising him the moon. The danger lies in the vanity of colleagues who can be had cheap.

A nation also marches on its stomach: no one will be fooled into believing that an India that undertakes international duties clutching America's coat-tails is anything other than a surrogate. Manmohan Singh should call the US bluff and put an end to this shoddy charade by categorically declaring that India's unfulfilled duties at home where 300 million people or more languish below the poverty line does not permit it to throw its weight around globally at America's bidding.

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