Coming of age

India is able to deal with the US on its own strength post Uri

By DiplomacyK.P. Nayar
  • Published 5.10.16
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Taranjit Singh Sandhu at the Gandhi Statue in Washington

It has taken exactly a quarter of a century, but the most enduring fallout of the terrorist attack in Uri and its aftermath may be that relations between India and the United States of America have come of age. Hardly anyone remembers now that the idea of New Delhi and Washington being "natural allies" was coined by India's army chief, General S.F. Rodrigues, in 1991 when he received Major General Claude M. Kicklighter, commander-in-chief of the US Pacific Command, in New Delhi as Kicklighter came bearing proposals for military-to-military cooperation between the two countries following the end of the Cold War. In the popular imagination, the idea of an Indo-US natural alliance is attributed to Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2000, when the Bharatiya Janata Party's first prime minister played host to Bill Clinton during the first American presidential visit to India in 22 years. That is mostly because the Kicklighter proposals, which prompted Rodrigues to coin that memorable phrase by and large remained what they were: proposals on paper. Indo-US relations needed a lot more of very patient work to even move towards any relevance.

When this columnist moved to Washington 16 years ago as the correspondent of The Telegraph, it came as a surprise that relations between India and America constituted a three-way deal. On anything that mattered to India, a third party to the bilateral engagement was Israel - the Jewish lobby in the US, to be more precise. The US did not use such third-party interlocutors in its dealings with India. If they wanted something from New Delhi, the practice was for Washington to approach India directly. And they went right to the top. The results were mixed, growing progressively positive after the end of the Cold War.

On the other hand, if India wanted anything out of the ordinary or beyond the routine from the Americans, New Delhi had to activate the Jewish lobby. Jewish support was imperative because until Ronen Sen became envoy to the US and the nuclear deal changed bilateral equations, it was impossible - unless there was a VVIP visit in either direction - for an Indian ambassador to meet anyone higher than the assistant secretary of state for South Asia in successive administrations in Washington. That was like an ambassador in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi's diplomatic enclave, meeting a joint secretary in the ministry of external affairs. It was Siddhartha Shankar Ray who modestly set in motion this process of bringing in the American Jewish lobby to catalyse the process of greater Indo-US bilateral engagement when he was ambassador in Washington from 1992-96.

In those days if an Indian prime minister was visiting the US, it was impossible to get even a few lines in any mainstream American media: unless it was negative coverage of the kind P.V. Narasimha Rao got in May 1994 in Boston when the prime minister's accompanying handlers asked the high-end Four Season's Hotel to assign only white staff to serve Rao. Ray organized a group of editors from Jewish newspapers in the US to visit India. He had to overcome stiff opposition from the external publicity division of the ministry of external affairs, which handled such media invitations, to push through his proposal that New Delhi should host these editors.

They were small weeklies, the biggest among them had a circulation of 1.5 lakh, but even those with more modest print orders of 50,000 were extremely influential in rich and powerful Jewish communities such as in Brooklyn or Fort Lauderdale. It was Ray's outreach to American Jews, nearly a quarter century ago, that aided an exponential growth in Indo-US relations in the decades that followed. Whenever Brajesh Mishra, the principal secretary to Vajpayee and later concurrently national security adviser, visited Washington in a determined effort to transform the first National Democratic Alliance government's engagement of the US, he met Jewish groups such as the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Often without taking into confidence the Indian embassy in Washington, Mishra met JINSA and AIPAC functionaries at the now-closed Potowmack Landing, a far away restaurant that used to sit on the Potomac River with a breathtaking view of both the Washington skyline and the river that runs through the heart of the national capital. Mishra's meetings with some of the Jewish groups were organized by Shekhar Tiwari, a long-time confidante of Vajpayee and L.K. Advani and one of the founders of the Overseas Friends of the BJP.

India's tactical alliance with the American Jewish lobby continued under Manmohan Singh. Indeed, it became the standard operating procedure of this country's diplomacy to shift its ambassador in Tel Aviv to Washington as deputy chief of mission when his tenure in Israel came to a close. Raminder Singh Jassal was the first in this line. Next came Arun K. Singh, who was not only deputy chief of mission, but until a few weeks ago, ambassador to the US. His successor designate, Navtej Sarna, is also a former ambassador in Tel Aviv, although in Sarna's case, having been in Tel Aviv was clearly not a consideration with Modi in picking him as envoy to the US.

A young Indian diplomat who apprenticed through this entire process was the then first secretary at the Indian mission in Washington. He was only 34. Taranjit Singh Sandhu did not have even ten years of experience in the Indian foreign service when the astute Naresh Chandra, his feet firmly on the ground with his long years in the Indian administrative service, asked this first secretary to deal with Capitol Hill directly, independent of the Jewish lobby and bypassing paid Indian lobbyists in Washington. Chandra was then a non-IFS ambassador in Washington.

As bright young diplomats - not only from India but from elsewhere too - often do before seniority and ambassadorial wisdom make them somnolent, Sandhu plunged into the job with deep dedication and gusto. I gauged the effectiveness of Sandhu's enterprise one day when I was sitting in the visitors' room of the Indian embassy in Washington. Huddled in another corner of the room were three men from India's paid lobbying outfit who, unmindful of my presence - a stranger to them - were using such expletives about the Indian ambassador that they cannot be printed. The reason for their intense anger was that Chandra, on Sandhu's advice, was making demands on the lobbyists that they were not used to before. The lobbying outfit was mainly Jewish-owned, their contacts on Capitol Hill were American Jews. These three angry men could not understand why Sandhu was trying to create a network independent of the Jewish lobby among American senators and members of the House of Representatives when this lobby was prepared to undertake India's jobs.

Sandhu, who is now chargé d'affaires in Washington, has had three postings in all in the US in his 28 year-career in the IFS. India continued to rely on the Jewish lobby for big things in Washington, including critical amendments to legislation pertaining to the nuclear deal with President George W. Bush. Meanwhile, Sandhu in parallel efforts, continued to patiently build on his contacts on Capitol Hill and institutionalize them for India. Guided by Naresh Chandra, he set up the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, which is now the biggest caucus in the House of Representatives. Americans who were interns in senate offices or pages in the House in the 1990s are now in important jobs in Washington. The investment that India made in people on Capitol Hill in a quarter century is now paying off.

As the situation in Jammu and Kashmir deteriorated through this year, Barack Obama's Democratic administration habitually tilted in unease over allegations of human rights abuses and disregard for the popular will and aspirations. When terrorists struck in Uri, the administration was unwilling to go beyond routine condemnation of unnamed terrorists. It was India's long and patient investment on Capitol Hill that eventually brought in diplomatic dividends in Washington. Representatives and senators supported India not outright, but in a graduated manner appropriate to the situation. That forced the Obama administration to take a stand that suited India. The experience on Capitol Hill, post Uri, is proof that India has taken more than a leaf out of Israel's experience and is now capable of dealing with the US on its own strength.

telegraph_dc@yahoo.com