Let me admit at the very outset that on this count I am in a minuscule minority in Lutyens’s Delhi, in Hampstead and Islington, in Manhattan’s Upper West side and in all the watering holes of radical cosmopolitanism.
I was one of those who celebrated enthusiastically that afternoon in April when Baghdad fell and the TV channels were saturated with images of jubilant Iraqis pulling down gigantic statues of the dictator. I am among the few who believe that India should be an active participant in the coalition in Iraq led by the United States of America because enlightened self-interest demands it. Consequently, I found it intensely satisfying to learn last Sunday that the man mythologized by the post-9/11 school of they-had-it-coming America-haters as the modern Saladin had yielded tamely and without so much as a token fight.
After months of enduring taunts of being a lackey of an imbecile President George W. Bush, the we-got-him announcement in Baghdad gave every paid up member of the global right-wing conspiracy reason to gloat. I just loved the onrush of selective indignation in the disoriented utterances of the friends of the suicide bombers. They reminded me of the Sunday morning last October when the liberal shouting brigade heard in complete disbelief their media counterparts offering contrite explanations of why they had got it so horribly wrong in Gujarat.
I never expected the sober government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee to echo my heady triumphalism. All governments can’t be expected to emulate the spontaneous forthrightness of a Berl- usconi or a Bush. Yet, I was struck by the anodyne response of the external affairs minister, Yashwant Sinha. India, he said, after emerging from a meeting of the cabinet committee on security, has “noted” Saddam Hussein’s arrest by the US forces.
Sinha’s was a careful, pre-meditated response. The CCS, that eve- ning, had discussed the implications of Saddam’s capture and had also deliberated at length on the growing frostiness in Indo-US relations. The group may even have considered a renewed request from Washington for India to commit itself symbolically to the coalition in Iraq — a lesser request than last summer’s invitation to des- patch a division of the Indian army to northern Iraq. Sinha’s non-comment epitomized the government’s complete lack of enthusiasm.
The CCS was sufficiently mindful of the principles of good neighbourliness to condemn the so-called assassination attempt on Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, but at the same time it showed a complete disregard for the sensitivities of the Republican establishment in the US. What compounds the offence is that it is the Republican neo-conservatives who are the doughtiest crusaders against Islamist terrorism, a menace that plagues both democracies. Iraq is their war, their version of the triumph of good over evil. By repeatedly spurning this endeavour — let us not forget the puerile resolution of the Indian Parliament at the height of the Iraq war — India has established its credentials as a difficult customer. We may not be as vocal as France and Germany, but qualitatively we are no less cussed. Don’t expect Washington to forget this in a tearing hurry.
It is puzzling that the nearest thing India has ever had to a right-wing regime is at odds with an administration in Washington that shares its political premises. The Bush administration has completely jettisoned the non-proliferation claptrap of President Clinton. It shares the BJP’s complete abhorrence of Islamist terror and was responsible for dismantling a regime in Afghanistan that we so wanted to remove but lacked the ability to confront. Its stalwarts like Colin Powell may have entered into a tactically expedient relationship with Musharraf and glossed over many of his documented misdeeds. But this is not an administration that propped up the Hurriyat Conference or has as its secretary of state a woman who nurtures hopes of a plebiscite in Kashmir. India is fortunate that there exists in Washington today an administration that shares a value-system centred on democracy, entrepreneurship and national culture. Yet there is a growing mismatch of ideas and aspirations.
At a high level of superficiality, the US double-speak on Pakistan is the problem. Yes, the Bush administration has been excessively generous to Musharraf, overlooking Pakistan’s complicity in the creation of the networks of terror. It entertains a touching faith in Musharraf’s ability to isolate the Islamists at home and, maybe, nudge Pakistan in the direction of modernity. At the same time, it has put enough pressure on Islamabad to rein in the jihadis who equate Kashmir with Palestine. If cross-border terrorism has come down several notches, some of the credit must also go to the US.
Of course, the US has put countervailing pressure on India to exercise restraint, even when this is completely unwarranted. But this owes a lot to the dread of a nuclear war and not because it perceives Pakistan as an ally, as it did during the Cold War. On the contrary, there is a greater awareness of India’s role as a strategic partner that can keep China’s towering ambitions in check. Purely in terms of business — which counts for a lot in the Bush camp — India is head and shoulders over Pakistan, even if it does steal many American jobs.
However, at a time when the buzz in New Delhi is about a peace dividend and the prime minister shies away from even mentioning terrorism in his public utterances, must the US’s encouragement of Musharraf sour relations' Surely it should prompt more intense engagement and an appreciation of each other’s concerns.
The real issue, it seems to me, is more fundamental. There are suggestions that the CCS was concerned that the capture of Saddam and a possible strengthening of the coalition’s hold over Iraq would embolden the US globally. That is an inevitable consequence. But should India fear an outpouring of American self-confidence in an imperfect world, even if it does verge at times on arrogance' Do the fundamentals of US policy, even accounting for the idealistic excesses of the neo-conservatives, conflict with Indian aspirations'
The answer is a categorical yes if India persists in the belief that the creation of a multi-polar world is a desired objective. Perhaps unipolarity will increase US pressure on New Delhi to be more accommodating towards the Kashmiri separatists, just as it has increased the pressure on Israel to be less unyielding towards the fledgling Palestinian authority. But Israel has managed this intrusiveness more deftly because it knows that at the end of the day the suicide bomber is as much anti-American as he is anti-Israeli. The Lashkar-e-Toiba activist or the Jaish-e-Mohammed mujahedin is as passionately against the US as he is against India. India, like Israel, is bound to the US by a common concern — terrorism. It is this bond that demands a more nuanced approach to other irritants in the relationship.
India has to ask itself a basic question. Who benefits from the US retiring from Iraq with a bloody nose' The sanctimonious European Union may revel in the possible vindication of multilateralism, but that is not how the infamous Arab street will view the outcome. For the forces of darkness, it will signal abiding faith in the world view of Hamas and al Qaida. Bush and Blair or bin Laden, is there a real choice'
Never mind the avoidable John Wayne act, the contest in Iraq is between two world views. India cannot afford to be detached. We need not be combatants in Mesopotamia, but we can avoid being disdainful towards those who are fighting the war we don’t have the stomach for. Let us not forget that the road from Baghdad also leads to Islamabad.