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  • Published 14.09.00
Most of the presidents and prime ministers who attended the United Nations assembly's millennium summit are back home by now. It was an expensive ritual for many. Yet, none wanted to forgo the privilege of having his say, if only for a bare five minutes, in what was, in nine cases out of ten, a near empty theatre. This was, as Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, knew, quite in accord with the practice at such jamborees. With each country having enough troubles of its own, most delegates are in no mood to listen to the others' tales of woe. In any case, what was said by most speakers was meant not for a global audience, which only saw fleeting images of a few of them on the telescreen, but for their own people. News snippets about the Indian prime minister shuffling his feet or punctuating the reading of a written text with awkward pauses were as irrelevant as the lowdown on hired public relations men managing to arrange a number of press conferences for Pervez Musharraf. The question which nudges even the unwary in this country is why the Indian prime minister was made to undergo the ordeal of an official visit to the United States at this juncture when the present administration is on its way out and the one to succeed it will be sworn in four months hence. His knee trouble only gave the query a more cutting edge. This period of great suspense for the present administration was hardly the appropriate time for any substantial talks in Washington to carry forward the process of bringing the two countries closer to each other which gained some impetus during Bill Clinton's visit to India earlier this year. Ironically, even after the many jolts suffered by India during its short career as an independent state, there is not enough realization here that the weight carried by a country in the international community, and the care with which outsiders listen to what its leaders have to say, depend on its military and economic muscle and the slots it occupies in the new hierarchies of capital resources, technological prowess and hi-tech armed strength. Hailing India and the US, the world's two largest democracies, as "natural allies", may no longer sound altogether mushy in the new international context of increasing concern over throwbacks to despotic rule. But even today it is the harsh reality of power equations which asserts itself in the end. If democracy counted in the US eyes for even half as much as its official spokesmen claim, the American administration would not be three times as heedful of Chinese susceptibilities as of India's. Of course, it does go through the routine motions of censuring Beijing for its violations of human rights every now and then. But it has a much larger stake in China's industrial development today than in India's and has no hesitation in transferring to it technologies which it denies to a democratic society. Is it purely on the merits of the case or under pressure from its multinational corporations that it continues to softpedal China's sale to Pakistan of medium-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads? That the Clinton administration was quite firm in its insistence on Pakistan's withdrawal of all its forces to its side of the line of control in the Kargil war was undoubtedly a clear sign of a welcome shift in US south Asian policy. It has also endorsed India's case that New Delhi cannot possibly resume peace talks with Islamabad unless the Musharraf regime puts a stop to cross-border terrorism. But it is still reluctant to do anything more drastic than imploring Pakistan's chief executive to restrain the terrorist outfits. This has not inhibited Musharraf, now turned a religious zealot, from donning the mantle of a five-star jehadi. He has taken umbrage at his sponsorship of terrorism being dubbed as a regression to medievalism. Does he expect the world to accept a religious crusade as a postmodern project? Why is the US reluctant to declare Pakistan a terrorist state after all the fast accumulating evidence it has about the numerous fundamentalist militant groups which Islamabad trains, arms and finances, giving them all the logistical support they need? It is partly the result of a nostalgia for the long period when the latter was one of the US's client states. But what explains US inhibition in taking more stern action to put an end to this murderous business in the name of a religious war is the fear of alienating Pakistan beyond a certain point in a strategic region where it has already earned the hostility of Iran, its main ally prior to the Khomeini revolution, Iraq, which it supported to the hilt during its protracted war with a clerical Iran, and now the taliban-dominated Afghanistan where the guerrilla war it financed for long has spawned a fanatically anti-Western monster. It will not be too rash after all this to surmise the likely outcome of the more important part of the prime minister's business in Washington which has yet to be completed. This is because the already known US positions on the main issues of concern to New Delhi are not going to change during the current political interregnum which leaves little scope for new initiatives. There are four main problems pertaining to India's developing relationship with the US. There is no sign of Washington's drawing nearer to New Delhi's perceptions on most of these issues. The nuclear issue is likely to stay as awfully tangled as before. The chances of more decisive action against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism are remote. Neither is any of the two major US parties in the mood to accept India as a permanent member with the right of veto in an expanded security council. Where some gains may be expected are in the field of economic relations. But here, too, investment on the requisite scale to take care of the infrastructure, the adverse fallout of the reform process in the form of growing unemployment, and means to exploit fully the potential for an exponential growth of the information sector, may take far more time to materialize than what the more starry-eyed local futurologists expect. It is at this point that one comes to the heart of the matter. The future of Indo-US relationship depends both in the long and short runs not so much on how the US administration, with its own hang-ups, responds to the problems facing this country, but the clarity of vision, the unity of purpose and the vigour with which the government here meets the many challenges facing it. The Vajpayee regime has set its goals but, instead of forging ahead, can only muddle along, badgered now by one ally and then buffeted by another, taking one step forward only to go back half the way under duress. The leading partner in the government is apologetic about the National Democratic Alliance agenda, explaining to its members why it has had to abandon crucial parts of its own programme. The two largest states in the Hindi belt continue to slide into near anarchy and the government can do nothing but wring its hands in despair away from the public gaze. Atal Behari Vajpayee has greatly improved his own standing as the unquestioned leader of the ruling coalition and has won the confidence of every member party, big or small. But he has been able to do so only because of his readiness to go halfway to meet the demands of his more importunate allies or more aggressive unions which can hold the country to ransom. He still does not have the authority to make his government's writ run once it has made up its mind. Concessions made under duress are the rule rather than the exception. The so-called coalition dharma exacts its price in slowing down both the policymaking and policy-enforcement machineries. Why the more fanatical members of the sangh parivar had to fly a planeload of sadhus to the US to confront Vajpayee with their all too familiar demands in support of the temporarily abandoned parts of their charter, once the badges of the Bharatiya Janata Party's own identity, is a mystery. Keeping his cool, the prime minister told them that he was running a coalition, not a BJP, government and that they would have to wait till the party managed to get a two-thirds majority of its own. As it happens, this is a quixotic prospect at a time when the BJP's base is visibly shrinking, not expanding, and many of its cadres are feeling let down. The media hype about the prime minister's mission will dissolve into thin air within a few days of his return. But the problems of internal divisions, the numerous insurgencies, cross-border terrorism, the widening inequalities and the growing areas of both physical and moral squalor will remain. American goodwill and cooperation can be of much help. But it can be of no avail in the absence of more efficient management of change at home and much greater determination in dealing with both external and internal threats. The adage, "Best show the empty glass: someone will fill it," may work at cocktail parties, not in the power-crazed worlds of national and international politics.