The public conduct of foreign policy tends to focus excessively on the spectacular. This is as true for India as it is for Western democracies and African potentates. The past fortnight witnessed another round of India-Pakistan talks that yielded more by way of TV footage and people-to-people contacts than any meaningful diplomatic progress. Likewise, the photo opportunity on November 30 involving the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, at the ASEAN summit generated a needless bout of irrational exuberance.
No similar frenzy has greeted the revelation that India 's ambassador to the United States of America briefed the political leadership in New Delhi about a curious offer by Washington. With the supply of 18 F-16 aircraft to Pakistan poised at a very delicate stage, India has been alerted to the possibility of the recharged George W. Bush administration offering New Delhi a clutch of military hardware. On offer is not only the very same F-16s that Pakistan has been trying desperately to secure for over a decade but the Patriot anti-missile system, C-130 stretched medium lift transport aircraft and P-3C Orion maritime surveillance planes.
Although India has purchased significant amounts of US-developed military hardware in the past seven years, the supplies have mainly been routed through a third country ' Israel. This is possibly the first time since the early Sixties that the US has signalled its willingness to let India have the pick of its conventional weapons, supplied directly.
It is reassuring that an overture of this magnitude has not produced a flurry of hasty and hysterical reactions. A cautious prime minister has merely indicated India's interest in some of the hardware on offer. The subject will, no doubt, form an important part of the talks with the visiting US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, next week.
However, even before the Bush administration has formally spelt out the details of its blueprint to take Indo-US relations to newer heights, an unpublicized debate on the subject has begun in military, political and diplomatic circles. The cynical view emanating from the diplomatic quarters of South Block is that the whole thing is a disingenuous US attempt to dilute India's opposition to the imminent clearance of F-16 sales to Pakistan. A more conspiratorial suggestion, based on Cold War assumptions, is that the US is attempting to undermine India's special relationship with Russia on the eve of President Putin's visit. Another view is that the whole thing is part of Washington's assault on French interests globally.
There is no doubt that the US's reported willingness to clear India for the sale of hi-tech conventional weapons has unnerved the entrenched arms lobby in India. Fearful of a new entrant into a lucrative but fiercely competitive market, the established suppliers from Russia , France, Israel and Britain are certain to undertake a fierce bout of pre-emptive lobbying. One European country with a visceral hatred of the present dispensation in Washington has, it is reported, already become hyper-active in Delhi. Apart from the communists who see red at any possibility of the US increasing its stakes in India, there is likely to be some orchestrated opposition-for-its-own-sake from a section of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Questions are already being raised about the reliability of a supplier whose strategic interests are inextricably linked with Pakistan. Will there be assured supplies, ask the sceptics, in the event of a conflict with Pakistan'
The debate on the subject is certain to be quite passionate, acrimonious and even clouded by commercial considerations. The amassed intellectual baggage of the Cold War is likely to come into full play, not least because the forthrightness and radicalism of the Bush administration is anathema to many.
Yet, despite the fact that there are many pertinent queries that arise from the US offer, it would be injudicious to view Washington's offer in narrow military terms alone. The offer of advanced military hardware is in many ways purely symbolic and symptomatic of the US's desire to transform India into a worthwhile strategic partner. Indo-US relations having suffered for long on account of the state department's clear tilt towards Pakistan, there is now a desire on the part of the Bush administration to correct the imbalance by treating India as a regional power in its own right.
This is not to suggest that Pakistan's undeniable importance in the war against terrorism ' Washington's overriding priority ' is about to be devalued. Having positioned himself quite adroitly as a moderate Islamic leader, President Pervez Musharraf will not let go any opportunity to be at the centre of US schemes to reorder the balance in Asia . Even if the pacification of Afghanistan meets with success, Pakistan's importance as a frontline state in the campaign to de-fang Iran's nuclear capabilities will remain. By a sheer accident of geography, Pakistan is destined to be one of the US 's most valuable allies for the foreseeable future. Contesting that reality runs the risk of telling the US that it must not act in its own national interest. The newly-appointed secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, by no means a natural supporter of Musharraf, is said to have bluntly said as much to India's foreign secretary last month.
Of course, India has its own problems with Pakistan. At the heart of the problem is Pakistan's claim on Jammu and Kashmir, and the problem is unlikely to go away in a hurry. There may be considerable bonhomie at people-to-people meets, but there is no evidence that the composite dialogue has made any progress whatsoever. Pakistan hopes that this stalemate, coupled with some orchestrated civil unrest in the Kashmir valley and the threat of renewed cross-border conflict, will force the US into a mediating role. Pakistan then hopes to cash its IOUs.
The US may not be willing to oblige. The Bush administration has drawn flak from its own supporters for being excessively indulgent towards Pakistan, particularly its role in nurturing al Qaida and its complicity in A.Q. Khan's 'nuclear Walmart'. Under Rice we may see Washington apply greater pressure on Musharraf to tone up his country's administration and economy ' in short, to undercut the so-called 'roots' of terrorism. Rice is more in tune with White House thinking than Colin Powell ever was. She tempers the traditional fascination for realpolitik with a corresponding stress on 'values'. That's not good news for Pakistan.
For India, the second Bush administration offers a wonderful opening to steer Washington out of the 'hyphenated' approach to south Asia. Equally, it offers possibilities for itself getting out of this mindset. Indo-US relations are being propelled at present by the hard realities of the global economy and India's own emergence as a regional power that ' to use the prime minister's own words ' is 'on the same side' as the US. Whether our Nehruvian ideologues like it or not, India 's importance to Washington lies in its role as a strategic and economic counterweight to China. This is a role that is far more demanding and significant than providing bases for troops engaged in hunting Osama bin Laden.
It is entirely possible that Washington's attempt to deepen its defence cooperation with India will not take off immediately. There are, after all, many old knots to be untangled and history to forget. However, it will serve India well to treat the offer as an expression of intent and respond accordingly. India may desire a multipolar world but it is in no position to redraw the global strategic balance. Rather than once again fall prey to motivated posturing, national interests will be better served by carving out our own definite space within Pax Americana.