I ran into a high-profile member of Ambassador David Mulford’s team at the American embassy in New Delhi a few months ago on a street close to my home just outside Washington. After the usual pleasantries, he told me how out of touch we Indian correspondents in Washington were about the flourishing and promising state of Indo-US relations. “You guys should come to New Delhi and see how good things are,” he told me and went on to draw for me a picture of Indo-US relations of the kind that former East bloc diplomats used to paint of their countries’ ties with India in the Indira Gandhi era. He was not spinning for me. Having known the man for many years before he went on a posting to New Delhi, I am convinced that he believed every word of what he was saying to be true.
I tried to tell him that like several of my colleagues from the south Asian media fraternity here, I have been visiting India regularly. I could have told him that the crisis precipitated by the Left parties this month has been in the making for at least a year. But he did not want to listen. Ensconced in the unreal world of Chanakyapuri, reading New Delhi’s English language press, he was sure that the next decade — at least — belonged to India and the US in what they were going to do together.
New Delhi’s diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri can be extremely deluding. My wife, a former European diplomat, lived in Chanakyapuri for close to four years on a posting in India: so I know from personal experience how the imaginatively-named Shanti Path and Kautilya Marg could remove anyone living there from the realities of India. Politicians and journalists in New Delhi have always “spiritually” fed into the assessments of ambassadors in Chanakyapuri, based largely on what these envoys see of India through the tinted windows of their limousines or on vignettes picked up from the capital’s cocktail circuit and in restaurants in New Delhi’s five-star hotels. How else could a diplomat as seasoned and accomplished as Yuli Vorontsov, the Soviet ambassador to India from 1977 to 1983, have reported back to Moscow that Indira Gandhi was finished forever after her electoral defeat following the Emergency'
Twelve years ago, a central Asian ambassador in New Delhi sent a cable back home that P.V. Narasimha Rao would be returned to power in the general election in 1996. An Indophile who spoke better Hindi than English, this ambassador was summarily recalled by his autocratic Soviet-era apparatchik president, who has a reputation of dipping his opponents in boiling oil. The ambassador, a very likeable man, has since not been seen in public.
The unfortunate difference between the yesteryear and now is that then, officials, journalists and politicians who pandered to the diplomatic community in Chanakyapuri were those who could deliver very little to diplomats. Under the Manmohan Singh government, a symbiotic relationship has flourished between Western diplomats in New Delhi and influential men and women in office. As a result, decisions of cabinet committees have been changed to Washington’s benefit by members of a coterie without the concerned minister even being told about a change before it was done.
Rootless cabinet ministers, who cannot win a Lok Sabha election but are loyal to the mantra of free market and globalization, have taken charge of statecraft. It has left other cabinet members who cannot speak good English or choose the right cheese and wine, but have a following of their own, smarting because they have found themselves out of the process of actual decision-making. More often than not, particularly in the last year and a half, the latter have been presented with a fait accompli on many matters that concern the nation’s destiny.
The requirement of “political clearance” from South Block for meetings between foreign diplomats and officials across the spectrum of the government of India is now largely observed in its breach. As a result, it is no longer unusual to see a first secretary from a Western embassy freely running around the corridors of a sensitive ministry, meeting an additional secretary or a full secretary. But to New Delhi’s shame, this has largely been a one-way traffic: as recently as last week, the protocol book was thrown in the face of a senior Indian official who sought a meeting with a Bush administration operative who was slightly above the rank of the Indian.
It was inevitable under those circumstances that a crisis of the kind that the United Progressive Alliance is now faced with had to come: the only question was when it would explode in the face of this government.
On one of my two visits to India this year, I met five members of Manmohan Singh’s council of ministers: all of them had reservations about the nuclear deal with the United States of America. Those in charge on Raisina Hill, the seat of executive power in India, did not think at any stage since the July 18, 2005 Indo-US summit that it was necessary to fully and comprehensively explain to such doubters the full implications of the deal with Washington. Instead, their support was taken for granted.
One of those ministers was in the US on a day when the nuclear deal crossed one of several stages of its adoption in the complex American system. The minister was under pressure to speak to the ethnic Indian media in the US in support of the deal. He was particularly encouraged by Indian Americans, who have been sincerely at work for the success of the deal. This minister would not have got to where he is today without a strong political sixth sense, which perhaps told him that an opinion from a journalist who has been covering the deal would do no harm. I referred him to a statement that had been issued a few hours earlier by the external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee, which was typically reserved, cautious and certainly did not gloat over the significant advance that the nuclear deal had made in Washington that day. The visiting minister immediately took the cue from Mukherjee and did not say anything on record about the deal during the rest of his US visit.
The build-up to the current crisis in New Delhi and its political handling are in stark contrast to the way Narasimha Rao dealt with similar situations. Rao used to be as fed up as the present prime minister on many occasions and faced many crises which were potentially far more destructive during his five years at 7, Race Course Road than the present one. If Manmohan Singh had reflected on some of his experiences as Rao’s cabinet colleague and drawn on them, perhaps the UPA would not be in its current predicament. Whether it was on the politically-sensitive proposal, in 1991, to nominate Rajiv Gandhi’s aide, V. George, to the Rajya Sabha (which Rao so cleverly neutralized), or the decision to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel, or his successful effort to nudge the country decisively to the right of centre on all fronts, the late prime minister never allowed the politically relevant members of his cabinet to be left out of the process. Quite often, he trapped them into agreeing to something, but they were willing to be trapped, after which they were part of the process unlike in the current Congress-led government.
In the end, the nuclear deal with the US is not a disease that is eating into the UPA government. The deal is merely symptomatic of what is wrong with it. Last year, another aide to Mulford offered me a story. Actually, it was more of a campaign to change government policy than a single story. I turned it down, but shortly thereafter, the US embassy in New Delhi did manage to change policy in New Delhi by running the campaign in another newspaper. That is what happens to a government which is more concerned about opinion in the plush drawing rooms of South Delhi than in the soggy shanties of Mumbai’s Dharavi. It is subtle subversion of this kind that Prakash Karat is resisting with his ultimatum, not just the nuclear deal. And there are several members of the UPA cabinet who agree with Karat in principle although they do not endorse his tactics, if only because they may end up losing their jobs.