DECCAN HERALD Monday, October 2, 2000

VAJPAYEE'S AMERICAN JOURNEY

From estranged to engaged

By PUNYAPRIYA DASGUPTA

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was not in good enough shape to say much during his four days in Washington but he did say what he wanted to. His message to America can be pinpointed. It came towards the end of his address at a joint session of the US Congress. The words were: As we embark on our common endeavour to build a new relationship, we must give practical shape to our shared belief that democracies can be friends, partners and allies. Those words an overture to an alliance with the United States of America -- from a Prime Minister of India would certainly have created a furore among his countrymen even only a few years ago.

Non-alignment, one of the main planks of our foreign policy, was, it can be argued, more rhetoric than substance even in the days of its inventor, Jawaharlal Nehru. The Indian people liked it nevertheless and clung to it for decades even though its frailty showed at critical junctures. The doctrine became irrelevant with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The BJP, true to its reputation as a right-wing force in the Indian political spectrum, has found the present time propitious enough to try to fill the gap with an alliance with America. The response from the Clinton administration is ecstatic.

Mark some of the phrases that have come from the two sides during Mr Vajpayee`s official visit to the United States. Journalists were extensively briefed by senior officials of the American State Department and told soon after Mr Vajpayee`s arrival in Washington that this was not just a goodwill visit, this has serious substance to it. The same officials talked also of a sea change in US-Indian relations after decades and a sea change in the right direction. President Clinton let his eloquence loose over a new dawn and the strongest and most mature partnership we have ever known in America`s relationship with India. Mr Vajpayee hailed new hopes and new opportunities and was thankful to his host for the way we look at each other has been fundamentally transformed. Mr Vajpayee also called America India`s natural ally -- a phrase which had created some commotion when the Soviets coined it to stress their perceived closeness to non-aligned India.

Looked at from the point of view of Mr Vajpayee`s health this certainly was not the best of time for a trip to America, the land of ceaseless bubbling activity. India`s Prime Minister had evident difficulties in walking, speaking and even in turning over the pages of the scripts his speech-writers placed before him. The seated posture while addressing the Congress and also reviewing the honour guard on the lawns of the White House provoked playful references to his weak knees. His avoiding a scheduled joint press conference with President Clinton could not have gone down well with everybody. Mr Vajpayee had to go to the UN`s Millenium Summit, even if a little late. He had to give a reply to Pakistan`s General Musharraf. And it is strange but true that there was just no one around him whom the present Prime Minister of India could have asked to deputise for him at a forum which had attracted the leaders of some 150 nations. From New York, he dragged himself to Washington, to a large extent at American urging.

The Clinton administration was in a hurry to start the process of institutionalisation of the upturn in US-India relations. Its officials were frank about it: ... we are using diplomacy to further institutionalise this new US-Indian relationship ... those things could not wait until next year or beyond. We wanted to seize the moment: to capture the momentum that we had with the President`s trip to India in March, and to build on that during this administration and to see that relationship strengthened, built upon, so that it would move into the next administration and beyond. For the Clinton administration a sick Vajpayee was better than no Vajpayee in Washington immediately.

The Americans had already launched what is called a strategic dialogue with BJP-led India and the exercise looked endless. The new idea of institutionalisation of relations means getting Indians tied up in regular consultations with Americans. The list of talks and joint activity is long already and is expected to grow. The foreign policy dialogue is carried on by Jaswant Singh and Madeleine Albright and officials at lower levels who have set up a counterterrorism working group. There is a coordinating group on economic dialogue with branches covering financial and commercial relationship. There is another group for consultation on clean energy and environment and a forum for science and technology. An environmental agreement has been signed.

The Americans were trying for long to set up an outpost in India of their domestic intelligence agency, FBI. They have got it now in the form of a legal attache office. Something called a mutual legal assistance treaty is expected in the not too distant future. Washington says quite clearly that the relationship between the United States and India must be broad enough and deep enough to allow all of what the US wants to happen. President Clinton is already seeing India and the United States as political partners who will be good economic partners too and will work together at the United Nations. Some other Americans are more outspoken in their expectations. Benjamin Gilman, Chairman of the US House of Representatives International Relations Committee, who took the initiative in the adoption by the House of a resolution calling for closer US-India ties, the day before Mr Vajpayee reached Washington, wanted close military and intelligence relationship between the two countries so that we can share our knowledge and skills in order to successfully confront our mutual enemies. The Vajpayee government`s reaction to this demand is not yet known.

It is true that not everything is hunky-dory yet between New Delhi and Washington. The American nagging on the issue of India`s signing the CTBT has become irritating especially in view of the fact that the US Congress has so far refused to ratify Washington`s adherence to the treaty and may not do it in the foreseeable future if the Republican George Bush makes it to the White House in the coming presidential election. And so also the loud refrain that India should discuss Kashmir with Pakistan, accompanied by a subtle suggestion that Washington should be allowed to play in it the role of an intermediary, even if invisible. Mr Vajpayee could not help betraying his irritation at his meeting with Indian-Americans.

An often-heard quote advises a nation not to have permanent friends or foes but only permanent interests. There is nothing wrong therefore if India`s interests can be served by befriending the United States. But some anxiety remains since the US has a history of treating only those as its friends who do its bidding. And the way India was made to withdraw its recognition of the Saharaoui Arab Democratic Republic is a warning.


Copyright, 1999 The Printers (Mysore)Ltd.
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