| Second in line
In Washington, where the levers of legislative power significantly change hands every two years, memory can be fickle. It would be unfortunate, therefore, if Nancy Pelosi — the dominant public face of the Democratic Party’s success in last week’s American Congressional elections — is judged by India’s political leadership and its officialdom solely on the basis of what she said in the House of Representatives on July 26 this year, as the chamber was debating and voting on the nuclear deal between India and the United States of America.
Pelosi will soon be the first woman in the US’s history to become Speaker of the House of Representatives. Her importance, which is best defined as second in the line of succession to the White House, will certainly be augmented by her style. It is already clear that she will not be the wimp that many of her party leaders have been in the last five of the six years of the current US presidency, when George W. Bush rode roughshod over the spirit — if not the letter — of the US constitution, its rule of law and the decencies of democratic political discourse.
It can be predicted from the history of her 19-year legislative work and her style that she will be highly relevant to the course of Indo-US relations and that she will make her mark on how Washington deals with New Delhi. Therefore, it is necessary to recall her role in improving Indo-US relations in the Nineties and, in particular, her efforts to bridge the breach in ties between Washington and New Delhi after the Pokhran-II nuclear tests in 1998.
Pelosi was then on the coveted Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful committees of the House of Representatives and she was the senior-most or ‘ranking’ Democrat on the foreign operations appropriations subcommittee. India was not the darling of the Washington establishment in those days. To give a flavour of India’s underdog status at that time, it is enough to mention that an Indian ambassador in Washington usually had trouble getting an appointment with anyone in the State Department above the level of assistant secretary for south Asia.
A bugbear for India in those years was an acerbic, but highly motivated Republican Congressman from Indiana called Dan Burton. Every year, Burton unfailingly moved amendments to legislation in the House seeking cuts in US development aid to India to “punish” New Delhi for its human rights record, its treatment of Sikhs and Kashmiris, and of minorities in general.
The actual US aid to India annually then did not amount to much and the country could very well have done without it, but any passage of a Burton-type amendment on Capitol Hill would have amounted to a slap on the face of the world’s largest democracy. Therefore, the Indian government and Indian Americans left no stone unturned, year after year, in overwhelming Burton on the House floor. Finally, in 1999, Burton accepted irreversible defeat: that year, after discovering that he could line up only two Congressmen among 435 House members to speak in favour of his amendment, the Indiana Republican withdrew his anti-India measure. He has never pressed it since and with strong pro-India winds in Washington, Burton has metamorphosed into a friend of India.
The public faces of the efforts to defeat Burton were the Congressmen Gary Ackerman, Benjamin Gilman, Douglas Bereuter and Frank Pallone. But they would have found their efforts considerably stymied if it were not for the legwork done in India’s favour by Pelosi as the ranking member of the foreign operations subcommittee and as one of most active members of the House Appropriations Committee. These committees were crucial to what Burton was trying to achieve and Pelosi worked with friends of India across the US to neutralize the anti-Indian effort sponsored by Burton.
It was the same story after the Indian nuclear tests in 1998. Pelosi, by her own admission, “came to (the US) Congress intent on improving international non-proliferation regimes”. But she had the sense to see that because of India’s nuclear record, India was not a threat to global non-proliferation the way Pakistan or North Korea are. She also had the vision to see that India and the US had much in common, and that the potential of Indo-US relations had not even begun to be tapped in any significant degree in 1998.
It was not easy for Pelosi to reconcile her commitment to non-proliferation with her desire to take Indo-US relations forward, the Pokhran-II tests notwithstanding. But behind the scenes, she worked with Indian-Americans and Indian officials to heal the breach that developed after India went overtly nuclear. It was on Capitol Hill that the National Democratic Alliance government succeeded in healing the nuclear rift before the Clinton administration took the cue and began a meaningful dialogue with India on security.
That success on Capitol Hill would not have been possible without the woman who is to be House Speaker in January next year. Because of her long-held position on the need to halt the global spread of nuclear weapons, Pelosi supported what is known as “the Berman amendment” to the India-specific nuclear legislation, which the House took up for consideration this summer. That amendment made the provision of nuclear fuel to India by the US conditional on a presidential determination that New Delhi had halted production of fissile material. Pelosi balanced her support for the Berman amendment by arguing that India “has demonstrated by its actions a commitment to safeguarding nuclear technology…They have never violated the NPT” even though India is not a signatory to the treaty. “On balance I believe this legislation as presented is worthy of our support,” she said of the bill that was later passed by the House. “A close relationship with democratic India is critical for the US.”
Her support for India notwithstanding, New Delhi will be making a big mistake if it takes such support for granted. For that matter, India will have to handle Pelosi with tact and foresight. When she was first elected to Congress, one of the most impressionable, early meetings she had on Capitol Hill was with the dalai lama in the office of Tom Lantos, a Holocaust survivor and senior Congressman, also from California. Pelosi has said openly that her view of India has been considerably shaped by the “debt of gratitude we owe India for its hospitality” to the Tibetan spiritual leader.
Fifteen years ago, Pelosi went to China on the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown and demonstrated on the Square in memory of those killed in that crackdown. As India makes every effort to improve its relations with China, it will have to delicately deal with Pelosi’s zealous opposition to Chinese human rights practices and its trade policies as well. Another key friend of India who was “promoted” in last week elections was Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat in the House of Representatives for 14 years and a founder of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans. Brown moves to the Senate next year, having captured one of the Republican seats and control of the Senate for the Democrats.
It is not to diminish his overall work for Indo-US amity to say that six years ago, Brown created history by demanding in the House of Representatives that a day should be set aside for a Hindu priest to deliver the opening invocation of the session of Congress. “There are hundreds of thousands of practicing Hindus in this country. We should fulfil our responsibility to represent the religious diversity of this country by including a Hindu priest as a guest chaplain,” Brown said at that time.
Subsequently, Venkatachalapathi Samudrala, a priest from Brown’s home state of Ohio delivered the invocation on the day Atal Bihari Vajpayee was addressing a joint session of the US Congress during his prime ministerial visit to Washington in 2000. Brown’s initiative was criticized by Christian conservatives, but he stood his ground. Brown’s move to the Senate gives India a strong supporter in the chamber and its committees, where its friends have been relatively weaker and less outspoken than in the House and House panels.