| But is he listening'
If the Indo-US nuclear deal of July 18, the inevitable passage to India's eventual status as a nuclear weapons state, falls by the wayside ' and it seems very likely as of now ' a big chunk of the responsibility for such a catastrophe must rest on the shoulders of the speaker of the Lok Sabha, Somnath Chatterjee.
Six members of the Indian parliament from five parties and six states ' some of whom have contributed enormously to the turnaround in Indo-US relations in recent years ' have just returned home from the United States of America, convinced that with someone like Chatterjee at the apex of India's legislature, those who want to undermine New Delhi's ties with Washington need look no further than the Lok Sabha speaker's office. Of course, the visiting members of parliament have not said a word against the speaker during their time abroad, but Chatterjee's long shadow loomed large over their hectic, 16-hour daily itinerary throughout last week in New York and in Washington.
The MPs visited America under the umbrella of the three-and-a-half year-old Indo-US Parliamentary Forum. Oops!! Sorry'! That is not what the organization is called anymore. And that name change, in a sense, is at the root of the latest mistrust between India and America. Three months ago, Chatterjee decided that MPs had no business calling their forums dealing with counterpart legislators in foreign countries as 'parliamentary forums', or using parliament's logo. He summoned the president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Onkar Kanwar, and Ficci's secretary-general, Amit Mitra, to a well-publicized dressing down.
The so-called parliaments in the former Soviet Union and China ' the Supreme Soviet and the National People's Congress ' have been little more than rubber stamps for their politburos: so it is quite likely that Chatterjee is unaware of the role that parliamentary forums have historically played in free societies in genuinely and substantively advancing relations with foreign countries. The present state of India's ties with the United Kingdom owes a lot to the work of British MPs, who grouped themselves into organizations for advancing relations with New Delhi ' a process which India copied recently by setting up an Indo-British Forum of Parliamentarians. Similarly, India and America would have remained the estranged democracies that they were for half-a-century, if it were not for the 12 year-old Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, and more recently, the Indo-US Parliamentary Forum, which Jaswant Singh, as external affairs minister, launched in early 2002.
Be that as it may, Kanwar and Mitra ' the latter, a highly respected figure in the US because of his years of teaching in American universities, which won him the prestigious Sears-Roebuck Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching ' meekly went back from the drubbing they got in the speaker's chamber and quickly changed the names of all the parliamentary forums in India. Ficci's role in this episode is that it gives secretarial and office facilities to the various parliamentary forums. Overnight, the Indo-US Parliamentary Forum became the Indo-US Forum of Parliamentarians in order to satisfy the speaker's whims. Gone was the parliament logo from anything associated with the organization, notwithstanding the fact that it represented about 120 elected MPs from both houses of parliament. This farce was repeated in the case of each forum that Ficci supported: the ones with Britain, Germany, the European Union, Japan and Singapore.
For those in Washington, such as the eight lobbying firms that Pakistan employs in America, and others who want to turn the clock back on the blossoming Indo-US friendship, the Lok Sabha speaker handed an opportunity which only the worst detractors of India's external affairs could have delivered. And these enemies of India have been using it to their full advantage.
This columnist knows of India's detractors in Washington who have downloaded extensively from the website of the Indo-US Parliamentary Forum before Chatterjee's intervention, then again from its new website after the organization changed its name to Indo-US Forum of Parliamentarians, and taken the material to US congressmen and senators. To meet the speaker's demands, the organization has chopped off its name from every banner at each of its functions, including its launch, and cropped pictures of those events to distortion.
Those who have taken these images to Capitol Hill and distributed them there, have told American legislators that Indian MPs are ashamed to be associated institutionally, as a legislature, with America and that argument has found wide currency in Washington.
All over the world, politicians, especially those who hold office, can be full of themselves, prickly and often unduly sensitive. Many people in Capitol Hill, especially those who are unsure of New Delhi's intentions vis-'-vis Washington, have been enormously hurt by what they see as a snub to them.
When the six MPs were hosted by the India caucus last week, the Republican co-chair of the caucus, Congresswoman Ilena Ros-Lehtinen, simply did not turn up for the meeting. Nor did Congressman Tom Lantos, the senior-most Democrat on the House of Representatives' international relations committee, who recently became well- known in India for referring to the external affairs minister, K. Natwar Singh, as 'Stalinist' and 'dense'. India has an enormous stake in getting the July 18 nuclear deal cleared on Capitol Hill because it is vital to the country's long-term energy needs. Chatterjee's school-masterly dealings with MPs have not helped at a time when the support of every US senator and congressman adds value to the process.
In spite of Chatterjee, the visiting MPs achieved a good deal at a time when it is important to keep up the momentum of what Manmohan Singh and George W. Bush agreed to at the White House in July, till the next milestone in Indo-US relations ' Bush's visit to India early next year. Since there is considerable scepticism in the Indian parliament too about the direction of Indo-US relations, the visit by members of the forum was an eye-opener.
For B.J. Panda, Rajya Sabha member from Orissa, this was his fourth annual visit to Washington, the last two of which he has led in his capacity as the forum's co-chair. Panda has seen how, during his first visit to Washington as a member of the delegation in 2002, the MPs did not get to meet anyone above the middle ranks of the US administration. Last year, the group which he led could not meet anyone higher than the deputy secretary for defence, notwithstanding the fact that Paul Wolfowitz had a role in the administration which far outweighed his formal designation.
This time, however, all doors were open to the group. Two cabinet members ' the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and the secretary for transportation, Norman Mineta, spent time with the MPs. The nanny of the Indo-US nuclear deal, under-secretary of state for political affairs, Nicholas Burns, met them with Rice, and separately afterwards. They had substantive discussions with key officials in the departments of energy, commerce and defence, including the new US head of the High Technology Cooperation Group with India.
A group of Americans who found the visit by MPs very rewarding was 17 leaders of prominent think-tanks in Washington, who were hosted to a dinner by the forum. Many of those who attended the dinner were vocal sceptics of the nuclear deal with India and, therefore, the interaction with them was crucial from the Indian point of view. A high level delegation from Ficci, led by Kanwar and Mitra, whose visit coincided with that by the MPs, attended a one-day workshop on infrastructure in India, thus keeping alive the prime minister's committed efforts to get Americans to invest in India's infrastructure growth.
For the United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, who met the MPs despite his preoccupations on the annual UN Day, it came as a surprise when Samajwadi Party MP, Shahid Siddiqui, told Annan that half the world's total Muslim population came from south Asia ' and that of this huge population, there was not one Indian Muslim who had been charged with any terrorist crime anywhere in the world.