The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The US has brought its relations with India to another crossroads

The CPI(M) politburo’s ready response to America’s announcement that Pakistan is to be its “major non-Nato ally” is a timely reminder for Indians of the horrors that the governments of V.P. Singh, H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral perpetrated on their country’s foreign policy. As Indians prepare to vote once again, it ought to be a warning against letting the “third force” anywhere near South Block as a consequence of the coming elections. Of all the political parties, the reaction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to the announcement of the American secretary of state, Colin Powell, in Islamabad was totally out of proportion with the reward that Pervez Musharraf is being given. The Congress’s reaction notwithstanding, the exigencies of current electoral politics were surprisingly legitimate, logical and justified.

From the distance of Washington, it is difficult to judge if the statement of the external affairs ministry’s spokesman, a day after the politburo and the All India Congress Committee made known their positions, was triggered by opposition criticism of the government or a normal diplomatic response to what happened in Islamabad. At any rate, South Block’s statement was measured, although events that lie ahead may prove that Indian diplomacy would have been better served if the top echelons of the ministry of external affairs had decided against making any statement at all.

This column is not famous for its sympathy or support to American foreign policy positions. Nor does it believe that India and the United States of America are or can be “natural allies”, although it values the phrase coined by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Bill Clinton four years ago as a cliché that is useful while writing columns or making speeches.

Therefore, this columnist does not share the views of many of his contemporaries rationalizing Powell’s Islamabad announcement on the grounds that George W. Bush has to fight an election at home or that September 11 has to be juxtaposed against Pakistan’s reward. At the same time, there ought to be no doubt at all in the minds of any Indian who is interested in foreign policy, be it a member of parliament or an ordinary citizen, that the US, without doubt, represents the most important foreign policy priority for New Delhi.

India hopes to be a global power in the 21st century. It is a hope which finds an echo across the world: it is certainly not being dismissed any longer as some pipe-dream of Vajpayee’s. India would also like the world to return to multi-polarity with New Delhi as one of the poles. These are legitimate objectives, but realizing these objectives requires a level of maturity which has sadly been lacking in the handling of Powell’s announcement that Pakistan would be America’s “major non-Nato military ally”.

The CPI(M) politburo claimed in its statement on March 19, a day after Powell’s announcement in Islamabad, that “the Vajpayee government had reduced India’s foreign policy to that of a supplicant of the US”. Come on, a supplicant would not turn down a request for what, for all practical purposes, would have been Indian mercenaries to fight America’s war in Iraq. A supplicant would have stood firmly behind the US trade representative, Robert Zoellick, in Cancun and endorsed Washington’s agenda at the World Trade Organization. India’s commerce minister, Arun Jaitley, did not.

In dealing with an issue like Pakistan’s new military relationship with the US, New Delhi ought to learn from Moscow and Beijing. Powell’s treatment of India last month in hyphenating the Bush administration’s relations with Islamabad on the one hand, and with New Delhi on the other, pales into insignificance compared to the lengths to which successive US administrations have gone in needling China. But China never works itself up over those affronts. Not a week passes in Washington without the Americans criticizing the Chinese on Capitol Hill or at the state department or at the White House. China’s human rights record, the strength of its currency, its labour practices…nothing is excluded.

The Americans also sell arms to Taiwan, which the Chinese consider to be a grave provocation. But the Chinese, unlike the Indians, never go into contortions over such issues. When the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed by the Americans during the Clinton administration’s war against Yugoslav Serbs, the Chinese government calibrated demonstrations — even attacks — against the US embassy in Beijing, but only so as to protect national pride, ensuring that relations with America did not deteriorate beyond control.

All this while, the Chinese have gone about singlemindedly pursuing their objective of exporting more to the US, acquiring American technology, and as it now turns out, penetrating every possible aspect of American life, structure and society which could be beneficial to China’s long-term goal of replacing the US as the world’s leading superpower. America’s trade gap with China is now at a new record high, and China is now America’s big- gest creditor.

Similarly, the Americans increasingly criticize every aspect of Russian life and society under Vladimir Putin. The Bush administration said on record that the elections to the Duma, the Russian parliament, were flawed. It blatantly intervened in Russia’s judicial process when Putin’s government cracked down on Russia’s oligarchs, ignoring the logic that if some of these oligarchs became billionaires over- night, it simply could not have been because of the wonders of the free market, but because of the corruption, patronage and favouritism under an alcoholic Boris Yeltsin, who was Washington’s long-time friend and ally.

Undaunted by such carping and hostility in Washington, Putin’s Russia has gone about taking its ties with the Americans to new heights. Russia has been, for some time now, the biggest source of America’s energy needs. The US is now more dependent on Russia for its oil than it was at any time on the Arabs.

Putin has zealously protected his personal equation with Bush, so much so that his foreign office had the freedom to team up with France and Germany within the United Nations security council and outside to oppose America’s war on Iraq. Putin has also never lost sight of his immediate, short-term, but urgent goal of ensuring that he has a free hand — a heavy hand — in dealing with Chechen terrorists. That is the kind of relationship which India should aspire to build with the Americans, instead of whining about what Washington does with Pakistan or anyone else to protect whatever it sees as its interests.

India followed such a policy in the months after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US. The national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, successfully argued within the top policy-making councils of the government that, irrespective of what the Americans chose to do with Musharraf, India should independently do what it needs to do to improve ties with the US.

It is a policy that served New Delhi well in the last two-and-a-half years. Musharraf, who refused to even acknowledge during his visit to Agra that there was any cross-border terrorism against India, would not have made a public commitment last year not to allow Pakistani territory for terrorist acts across the border if such a policy had not been successful. India cannot abandon that policy simply because the US is doing with Pakistan what it thinks is in its best interest. The Congress, unlike the CPI(M), was legitimate in asking last month how the government planned to deal with the fallout of Powell’s announcement in Islamabad. It also legitimately sought to know if Powell had given India any advance notice of his announcement.

Actually, India should see Powell’s statement in Islamabad as an opportunity. It would, if only it had greater self-esteem in dealing with Pakistan and chose not to be on the defensive with the US. The just-concluded meeting of Sino-Indian defence ministers, the steady improvement in relations between New Delhi and Beijing, have all caused concern in influential sections of Washington opinion involved in the process of decision-making.

The problem is that on the one hand, India underestimates its own strength and its room for manoeuvre in dealing with the US. It also has the liability of a lobby in New Delhi, which looks up to Washington the way communists were once loyal to Moscow or to Beijing. To that extent, by making Pakistan a non-Nato ally, the Americans have brought their relations with India to another crossroads.

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