Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s commendable effort this week to hold to account those presiding over the chaotic modernization of Delhi airport tells only half the story. On the night of February 18 this year, a prominent American, one who has been extremely active in promoting Indo-US relations, was a victim of the mess in Delhi airport, which he aptly compares to a “country bus station at best, after two years of reconstruction”.
Ron Somers, president of the US-India Business Council, was leaving Delhi for Frankfurt to catch a connection to Chicago, where the Indian commerce minister, Kamal Nath, was to give Americans a glimpse of a little-known side of the new India that is now being promoted globally. Somers was to be the master of ceremonies at the event which would show Americans that corporate India was well on its way towards emerging as a major investor in the United States of America instead of the other way round. Although he was a premium class passenger outbound for Frankfurt, Somers missed his plane after struggling for more than two-and-a-half hours in the chaotic airport to get on board. His perseverance got him on another flight that was circuitous. Because Frankfurt airport was a breeze unlike Delhi, Somers managed to get to the venue of the event in Chicago just in time for the programme which had the impressive theme: “Investing in America — The Indian Story”.
Somers has since told the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission the story of his travails in Delhi airport. So have several Americans, especially from the big multinational corporations, who have not had the privilege that is accorded to the likes of Nicholas Burns and Richard Boucher of being escorted to lounges reserved for special diplomatic visitors while their staff check them in for their flight.
These Americans have narrated their tales of woe about Delhi airport to ministers, including the minister for civil aviation, Praful Patel, himself. It is to Ahluwalia’s credit that while these ministers couldn’t care less about the travails of the public at the airport — as long as they were themselves escorted in comfort to the VIP lounge and thereafter to the departure gate —- the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission did act.
But it is equally a sad commentary on the state of today’s India that virtually no one in authority bothered about what their own people had to put up with, but it made a difference when Americans aired their grievances. The old adage that only “crying babies get the milk” must now be amended in an Indian context to “only crying babies from America” get any milk in Delhi. Ahluwalia’s action has been widely praised in India, but it is also an occasion to consider where India’s preoccupation with America — not the obsession of the government, but the preoccupation of society at large — is taking the country and its people. The authors, Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, have quoted Benazir Bhutto and the former US ambassador in Pakistan, Robert Oakley, in their book, Deception: Pakistan, The United States and the Global Nuclear Weapons Conspiracy, published last year, about conditions in Pakistan when Benazir Bhutto became prime minister for the first time nearly 20 years ago. She went to the prime minister’s office only to find that every single file had been spirited out of that office.
Bhutto called the chief of army staff, who was then General Aslam Beg. He told her that all the files that used to go to the prime minister would henceforth go to the president. What did Bhutto do next? She rang up the then US ambassador to Pakistan, Robert Oakley, and requested him to accompany her to a meeting with General Beg and the then chief of the Inter Service Intelligence, General Hamid Gul. At that meeting, a compromise was reached: Bhutto could see files except those relating to the nuclear programme, the army, Afghanistan and, of course, relations with India. India is not quite there yet with regard to American influence and how much US interests can manipulate the country. But the US input into the decision to call to account those managing Delhi airport’s discredited reconstruction is an occasion for some introspection.
To be fair to the Manmohan Singh government, it did not start the trend towards setting the Americans apart from everyone else. When Frank Wisner arrived in India in 1994 as US ambassador, the then foreign secretary broke diplomatic convention and invited Wisner for dinner to his residence in the capital’s Circular Road even though the new ambassador was yet to present his credentials to the president. Jawaharlal Nehru had thoughtfully introduced the protocol that when a head of state or government was visiting New Delhi, India’s ambassador to that state would travel with the visiting leader in the same car throughout the guest’s stay in the capital. It gave the envoy a rare opportunity to spend time with a president or prime minister with whom meetings in the capital where the ambassador was posted would, otherwise, be formal, even rare.
This decades-long convention was breached during Bill Clinton’s visit to India in 2000 at the request of the Americans. The problem with breaking protocol to suit one country is that word gets around in the tightly-knit diplomatic community and other embassies or high commissions want the same privilege to be extended to them. So by the time George W. Bush was in New Delhi in 2006, nobody even thought of raising the question of returning to Nehru’s protocol. Of course, protocol and conventions should never be so sacrosanct that they trump everything else. The question that Indians should ask themselves in the context of bending over backwards to please the Americans these days is whether their country is getting enough in return for such diplomatic excesses. The answer, alas, is in the negative. And that is jarring, considering that smaller states like Singapore or Jordan are able to get away with much more in their dealings with the US than India has been able to in recent years.
Again, to be fair, the poor returns are partly on account of an inability in New Delhi to think innovatively and act with imagination. Everyone in the United Progressive Alliance government from the prime minister down has been campaigning in the last four years to attract investment, especially much-needed infrastructure investment, from abroad. And yet, most Indian documents relating to such investment still begin with the line that the government has “permitted” foreign investment in a specific project or industry. American and other entrepreneurs would like to see India “welcoming” foreign investment, but bureaucrats in New Delhi and the state capitals are still unable to bring themselves to go beyond “permitting” foreign money into projects. The “permit raj” may have been diluted in law, but it is still very much alive as an attitude.
The delay in concluding a bilateral investment treaty with the US is another instance. The babus in New Delhi have quibbled over the language and content of such a treaty for some years. Meanwhile, Indian investments in the US have now exceeded American investments in India following an explosion in the outflow of Indian capital. A bilateral investment treaty, to say the least, is now as much in India’s interest as it is in America’s own. The only people who do not seem to realize this are the bureaucrats in India’s economic ministries. It is perhaps a curious coincidence that Isher Judge Ahluwalia, chairperson of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations and wife of the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, has been a leading voice for concluding a bilateral investment treaty with the US by the end of 2008. She has advocated the deadline in her capacity as an active member of the Indo-US private sector advisory group set up last year. According to the grapevine in New Delhi, Montek Ahluwalia got the rare opportunity to come face to face with the state of Delhi airport when he went to see her off on a foreign trip. It is perhaps too early to tell whether a review of the airport reconstruction by the Planning Commission on Monday was merely a flash in the pan or if it holds out a promise that things may yet change in India for the better.