When Standard & Poor’s strips the United States of America of its top-notch credit rating, S&P’s president, Deven Sharma, has to resign instead of the US acknowledging its lowered credit status with humility and a bit of introspection. It has nothing to do with Sharma being an Indian-American or because he could not convincingly defend the downgrade.
Similarly, when Dominique Strauss-Kahn is falsely accused of sexually assaulting a hotel maid by the New York Police Department and a district attorney there, it is the Frenchman who has to resign from his job as managing director of the International Monetary Fund while no head rolls in the city police and the district attorney moves on to his next case as if nothing happened. The real victim in this case, Strauss-Kahn, meanwhile can no longer hope to achieve what could have been the pinnacle of his life’s work: the French presidency.
Take another example. Kofi Annan was alright for a full five-year term and well into his second term as United Nations secretary general as long as he did not rub the Americans the wrong way. But Annan was opposed to George W. Bush’s war on Iraq and against Washington “seeking to use the UN almost by stealth as a diplomatic tool”, as his deputy, Mark Malloch Brown, said in another context.
And out of nowhere came insinuations that Annan’s only son, Kojo, had illegally profited from the UN’s “oil-for-food” programme. The Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunday Times, which led the smear campaign against the Annans, father and son, eventually settled a libel suit that Kojo Annan filed in London for £250,000 and confessed that the newspaper “entirely accepts that the allegation was untrue”.
The paper’s charge was that Kojo Annan had negotiated “to sell two million barrels of Iraqi oil to a Moroccan company in 2001” under the oil-for-food programme. But despite the Sunday Times apology and Kofi Annan’s eventual exoneration by an Independent Inquiry Committee led by the former US federal reserve chairman, Paul Volcker, the damage was done. The secretary general could no longer use his bully pulpit at the UN as a secular Pope or act as the world’s conscience-keeper.
The new rule of international relations is still the old one. It is all right to be a s** of a b**** as long you are Washington’s s** of a b****, a popular quote originally attributed to Franklin Roosevelt with reference to the Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza García, which has since been liberally used by many Americans to define US foreign policy goals and interests. And god help any foreign leader who happens to be a s** of a b**** with a streak of independence from Washington.
One of the smartest things that India did in reshaping its foreign policy in the post-Cold War period was to avoid any appearance of a direct conflict of interest with Washington, and at any rate, move away from a course of collision with the US on any issue. P.V. Narasimha Rao was the first prime minister to adopt this policy change. It was typical of the man in many ways and it reflected his persona, but in opting for this course, Rao may well have done more than just follow his instincts.
In 1991, Thomas Pickering, the US ambassador to the UN, came to New Delhi and called on Rao. India was then a member of the UN security council and was under severe pressure to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Pickering suggested after talks with Rao that India could privately make a commitment to Washington that it would abide by the NPT’s objectives even as it continued to stay out of the treaty. Ronald Lehman, director of the US arms control and disarmament agency, the arms control Czar in Washington, followed up on this idea soon afterwards during a visit to New Delhi.
As long as Rao remained prime minister, he fulfilled this commitment, although New Delhi’s official policy continued to be that it was free to exercise its nuclear option. In 1995, Rao tried to wriggle out of this commitment but was firmly held to account by Pickering’s successor as ambassador in New Delhi, Frank Wisner. But Rao also took a leaf out of the proposals by Pickering and Lehman and decided to cooperate with Washington even while continuing to proclaim his government’s non-alignment.
Rao’s practical approach in this regard was picked up by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government once the dust settled over the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests and Vajpayee declared that India and the US were “natural allies”. One fallout of the Anna Hazare/ Baba Ramdev/ Andimuthu Raja episodes is that the Rao-Vajpayee styles of engaging the US, which Manmohan Singh enhanced into an entente cordiale, is now in danger of unraveling.
There are more irritants in Indo-US relations now than at any point since the nuclear tests 13 years ago. The nuclear liability bill, the defence ministry’s decision to eliminate US bids for multi-role combat aircraft and consular/protocol tensions have strengthened concerns in Washington about India, which successive administrations since 1947 have viewed as too independent a country to be treated as an ally or even as a dependable friend.
Yet the Americans are not prepared to leave New Delhi alone because relations with India, Brazil, China and other emerging economies have become critical to American jobs and future prosperity as the US is progressively reduced to a “food stamp” nation, as one analytical report detailed last week. Between one-sixth and one-seventh of Americans now live on government handouts, a rise of three-quarters in the last four years, according to this fine piece of journalism by the Reuters.
One of the most perspicacious statements made by the prime minister during this last week of long parliamentary speeches warned that “we must not create an environment in which our economic progress is hijacked by internal dissension”. As some domestic television channels outdoing one another for rating points and influential foreign media combine to create an impression of instability in India, a campaign has begun in the US laying the blame for everything that is wrong with India on its inability to initiate the next generation of reforms.
That orchestrated message will be drummed up and communicated to Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma and Communications Minister Kapil Sibal when they are in Washington in the coming weeks. If the prime minister travels to the US for the UN general assembly, the CEOs who lunch with him whenever he is in New York will convey the same message to him. What the government must guard against in order to protect its cherished independence in relations with the US now is to avoid giving an impression of being weak or vulnerable.
When Russia became weak under Boris Yeltsin, an American adviser found his way into Andrei Kozyrev’s office in one of the most humiliating episodes in the history of that proud country. For some years almost up to Kozyrev’s unceremonious dismissal in 1996, no resident envoy in Moscow, including the Indian ambassador, could get to Kozyrev without a nod from this American. Recalling this experience is not to suggest that India is anywhere at or even near that point. But some show of strength will not be out of place to dispel an impression of pervasive weakness, drift and indecision in New Delhi.
A very senior home ministry official told this columnist during a visit to New Delhi recently that a proposal had been made by law enforcement agencies investigating a Rs 300-plus-crore fraud in Citibank’s Gurgaon offices that two American executives of the bank should be taken into custody as part of the investigations. According to this official, the suggestion was vetoed at a very high level.
Perhaps another generation of Indians will fret over this veto just as the country went into a tailspin recently over fixing the responsibility for allowing Union Carbide’s chairman, Warren Anderson, to escape from India after the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy. The home ministry official contends that there would have been no lawsuit against India’s consul-general in New York by his maid and the daughter of an Indian diplomat in New York would not have been dubiously detained if the law had taken its course in the Citibank fraud in Gurgaon. Reciprocity, it would seem, has become a one-way street in Indo-US relations.