WHY MODI PIPED DOWN - The US gives India with one hand to take away with another

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  • Published 29.03.05

Narendra Modi?s tantrums would have been of little account if private hankering for the United States of America were not now also an essential ? and, perhaps, necessary ? part of public diplomacy. Sign of changing times, while a defiant Hiren Mukherjee was once content to sit it out at New York airport without a visa, a grateful Jyoti Basu promised not to indulge in politics in the US if they granted him a visa.

Modi?s loss is the government?s grievance, now that Condoleeza Rice?s mission has reminded us again that support for Pakistan, irrespective of the regime there, is the one constant in the flux of American policy changes. In spite of bus and cricket bonhomie, India?s political relations with a neighbour basking in the glow of the US secretary of state?s approbation are destined for a rough patch. Encouraged by his mentor, Pervez Musharraf is already returning to a strident posture on Kashmir while his foreign minister accuses India of reneging on an agreement on Siachen. Nor can the smaller countries of south Asia fail to draw a lesson from Rice?s compliments to Pakistan?s military ruler as America?s sturdy ally against the forces of terror, with only a token mention of the democracy that is supposed to lie at the heart of George W. Bush?s global crusade.

Jawaharlal Nehru might have retorted ?Just as well!? to the refusal to grant Modi a visa. But that would not have honestly reflected Indian thinking even then. ?When I call on cabinet ministers, the president or governors, they all love to talk about their sons, sons-in-law and daughters in the US and how well they?re doing and how well they like things,? mused William B. Saxbe, American ambassador in the Seventies. ?The next day I read in the papers the very same people are denouncing the US as a totally different kind of country.? With people like Modi setting such high store by the connection, and almost every educated urban Indian a potential green card petitioner, Oscar Wilde?s aphorism about good Americans and Paris can be adapted to read that good Indians go to New York before they die.

That is why, unconstrained by any sense of self-respect, Modi piped down when he addressed expatriate Gujaratis via satellite. Forgetting earlier bluster, he praised Uncle Sam and blamed only wicked non-resident Indians. But though the US state department has assured India that this petty controversy has no bearing on bilateral relations, the denial does reek of the moral high ground that the US claims for itself. It reflects America?s self-image as ?emperor of the world?, to cite George Fernandes, and its understanding of its global responsibilities.

That might have been more convincing if the Americans themselves had not rejected the concept of universal justice enshrined in the International Criminal Court. Otherwise, it might have been argued that the law dispensed with political boundaries long before economic globalization just as the trade union movement was a torchbearer of internationalism. I recall an occasion when print-workers in a Fleet Street office downed tools the moment a Sri Lankan newspaper proprietor, visiting England as a government guest, entered it. Apparently, the Sri Lankan newspaper had behaved badly with its London correspondent (a Sri Lankan) who had complained to the National Union of Journalists, of which he was a member. The NUJ instructed all its units to display their disapproval of the Sri Lankan organization?s conduct. Understandably, perhaps, the US shrinks from such retributive reaction.

All the same, the Bharatiya Janata Party?s need for a tub to thump or the eternal search for slights by notoriously thin-skinned Indians should not be allowed to inflate the importance of the Modi affair. Manmohan Singh rightly acknowledged the US?s ?sovereign right? to refuse entry to anyone it chooses. All countries exercise that right, often without giving a reason. India does so too. Sovereignty cannot be accountable to an external authority.

It is neither here nor there that Modi holds elective office or that the charges against him have not been proved. A visa-granting authority might refer to an applicant?s domestic credentials but cannot be bound by them. Otherwise, someone like Slobodan Milosevic would be entitled to demand admission to any country in the world. Though some of history?s worst tyrants boast the imprimatur of the hustings, electoral legitimacy proves nothing in this age of money and muscle manipulation.

What concerns India is how the US uses its power in the unipolar world it commands. In the past, it used that power to keep India in what Americans no doubt thought of as its place. The origins of that Cold War strategy lay in a 1947 state department memorandum that ?from the military point of view, the countries of South Asia excepting Pakistan have, under present and prospective conditions, little value to the US.? Pakistan provided bases and watchposts on the fringes of the enemy?s sprawling empire. It was the potential launching pad of an invasion of the Soviet heartland.

American policy in Europe and the Far East has changed dramatically since then. But time seems to stand still in south Asia. In spite of an incremental increase in India-US economic and strategic cooperation ? borne out by the latest proposal for a defence agreement ? America?s regional priorities remain the same. If India is less an adversary, Pakistan is even more a friend.

Larry Pressler, the former republican senator from South Dakota who thwarted the sale of 28 F-16s to Pakistan, attributes this to the continuing influence of what Dwight D. Eisenhower called ?the military-industrial complex?. That ties in with A.B. Rosenthal?s analysis in the New York Times that many US officials prefer Pakistan to India not despite its militarism but because of it. ?Man, the military fellows can get things done for you.? With Pakistan remaining central to all American calculations, US planners advance different reasons at different times for continuing the same policy.

First, it was the Soviet threat, then securing Afghanistan for the free world, then getting rid of the taliban, and now the war against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida. Those military fellows can get it done, even if the evidence suggests otherwise.

So much then for the constantly repeated claim that the world?s oldest and largest democracies are natural allies. Values have never played any part in the hard reality of US foreign policy but it should be enough for India that a coalescence of national interests has brought the two countries closer. But Rice?s reiteration of her boss?s promise during his first term to remove the ?hyphen? between the two countries is a facile public relations exercise that exploits Indian gullibility. Whether or not the US hyphenates its relations with the two neighbours, everything it does in relation to Pakistan resonates in India.

Bush first praised Musharraf even before his election. Colin Powell then anointed Pakistan America?s ?major non-Nato ally.? Rice has now promised to sell the F-16s for which Pakistan has been clamouring since the Eighties. They will be of no use against shadowy jihadis. But as with all the sophisticated hardware (especially tanks and submarines) the US has given Pakistan over the years, they can ? and will ? be deployed against India. Even if they are not, the possibility will compel New Delhi to squander money on similar or better fighters. Bush is sparking another arms race in the subcontinent.

It bears repeating in this context that Pakistan?s GDP is one-eighth of India?s. It has one-seventh the population and one-fifth the area. Thanks to the US and China, only its military strength enables it to claim parity with India. Irrespective of the Modi fracas, there will be no stability in south Asia as long as that pretension lasts; and the pretension will continue as long as it suits the Americans to give India with one hand and take it away with the other.