US friendship faces 'St Antony' test

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  • Published 14.03.11
Hillary Clinton, AK Antony

Washington, March 13: Indo-US friendship is facing its biggest test since Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared as Prime Minister 11 years ago that the two countries are “natural allies,” a declaration that was belatedly endorsed by US President Barack Obama.

At the bottom of this critical test is the determination by one senior minister in the UPA government to prevent another corruption scandal of the Commonwealth Games, 2G spectrum and the Adarsh variety, which he fears, is embedded in the current state of this friendship.

That minister is “Saint Antony”, as defence minister A.K. Antony is often known, because of his obsession with honesty and transparency not only in defence procurement, but also in any public position he has handled, from chief minister of Kerala to portfolios in current and previous central governments as a cabinet minister.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was all set to travel to India with a power-packed delegation in just over three weeks, but that high-profile visit has now been cancelled because of Antony’s insistence that he will not be pushed around by the Americans on the biggest military aviation deal in history.

Clinton’s visit, which was to have been built around a second round of the Indo-US strategic dialogue, has been in the making for more than six months.

At the first round of this dialogue in June 2010, Obama stunned Washington with an unusual gesture of driving to a reception for external affairs minister S.M. Krishna at the state department, where he formally announced his visit to India.

The military aviation deal involves India’s purchase of 126 medium, multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) at a cost of around $10 billion. Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is one of the contenders in the tender which may ultimately involve upto 200 fighter planes.

The ministry of external affairs on Friday announced the postponement of the dialogue which was to begin on April 6 in New Delhi, but offered the excuse of the “state elections in India and ongoing developments in West Asia and North Africa” for the delay.

“The Indians all along knew that state elections would take place at this time and the turmoil in the Middle East began in January,” a Pentagon official who did not want to be identified for fear of muddying the waters wryly said after the external affairs ministry put out its press release.

Indicating that the Pentagon’s irritation over the postponement is widely shared across the US administration, the state department did not make any announcement similar to South Block’s.

It is normal in diplomatic exchanges to concurrently make such announcements in both capitals involved in joint initiatives, even to issue identical press releases agreed between the two governments.

India’s ambassador to the US, Meera Shankar, had reiterated as recently as a fortnight ago that the New Delhi session of the strategic dialogue would take place as planned from April 6.

The postponement became inevitable after Antony firmly refused to meet US defence secretary Robert Gates who wanted to travel with Clinton to India for the dialogue and lobby on behalf of American bidders for the MMRCA deal.

Gates was not part of the first round of the strategic talks last year and Antony concluded that the defence secretary was injecting himself into the process only to influence the defence ministry’s procurement process.

A senior Indian official said the Americans never formally communicated that Gates would be part of Clinton’s delegation at any time but were in overdrive by activating US lobbies in New Delhi to get India to agree to their defence secretary’s inclusion in the strategic dialogue.

A senior Union cabinet minister told The Telegraph that Antony informed him that he would go away to Kerala during the duration of Gates’ stay in New Delhi if there was coercion on the defence ministry into agreeing to the US defence secretary's travel to India.

This was well before the election dates for Kerala had been announced and the outbreak of popular uprisings in the Arab world.

Last week, India’s defence secretary Pradeep Kumar, who was here for a meeting of the Indo-US Defence Policy Group (DPG), officially informed the US under secretary for defence policy, Michelle Flournoy, that Antony’s schedule next month did not allow him to meet Gates.

Of course, Kumar diplomatically cited the Assembly elections in Kerala as the reason for Antony’s inability to be in New Delhi in the first two weeks of April.

Kumar was given treatment fit for a head of government during his visit, born out of Washington’s mistaken belief after dealing with banana republics and client states that such red carpet receptions can influence decisions in a country like India.

But it is a signal of Washington’s determination to wrest the MMRCA contract that the Obama administration preferred to postpone the strategic dialogue instead of leaving Gates behind.

Signals from the defence ministry in recent weeks are that Sweden’s Saab JAS 39 Gripen and France’s Dassault Rafale have an edge in the Indian selection process at this stage of the MMRCA deal.

It is these signals which have made the Americans nervous enough to take the position that there will be no strategic dialogue without a Gates trip to India.

Not a week now passes without someone in New Delhi who can influence the process of decision-making in the deal being wooed and feted by an army of American defence contractors, their agents and lobbyists in a process that has the potential to be a scandal.

Antony is acutely aware of this and is determined that his snow-white image that has endured during half a century of public life will not be allowed to be sullied by shenanigans in India by America's notorious military industrial complex.

Antony has resigned on moral grounds as Kerala chief minister and as Union minister for civil supplies, consumer affairs and public distribution even when allegations of wrong-doing or corruption did not remotely touch him but were levelled by association against his ministry.