| Not a pushover
The Americans underestimated their latest Indian interlocutor — the foreign secretary, Shivshankar Menon. Just as they underestimated L.K. Advani during the then deputy prime minister’s visit to Washington four years ago. But the Americans have a long history of misreading Indian decision-makers. After all, none other than Henry Kissinger thought he could win over Babu Jagjivan Ram during a meeting in New Delhi in 1971, shortly before the liberation of East Pakistan, by inviting him to visit Washington, only to be stumped by the defence minister who asked Kissinger, “Why should I come to Washington'” Kissinger had no reply.
On June 8, 2003, Donald Rumsfeld, then the American defence secretary, drove to Washington’s Willard Intercontinental Hotel within hours after Advani had checked in and made a rare, unscheduled Sunday call on the visiting Number Two in the National Democratic Alliance government. The Pentagon hoped that Rumsfeld’s gesture would push Advani a little towards arguing, back in New Delhi, in favour of sending Indian troops to Iraq. But by the end of his visit, Advani had concluded that any such enterprise would be damaging for India and its interests in the Gulf. Unlike the United States of America, where a Jaswant Singh could sweep a George W. Bush off the White House Rose Garden grounds in April 2001 with his refinement and conversation, India has a system that takes its unchanging course in decision-making. Here personal gestures have little, if any, effect on this process.
Bush’s under-secretary of state for political affairs, Nicholas Burns, an outstanding one-time spokesman of the state department, displayed his well-known knowledge of spin when he timed the day of Menon’s arrival in Washington in late April to publish an article on the op-ed page of The Washington Post extolling the virtues and scope of Indo-US relations. There was a time when Indian prime ministers used to come to Washington and go away with no more than a few paragraphs of reportage of the visit in any US newspaper, if at all. That The Washington Post devoted space on its op-ed page for an article on India to coincide with Menon’s visit is a reflection of the unbelievable transformation in America’s public perception of India in recent years. But unfortunately, that transformation has not proportionately extended to what one could broadly describe as the ‘Washington establishment’.
The domestic press corps in Washington that covers the US government is one of the most conformist in the world: that includes the US media that covers the state department, which, by and large, takes its cue from the official line. Take, for instance, this question about the Indo-US nuclear deal from an American reporter at the state department’s daily briefing one day last month, the day Menon’s visit was officially announced by the Americans. “Have you told them, (Indians) ‘Look, we are not going to change our law, just drop this, it is a dead end,’ and they (Indians) have not taken that hint'”
Menon and his team were met in Washington during their recent visit with charm. But that charm was preceded in the weeks before their visit by a posturing of firmness and very public declarations of frustration among Bush administration officials with India. Those expressions of frustration were interspersed with dire predictions about how bad things would be for New Delhi if it remained doggedly “inflexible” on the nuclear deal. In the run-up to the foreign secretary’s talks in Washington, Burns proved to be the master of spin, but he was no match for Menon in the actual negotiations.
Indeed, if Burns was the master of spin during the most recent Indo-US engagement, Menon was the master of negotiations. For what was originally planned as a routine Foreign Office consultation on global issues, the amount of planning that went into Menon’s dialogue with the Americans was impressive.
Actually, the Americans left New Delhi with few options when they upped the ante in April by their public posturing on the nuclear deal. So, almost immediately after checking in at his hotel, the foreign secretary quietly slipped into a restaurant two blocks from the White House where he was met by India’s ambassador to the US, Ronen Sen, to plot the strategy for what had suddenly become a crucial engagement with the Bush administration. Sen brought to bear on that strategy his veteran’s experience in having been part of a small group that secretly negotiated the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, pushed through, against heavy odds, Rajiv Gandhi’s historic re-opening to China in 1988, and commissioned the first position paper in South Block favouring the establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel.
Significantly, the two men chose not to meet in Menon’s hotel suite or at Sen’s residence. They absolutely wanted to ensure that their strategy session would not be bugged or that the Americans would not electronically listen in on their conversation. No one else was present at that dinner. Early next morning, the foreign secretary had breakfast with Robert Blackwill, one of India’s lobbyists in Washington. As a “Vulcan” who, along with the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, taught George W. Bush foreign policy during his first presidential campaign in 2000, former ambassador to India and former White House aide on Iraq, Blackwill still has considerable clout within the Bush administration. No one else was present at the breakfast at which Menon did some plain speaking.
The foreign secretary’s meeting with Burns was still more than 24 hours away, and before that Menon had to get out of his way the consultations with the Americans on global issues, which was what had brought him to Washington in the first place. That 24-hour gap was a window for Blackwill to convey New Delhi’s displeasure with the Bush administration’s tactics of trying to twist India’s arm on the nuclear deal. But as it turned out, the Indian delegation did not have to wait till they met Burns the next morning at the state department. That very evening, Burns hosted a small dinner for Menon at a restaurant in the Watergate complex, which has been the scene of some key events in America’s recent history. There, in the presence of two Indian diplomats who have been negotiating the nitty-gritty of the so-called 123 Agreement to operationalize the nuclear deal, Burns was contrite. The Americans had realized that they made a mistake in trying to push the Manmohan Singh government’s back closer to the wall in an effort to extract more compromises on New Delhi’s positions on its nuclear policies and on non-proliferation. Burns admitted as much.
Once that was done, the negotiations were much easier. If the Americans had done their homework a little better, they would have realized well before the Watergate dinner that the foreign secretary is not a pushover. After all, Menon was the one who negotiated the Peace and Tranquility Agreement with China when he was joint secretary (East Asia), an agreement that has ensured ‘peace and tranquility’ along the Sino-Indian border for more than a decade. He has been consistent throughout his career in the Indian Foreign Service on how to bury the issue of Sikkim with the Chinese and he succeeded in doing that during his tenure as ambassador in Beijing.
Once the air was clear, it became possible for the Indian and US delegations, the next morning, to take a realistic view of where the nuclear deal was headed. After all, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has invested considerable political capital in the deal he worked out with Bush, at times risking much. He cannot walk away from it without denting the credibility and standing of his government. For Bush, India is about the only foreign policy success he can show after almost six and a half years in office. The White House does not want to jeopardize that.
The current optimism that the nuclear deal can go into its next stage stems from that realistic acknowledgement that both sides made during their day-long meeting at the state department on May 1. That does not mean that all is now well with the deal. But one difficult stage has certainly been crossed in its tumultuous passage through the various inevitable stages before fruition.