None to stand up to the Big One

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By K.P. NAYAR in Delhi
  • Published 26.03.05

New Delhi, March 26: In 1971, Henry Kissinger, the then US national security adviser, came calling to Raisina Hill, much like American cabinet members and officials these days who frequently invite themselves to India.

Kissinger?s much-anticipated and much-hyped meeting with then defence minister Jagjivan Ram lasted less than 15 minutes.

Rukmini Menon, who accompanied Kissinger to all his engagements in New Delhi in her capacity as joint secretary dealing with the US in the ministry of external affairs, has recorded that the American master diplomat opened his meeting with Ram by piously hoping there would be peace in South Asia and that the crisis that was then building up over east Pakistan?s independence would not lead to war.

The Indian defence minister bluntly, but calmly, told Kissinger that there would be peace in the sub-continent if and when the Americans stopped supplying arms to Pakistan.

For once, the garrulous, smooth-talking Kissinger was at a loss for words. Menon has recorded that Kissinger then tried a ploy that often sweeps Third World leaders off their feet. He invited Ram to visit Washington.

Once again, Ram was the master of the situation.

Instead of accepting the American invitation, the defence minister asked Kissinger, his face betraying no expression or feeling, why he should visit Washington.

Kissinger had no answer to such a question. Their meeting ended abruptly.

History repeats itself

The sale of F-16s to Pakistan, announced in Washington on Friday and the events leading up to it, constitute an example of history repeating itself.

Like Kissinger almost a quarter century ago, a succession of Americans in power ? from President George W. Bush down to the desk officer in charge of India at the state department ? have been telling officials of this country for several years now of their hopes of peace between India and Pakistan.

Like Kissinger then, they have been sweet-talking everyone from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh down to strategic analysts and business leaders into visiting the US as a sop for their acts of omission and commission ? from India?s point of view ? in their dealings with General Pervez Musharraf.

In addition, they are now dangling the carrot of a visit to India by the President of the world?s only superpower.

India?s singular misfortune today is that there is no one in New Delhi like Jagjivan Ram who can stand up to the Americans and tell them plainly and firmly that the biggest threat to the prospect of peace between India and Pakistan comes from Washington?s actions which are fuelling another arms race in South Asia much like the ones in the 1960s after Islamabad joined western military alliances, purportedly to fight communism.

The Pranab parallel

When US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in Delhi four months ago, the present defence minister Pranab Mukherjee came very close to being a leader in the mould of Jagjivan Ram. Rumsfeld, typically, tried to badger everyone he met in Delhi during that visit into buying US arms.

Like the wily Kissinger, Rumsfeld may have hoped that his offer to sell American arms to India may soften New Delhi?s concerns about the Bush administration?s decision to supply offensive weapons to Musharraf ? weapons which the general has no scope to use against the Maldives, Nepal or Afghanistan, but only in a war with India.

Among the ministers whom Rumsfeld met in New Delhi, only Mukherjee was unwilling to mince his words.

Maybe it was the input he received from the men in uniform in his defence ministry, maybe it was his experience in dealing with Uncle Sam during one of the most difficult periods in Indo-US relations when he was external affairs minister.

Mukherjee somewhat rudely told Rumsfeld during their December meeting that for India, the US would be an ?unreliable defence partner?. Rumsfeld, like Kissinger in 1971, was taken aback by such bluntness.

Mukherjee told George W. Bush?s arms-pedlar that India would not walk down a blind defence alley, buy US arms and then place its national security at risk because Washington was notorious for its decisions, at times whimsical, to suspend sales of arms and spare parts ? even impose sanctions on buyers at will.

Instead of assuaging the Indian defence minister?s fears, Rumsfeld?s reaction to Mukherjee?s statement was one of injured innocence.

He said the US had its laws in this regard and that other countries which were buying American arms were prepared to accept such risks.

But by the time secretary of state Condoleezza Rice flew into New Delhi a few days ago, the Bush administration had realised that like Ram nearly a quarter century ago, Mukherjee was no pushover.

At each of her meetings in New Delhi, Rice repeated like a mantra that the US wanted to be a ?reliable partner for India? in defence matters.

Whether she was able to pull the wool over Indian eyes in diminishing this country?s concerns about the sale of F-16s to Pakistan will only be known in the coming weeks and months as New Delhi?s response to Washington?s announcement on Friday unfolds and crystallises.

Bush and job boost

Bush has telephoned Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but for the time being, at least, India?s reaction is not the US President?s urgent concern.

At the White House, Bush is sharing the joy of 5,000 workers in his native Texas, whose jobs at the Lockheed Martin Corporation plant that will produce the F-16s for Musharraf have been saved by yesterday?s announcement.

That plant employed 5,800 Texans at this time last year. Their number is now down by 800 with a decline in orders.

The plant is still manufacturing F-16s for Israel, Chile, the United Arab Emirates and Poland, but was poised to cut its workforce in nine months to 4,000 unless the Pakistani order came in.

Lobbyists for Lockheed Martin and Pakistan have been putting out the word in recent months that the plant in Fort Worth would have to close down unless the F-16s promised to Pakistan a long time ago were cleared.

It was a ploy that they together used to good effect, proving in the process that all politics is local, after all.