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  • Published 21.08.02
In the annals of international affairs, state or official visits sometimes become significant - even historic - because of their cancellation, or because they simply did not take place in defiance of all logic. The visit to the United States of America of the deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, was called off last weekend. This is significant for the insights which the decision has provided into the style of functioning of the man who is widely tipped to be the next prime minister of India. To put such an argument in perspective, it is perhaps necessary to briefly refer to two similar non-visits to the US, which have, understandably, received little publicity in India. Mexico's president, Vicente Fox, a close friend of the American president, George W. Bush, was to have visited Bush at his holiday ranch in Texas last week. In addition to proclaiming Fox as a friend, Bush has changed America's priorities in regional diplomacy and made Mexico a more important partner of the US than its northern neighbour, Canada. But Fox cancelled his visit a few days before it was to take place: he was angry that Texas, the home state of Bush, had executed a Mexican who killed an undercover officer in Texas. The Mexican national was never informed that he had a right to seek Mexico's assistance in defending himself. Besides, Mexico has no death penalty. Texas, it would seem, revels in carrying out death sentences: if one more execution scheduled for this month-end takes place, the state would have, in 2001 alone, killed four persons for crimes committed when they were less than 18 years old. But by cancelling his visit, Fox was signalling his country's displeasure over US policies which went well beyond capital punishment. The second non-visit was by the pope himself. John Paul II made high-profile visits to Canada, Mexico and Guate- mala a few weeks ago, but very pointedly skipped the US, causing much talk about the omission on television and other public fora. This Holy Father is as much a politician as a religious head: he contributed, more than any other contemporary European, to the mission of ending communism in his native Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe. Skipping the US was his way of telling America that the ongoing, vicious campaign in the US against the Catholic church, ostensibly built around the issue of child abuse by deviant priests, was unacceptable to the Vatican. The cancellation of the deputy prime minister's trip has, by no means, been a copybook repetition of either of the two examples cited above. Advani - or India, for that matter - has no serious quarrel with the US as to warrant cancellation of any bilateral visit. The ostensible reason cited in New Delhi on the day Advani's trip was called off was his pre-occupation with elections in Jammu and Kashmir. Equally engaging for the deputy prime minister are the developments in Gujarat following the Election Commission's decision not to have immediate elections in the state. Even if Advani did not represent Gujarat in the Lok Sabha, his role in any follow-up to that decision would be so vital that there is merit in the argument that he should not be away from India for a week or more. But that decision must be weighed against what Advani would have done in the US. If a meeting had been fixed between him and Bush, even if it was a drop in at another meeting as in January, the trip is unlikely to have been cancelled. The decision to call off the trip was, therefore, clearly taken after balancing its pros and cons. This is commendable - as long as the issue of who exactly does such a balancing is not overlooked. Unlike the visit of the foreign secretary or a cabinet minister, the visit of the second most important person in the cabinet and the heir-apparent has to be viewed in a context which goes beyond the narrow confines of government. Of all the Indians who have travelled to the US in recent years on official business, Advani made the most profound and lasting impression on Americans. His television appearances have been refreshingly different from that of any other Indian minister or official. At his private meetings with American leaders, he made the most persuasive case for India's interests in Washington, post-September 11. Of all the meetings which the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, had in New Delhi last month, the discussions with Advani were the most forthright. It was left to Advani to bluntly tell Powell why the so-called assurances freely given by General Pervez Musharraf to everyone from Bush to the British prime minister, Tony Blair, were pat- ently cosmetic. Just as the Americans wanted to make Afghanistan's transition from a terrorist springboard to a modern, democratic, pluralist state permanent, so did India want to make Musharraf's metamorphosis from a sponsor of terrorism to a fighter against terror equally permanent. This, Advani reasoned with Powell, could not be done merely by asking Musharraf to dole out solemn assurances. The general's assurances about stopping infiltration, closing down the terror camps on territory controlled by Pakistan and sending arms and other reinforcements to terrorists across the border were all reversible, even if he implemented them. Once the Americans turned their backs, Musharraf could easily resume these operations. If India is to trust Musharraf or resume a bilateral dialogue with Pakistan with any seriousness even approaching the spirit of Lahore, the general had to do something that was irreversible, something which would convince India of Islamabad's commitment to abjuring terrorism as an instrument of state policy. When Powell asked Advani what such irreversible action could be, he reverted to the theme of his discussions in Washington in January. Hand over the criminals on India's list: if Musharraf did that, not only would that handover be irreversible it will also speak volumes for Musharraf's conviction that terrorism must be fought everywhere and in every form. Powell spoke to correspondents accompanying him on his Asian trip once on his way to New Delhi. He spoke to them again on board his special aircraft as it was winging its way from Islamabad to Bangkok. There was a perceptible change not only in the content of Powell's briefing, but also in its tone as he outlined the objectives of America's south Asian diplomacy on his way to Bangkok. That change was partly brought about by the clarity with which Advani explained India's options on resuming a dialogue with Pakistan, the elections in Kashmir and other related issues. If only Advani had not cancelled his US trip which was to begin on Thursday, he would have had an opportunity to follow up on what he did during Powell's stay in New Delhi. The programme which the Indian embassy in Washington and the consulates in New York and San Francisco were putting together for the deputy prime minister would have brought him face-to-face with some of the most respected names in "Track-II" of foreign policy. Institutional memory - not just public memory - is very short in America. With a global agenda which presses for attention, even think-tanks in the US are often burdened by competing claims for their involvement from Mexico to Madagascar and from Newfoundland to New Delhi. It is a nice feeling to sit back in New Delhi and reminisce about what a wonderful job Advani did back in January. It is an altogether different thing to follow up on that success by constantly adding new inputs to it. Advani's visit, had it taken place, would have provided an opportunity to build on the foundations which he laid in January. Unfortunately, civil servants who weigh the pros and cons of such visits have a tendency to look at their effectiveness through the narrow prism of government-to-government relations. They also want to play safe and avoid criticisms of the kind which surfaced in India last week that Advani would not meet anyone even half as high in the US hierarchy as Bush. Such an analysis is counter-productive, especially in the US, where the government is not monolithic. Policy decisions in America are the result of compromises, bargaining and pressures by interest groups, brought about ultimately by a desire for consensus, euphemistically known in Washington as bi-partisanship. Spared of the pressures of government-level meetings, Advani would have had a chance to contribute to India's case to this process had he visited America this week. It is time India took a leaf out of Israel's book in this regard: leaders as prominent as Shimon Peres visit the US leaving Washington out of their itinerary and meeting just American Jews or other Americans who have no direct role in government, but are able to influence decisions. Advani would have to stand up to bureaucrats who would argue against this approach if he is to produce results for India in Washington in the long run. There is a final argument which should have weighed in favour of his visit. The prime minister and other leaders who come on official visits to the US never have enough time for the Indian community in the US. One reception by the Indian ambassador is tagged on to the programme, but the struggle for invitations to that reception alone is proof of how inadequate that one event usually is for Indian-Americans. Everyone who matters in the US from Bush and his predecessor, Bill Clinton, downwards has acknowledged the new influence of the Indian-American community in their midst. What they cannot acknowledge in public is the role which the community has increasingly played in shaping US policy towards India. As the heir-apparent to the prime minister, Advani would be making a costly political mistake if he did not pay enough attention to this community and concentrated only on the government instead.