The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- India does not know what it wants from its relations with the US

Contrary to the rosy picture painted in New
Delhi, relations between India and the United States of America are in danger of regressing, or, to take a more optimistic view, stagnating. But even as this happens, it is unlikely to be noticed except by those involved in the nitty-gritty of the bilateral relationship.

Because Indian Americans have become such a high-profile community in the US, because even two-penny Capitol Hill interns visiting India take up full pages of news- print in national dailies in cities like New Delhi, because the ethnic Indian print publications and TV stations have proliferated in the US, an impression will linger in the public mind ' even as Indo-US relations are at a dead end in the immediate future ' that the relationship is, in fact, thriving. Because Bobby Jindal is likely to be elected to Congress in November, an illusion is being created that India and the US have in common something valuable that defies description: it no longer matters to the public that Jindal cannot stand Indians or their values or their beliefs.

This columnist has returned from the recently concluded national conventions of the Democratic and the Republican parties with the conviction that Indo-US relations are back to that memorable phrase used by Robin Raphel when she called on the then foreign secretary, J.N. Dixit, just before her departure from New Delhi as political counsellor at the US embassy to take charge as the controversial assistant secretary of state for south Asia in the first Bill Clinton administration. 'India is not on the American radar, Mr Dixit,' Raphel said at that meeting. A decade has passed since that encounter and there has, indeed, been a transformation in Indo-US relations.

What may not endure is the substantive part of that transformation in relations. The ground has been prepared in the last decade for building an Indo-US equation that opens new vistas in the 21st century, and creates opportunities for New Delhi and Washington to cooperate for mutual benefit in areas that were simply unimaginable 10 or 15 years ago.

The Democrats have just one sentence in their manifesto about India. And that is about the US's role in a future Democratic administration about resolving differences between New Delhi and Islamabad. The same sentence is repeated, almost word by word, in the context of resolving nuclear issues in the sub-continent. The final draft of the Republican manifesto had more on India, but much of it was a back-handed compliment. Factual and blunt as the Republicans usually are, they put India in its place in the American scheme of things in this document.

Yet, at the eleventh hour at the Republican national convention in New York, expediency prevailed. After all, the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign has several 'Rangers' and 'Pioneers' from among Indian Americans. (Rangers are those who raise at least $ 200,000 for the re-election of President George W. Bush, while Pioneers bring in at least $ 100,000 in campaign funds.) The Republican manifesto, in its final form, therefore, is 'very promising' on Indo-US relations, the party's spin doctors never tire of telling south Asian journalists these days. But a careful examination of the manifesto shows that it merely lists what has been done between the Bush administration and the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government from 2001 till now. It offers no new vision, makes no promises about the future. Unless South Block can pull its bilateral relations with the US up by its boot-straps, the risk is that all the good work that has been done in the last ten years is in danger of being irretrievably eroded.

It is in danger of being eroded because India does not know what it wants from its relations with the US. Unlike Pervez Musharraf, for instance. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government was unifocal in its dealings with the Americans. Between 1998 and 2000, it set about successfully using the Americans to manipulate the rest of the world on India's nuclear tests and its fallout. It is a testimony to the success of that effort that today India is not among the pariahs of the international community, accused of being rogue states on account of nuclear weapons. Indeed, the world has recognized New Delhi's de facto status as a nuclear weapons power although de jure it remains outside the cosy club of nuclear weapons states.

Having accomplished this objective, the Vajpayee government turn- ed its attention to the issues of high technology trade. The Chinese adopted a similar approach at least 15 years ago, recognizing that access to American technology was imperative to their country's modernization. It was inevitable that at some point India would have been required to work out within South Block what it actually wants of its new, improved relationship with the Americans. It is now a matter of academic debate whether the NDA government would have been able to address this challenge had it been returned to power.

What matters is that notwithstanding the United Progressive Alliance government's assertions to the contrary, it is yet to define or seriously work on its ties with Washington. What is worse, the trust and confidence that was there between the two capitals during the Vajpayee government, despite occasional differences and tensions between the two sides, have been broken and no efforts are being made to repair the damage.

Therefore, it was with great expectations that the news of Ronen Sen being chosen by the UPA government as its new ambassador to the US was received both in India and in the US. Sen came to his post in Washington with excellent diplomatic credentials and a reputation as a workaholic in Rajiv Gandhi's PMO. He was credited with having been the architect of one of the most spectacular turnarounds in Indian diplomacy: the need to build bridges of friendship with Israel.

It was expected that Sen would give expression to what India wanted to make of its ties with America in the next few years, conceptualizing the relationship and going beyond the fire-fighting that the Vajpayee government initially engaged in with Washington and then defining modest goals in the bilateral arena. Unfortunately for India and the Manmohan Singh government, instead of meeting such expectations and taking a high road, Sen has, instead, taken the petty path of settling scores within the Indian foreign service and guarding his turf like a lowly tehsildar. His first priority became an effort to replace his deputy chief of mission, Rakesh Sood.

In the state department and other agencies of the US government, there is an acute awareness that, should the UPA government collapse, Sen, as a political appointee, is most likely to end up back in New Delhi. But Sood will logically continue to be part of any Indian delegation seriously discussing nuclear issues with any foreign government until he retires from service nine years from now. India would be poorer if Sood, and others like him in the IFS, have to pay the price for the ambassador's arrangements of convenience.

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