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US jumbo jet bids crash, envoy ejects

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  • Published 29.04.11

Washington, April 28: US ambassador Timothy Roemer, who resigned today, made his continued stay in Chanakyapuri’s Roosevelt House untenable by publicly pitching so hard for the Indian order for the biggest military aviation deal in history that he became identified with the success or otherwise of the American bids.

Yesterday, the US embassy in New Delhi was formally notified that Lockheed Martin’s F-16 and Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet had been rejected in the quest by the Indian Air Force (IAF) to acquire 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft at a cost of between $11 billion and $12 billion.

Till the time of writing, the Indian defence ministry has been tight-lipped about the fate of the six bids for the aircraft but officials said privately that France’s Dassault Aviation and a four-nation European consortium, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), had been chosen for the final round in the extended selection process.

In March, in a long-shot diplomatic bid to win the contract, the Pentagon bent over backwards during the 11th meeting of the Indo-US Defence Policy Group (DPG) here and told defence secretary Pradeep Kumar that the US was climbing down from its contentious demand that India sign three “foundational” agreements for bilateral defence sales to proceed.

The three agreements, which defence minister A.K. Antony has resisted, are a Logistics Support Agreement, a Communication Interoperability and a Security Memorandum Agreement and a Basic Exchange and Co-operation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Co-operation.

A row over an End-User Verification Agreement was resolved in 2009 with both sides going halfway to meet each other’s positions for or against signing the agreement.

In separate statements issued today, Roemer announced his resignation and said he was “deeply disappointed” that “two aircraft offered by the US government... were not selected for procurement by the Indian ministry of defence” although they would have provided the IAF “an unbeatable platform with proven technologies at a competitive price”.

Overtly, there is no link between the ambassador’s resignation and the defence ministry’s decision, but US embassy officials made no effort today to dispel the impression that the rejection of the bids from Boeing and Lockheed Martin triggered Roemer’s departure.

His emotive resignation statement said: “India has opened the doors of its schools, communities, and hearts to my family.… We came here as diplomats and we leave feeling part of a family.” Roemer claimed that “he had accomplished all of the strategic objectives set forth two years ago.”

In the only reference to bilateral defence ties, he said that “during my tenure as ambassador, the US-India defence partnership has expanded exponentially. The sale of C130J aircraft and the pending sale of C-17s strengthen the strategic partnership between our two countries and demonstrates our enduring commitment to sharing the world’s best technology with India. Our defence partnership offers economic benefits for both India and the US and significant job creation in both countries.”

However, in the statement about the rejection of the US bids, Roemer said: “We are reviewing the documents received from the Government of India and are respectful of the procurement process.… I have been personally assured at the highest levels of the Indian government that the procurement process for this aircraft has been and will be transparent and fair.”

That was only to be expected because Antony had made it a mission to ensure that the procurement is merit-based and is free of even a whiff of corruption despite the intense lobbying and political pressures to secure the contract.

In addition to President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian head of state Dmitry Medvedev have all pitched for their respective bids during visits to New Delhi last year.

Roemer’s departure announcement claimed that “when I accepted this job two years ago, I told President Obama that I would serve for two years but that family considerations would be front and centre after that”.

With two sons college-bound in the next 14 months, he would like his parents and in-laws to be able to spend more time with his children, the statement added.

It is the standard practice in the US for those in public life to use family as an excuse when they resign for other reasons just as Soviet leaders cited health reasons for “resigning” whenever they were pushed out for other faults such as failure of agriculture or ideological deviations.

In fairness to the outgoing ambassador, he has been telling people here of his intention to leave New Delhi, but that is also a common practice among American public figures when they are looking for options.

But in Roemer’s case, the absence of three follow-up actions indicates that his resignation has not been in the making and was the result of the failure of his all-out bid for the contract.

First, no one in the White House or the state department has been looking out for a successor in New Delhi, a post Obama would not like to leave vacant in view of Washington’s growing commercial stake in the Indian economy. The Democratic majority in Senate having depleted, confirmation of a new envoy could take longer than in the previous Congress.

Second, there is no dearth of Democratic-leaning aspirants here to occupy Roosevelt House. But the usual suspects have made no effort to get the job because although they are insiders in the know, none of them expected a vacancy to arise in New Delhi.

Third, Roemer is a political leader whose support would come in handy for Obama in his re-election campaign next year. He was one of the first of his genre to endorse Obama in 2008. While some people of Roemer’s standing have left the White House and others have left Democratic Party responsibilities to take up positions in the re-election campaign, Roemer has not been mentioned either in the grapevine or in gossip as being slotted for a role in the campaign.

All of which point to the abruptness of Roemer’s unwillingness to carry on in India because of the perception in Chanakyapuri and on Pennsylvania Avenue that he is obviously diminished by the failure of the ambassador’s laser-sharp drive to sell US fighter planes to India.