Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Preparing for shift in American policy

Dealing with change in US
Coffee Break Kanchan Gupta
On Thursday, July 10, 1969, at 4.30 pm the then Minister for External Affairs, Dinesh Singh, called on Richard Nixon for preparatory discussions prior to the American President’s visit to India. The ‘RoD’, or record of discussion, of the brief meeting (Nixon didn’t think much of India and the conversation was desultory) which took place in the Oval Office of the White House is instructive of how New Delhi conducted its diplomacy in those days and the distance we have travelled in the last four decades, emerging as a key player in regional and global affairs. The real break with the past, when foreign policy was no more than received Nehruvian wisdom, came during the NDA years when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee brought about a tectonic shift in the manner we see the world, thus forcing an irreversible change in the way the world looks at India. But we digress from the meeting between a surly President Richard Nixon and a prim and proper Raja Dinesh Singh.Let me quote from the official record of the discussion, recently declassified by the US State Department. “The President said that he wanted to note one serious problem that would affect our (American) ability to cooperate — the Vietnam war. Speaking quite candidly, he felt that Asian nations ultimately have a great stake in how that war ended. If the mass of Americans are disillusioned with the costs of the war and what it will have achieved, they will be unlikely to support extensive American cooperation with Asians in the future...”. After hearing out Nixon’s gripe, Singh responded with an amazing one-liner: “India does not wish to see frustration or defeat on either side.”For those who were born much after the dramatic fall of Saigon in 1975 and the chaotic evacuation of American troops as the triumphant Vietnamese guerrillas prepared to storm the last bastion of US military power in Indochina, it would be worthwhile to recall that India had routinely criticised the war as a display of Asian solidarity and to prove its ‘non-aligned’ credentials. This must have weighed heavily on the minds of both politicians and their flunkies in South Block while preparing for Nixon’s visit. They knew that the Americans would raise the issue of India’s position on the Vietnam war and point out that New Delhi had to choose between Washington, DC and its foes. Mr George W Bush is not the first American President to subscribe to the two-option theory — “Your are either with us or against us” — nor shall he be the last; it’s just that he made a public declaration of what till then was conveyed in the privacy of one-on-one meetings. So, in anticipation of Nixon raising the issue during his meeting with Singh, an official response had to be drafted and kept ready.We can be sure that much deliberation, discussion and debate went into formulating the response — “India does not wish to see frustration or defeat on either side” — and the Minister was tutored accordingly. We can also be sure that there was much mutual back-slapping after the Oval Office meeting: Everybody must have gloated over how India had craftily warded off taking a position by indulging in waffle. Neither the US nor its critics could fault us — after all, we had not wished defeat for either the US troops or the Vietcong, never mind the fact that no war is without a winner and a loser, even if it ends as ignominiously as it did for the Americans in Vietnam.There has been a sea change in our responses since that July afternoon meeting in the White House. India now does not hesitate to vote along with the US against Iran, nor does it feel compelled to abuse Israel just because Nehru willed against diplomatic relations with the Jewish state to please his friend Gamal Abdel Nasser and to keep Moscow in good humour. From being dependent on American wheat shipments during the humiliating PL 480 years when American aid prevented mass starvation, we are now able to engage the US as equals.The geo-political realities of the post-Cold War world, the blossoming of Indian enterprise at home and abroad, the opportunities that have come our way in the 21st century, and our being in the forefront of the information technology revolution have contributed to this shift in foreign policy formulation, as has the emergence of China and the looming threat it poses to the region and beyond. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would not have had the chance to hug President George W Bush and declare his “deep love” for the man who has contributed the most to strengthening India-US relations had his predecessor not set the stage for two estranged ‘natural allies’ to come together in a strategic partnership. Pokhran II was much more than sending out mushroom cloud signals to the world; it was an unequivocal announcement that India had broken free of the shackles of Nehruvian consensus.As a new regime prepares to take charge in Washington, DC and the US celebrates the ‘change’ it has voted in, South Block should get down to the task of dealing with the Obama Administration. If the ‘change’ that has been promised comes true, then there will be many subtle and overt shifts in American foreign policy, which will demand a matching response from India. Even on domestic issues like outsourcing of American business processes to Indian firms, New Delhi cannot afford to be taken by surprise. Of course, it is too early to try and figure out the contours of Mr Barack Hussein Obama’s foreign policy thrust, but given the fact that he has opted for the ‘inside-the-beltway’ establishment, the Washington ‘insiders’ for whom he showed nothing but disdain during the campaign but who have invariably found a place in his team, it should not be difficult to imagine the blueprint. More so because most of them have served in the Clinton Administration — Mr Obama’s choice of Mr Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff is symbolic of the change we can expect.While Mr Obama will no doubt be preoccupied with shoring up the rapidly collapsing American economy during his early months in office, sooner or later he will have to focus on two wars being waged by America. The pullout of US troops from Iraq over the next 18 months is now a foregone conclusion. But what about the war against terror in Afghanistan? And what if we were to be asked about our position on this war? Would we then say, “India does not wish to see frustration or defeat on either side?” America’s victory or defeat in Vietnam was of no consequence to us. But a ‘tactical’ though abject surrender to the Taliban, as is being talked about increasingly in Europe and America, so that Pakistan’s ‘strategic depth’ is restored and Islamabad sufficiently appeased to help smoke out Osama bin Laden, will be disastrous for India. The time for equivocation is over.

AGENDA Sunday Pioneer November 9, 2008

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