Call on hold, not letter thorn

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By K.P. NAYAR in Washington
  • Published 7.11.08

Washington, Nov. 7: Indians may be going overboard on Barack Obama’s election as America’s 44th President, but so far the love affair between him and the Indian government is clearly one-sided.

According to Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s spokesperson, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was not among the first group of nine heads of state or government with whom the US President-elect had phone conversations today.

It is understood that efforts are under way to arrange a tele-conversation between Obama and Singh, but the Indian Prime Minister’s pointed absence from the first list of leaders to have been consulted by the incoming US President is a clear indication that India will not be a top priority for the next administration here.

Singh’s absence from today’s list is galling for another reason. Three of the nine leaders Obama spoke to are from the Asia Pacific region: Japan, South Korea and Australia.

For several years now, the view in Washington has been that India is an emerging global power, but also a pre-eminent Asian power.

That Obama did not feel the need to speak to India’s head of government before — or along with — Asian leaders in Seoul, Tokyo and Canberra is a clear pronouncement on where New Delhi stands even on Obama’s Asian radar.

The Indian government yesterday selectively leaked details of a letter written by Obama to the Prime Minister when Singh was in New York and Washington at the end of September.

The objective of the leak was to stem speculation that Indo-US relations would either stagnate or spiral downwards under the next Democratic administration and Congress in Washington.

What the leak in New Delhi carefully omitted was Obama’s confident assertion that he will get Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) “at the earliest practical day”.

What followed that assertion must have made the Prime Minister’s hair stand on end after he risked his very government by rushing through the nuclear deal with the US, making it difficult to extricate India from ties that could be complicated by Obama’s position on nuclear issues.

Obama told the Prime Minister that after Senate ratification of the CTBT, he will, as President, “then launch a major diplomatic initiative to ensure its entry into force”, according to the letter, a copy of which is in the possession of The Telegraph.

The CTBT cannot enter into force until India signs the treaty. Obama has, therefore, made it very plain to Singh and to the next Indian Prime Minister — if there is a change in government in New Delhi next year — that he is going to put the same pressure on India to sign the CTBT that the Bush administration applied on member states of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to let them sell nuclear equipment and technology to India.

“I will also pursue negotiations on a verifiable, multilateral treaty to end production of fissile material (FMCT) for nuclear weapons,” Obama wrote, a reminder to Singh of his commitment to President George W. Bush on July 18, 2005 to work with the US on such a treaty which will end India’s fissile material production.

It should be no problem for an Indian government that Obama is “committed to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons”. That is India’s policy too.

But when he told Singh that he “will make this a central element of US nuclear weapons policy,” it immediately raised uncomfortable questions for New Delhi.

US nuclear weapons policy considers the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a central element of that policy and it is not difficult to figure out where this will put India, which refuses to sign the NPT.

This also implies that an Obama administration will consider India’s nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 as illegal and, of course, any US reaction to a hypothetical future Indian test will be forcefully stronger than responses from the Bush White House.

Obama concludes his letter to Singh with a paragraph that makes grim reading.

“I very much hope and expect India will cooperate closely with the United States in these multilateral efforts,” Obama wrote with reference to his intention to enter the CTBT into force, push through an FMCT and advance the NPT.

“With the benefits of nuclear cooperation come real responsibilities,” Obama warned the Prime Minister. “And that should include steps to restrain nuclear weapons programs and pursuing effective disarmament when others do so. I greatly look forward to working with you on these and other issues in the future.”

Obama’s spokesperson put the spin after the nine names were released that the leaders he spoke to were US allies.

That makes it clear that, at least for now, an Obama administration is unlikely to view India as a “natural ally”, a term Indians like to use and an idea that Bush belatedly accepted.