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September 6, 2000
Vajpayee will not act like a supplicant, whatever India's difficulties
My aides totally misled me about her. They described her as an ogre, but I found her charming and easy to get along with.' This is how Ronald Reagan described his first encounter with Indira Gandhi in October 1981, at the beautiful seaside resort of Cancun in Mexico.
Reagan's aides had earlier recounted what had transpired at the disastrous White House meeting between Indira Gandhi and Richard Nixon at the height of the Bangladesh crisis in 1971. An enraged Indira Gandhi had reacted strongly to what she felt was Nixon's callous indifference to the human tragedy that had engulfed Bangladesh -- a tragedy that had sent over 10 million refugees fleeing from Pakistani persecution to India.
Reagan had been advised that the Indian prime minister could be 'cold, haughty and unbending' on issues of concern to her. He was pleasantly surprised when rather than haranguing him about the supply of F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan, Mrs Gandhi chose to meet him primarily to establish a personal rapport.
It was the personal rapport that Indira Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi established with the Reagan-Bush administration that enabled Indo-US relations to remain on an even keel despite differences during the Cold War years. Much has changed since then, in terms of both, the nature and content of Indo-US relations. But it is only when leaders meet and exchange views and perceptions that nations can set agendas for future co-operation.
The first six years of the Clinton administration were barren as far as Indo-US relations were concerned, primarily because of the single-minded pursuit of the US administration to 'cap, roll back and eliminate' India's nuclear weapons programme. Paradoxically, it was India's nuclear tests in May 1998 that made the Clinton administration sit up and take notice of the fact that India was no pushover and that its security concerns and perceptions could not be ignored.
The intensive dialogue between Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbott laid the basis for President Clinton's immensely successful visit to India. Clinton was fascinated by the strength of India's democratic institutions and developmental processes. He also came to better understand the complexities of a country where people were as comfortable with bullock carts as with computers. The visit also opened the eyes of the Clinton administration to the immense potential that existed for giving new dimensions and content to relations with India.
While reports about Prime Minister Vajpayee's health have clouded the skies on the eve of the visit, there is little doubt that the Indian prime minister is determined to ensure that he meets a wide cross section of world leaders at the Millennium Summit and make India's presence felt at the United Nations. It is equally important that the momentum given to India-US ties by the Clinton visit be sustained.
Over the years, successive Indian governments have learnt that apart from interacting with the administration, it is vitally important to have India's views known, respected and supported in the Congress. Considerable attention is being given to Vajpayee's address to the joint session of the Congress, where he will address US law-makers as the leader of the world's most populous democracy.
New Delhi is acutely aware of the vacuum that existed in our diplomatic presence during the transition from the Carter to the Reagan administration. It is determined to leave no stone unturned to ensure that irrespective of whether Al Gore or George W Bush wins the election, the momentum generated by the Clinton visit will be sustained. It is primarily for this reason that Ambassador Naresh Chandra, who has had a very successful tenure in Washington, is being retained till the transition is over.
While there has naturally been considerable focus of attention on Kashmir and Indo-Pakistan elections, it is now becoming clear that the United States is getting increasingly concerned and even frustrated at the directions Pakistan is taking, both politically and economically. A mutually reinforcing nexus now exists between the Pakistan military establishment and the ISI on the one hand and Wahabi-oriented extremist religious groups with close links to the Taliban on the other.
These groups are destabilising and promoting violence not just in Kashmir, but throughout Central Asia and even in Chechnya. It would, however, be unrealistic for India to presume that the United States will entirely isolate Pakistan in its efforts to get that country to govern itself democratically and behave reasonably and with restraint.
New Delhi realises that even as it traverses down the road of enhanced engagement with Washington, differences will arise from time to time in assessing developments pertaining to its relations with Pakistan. The thrust of Vajpayee's diplomacy will therefore be to focus on larger issues of peace, stability and co-operation and set an agenda for expanding the horizons for trade and investment links. The United States is India's largest trade and investment partner. These ties can only expand more rapidly with the Indian economy set for a sustained growth of seven to eight per cent annually.
While National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra has already interacted with George W Bush's key advisers, the Vajpayee visit will enable him to establish a personal rapport with Al Gore, who will naturally seek to set his own distinctive style in conduct of foreign policy should he emerge the winner in the coming presidential election. There is some concern in Delhi that the Gore team includes a number of "non-proliferation fundamentalists," who may seek to negate the progress made in the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks over a wide range of security related issues.
Gore and his team also have rather strong views on environmental issues and climate change -- topics that were intensely addressed at the Kyoto Convention on climate change. There is also concern that a Gore administration may try to link exports from developing countries to extraneous issues like labour standards. Should this happen, the United States may well find India and China making common cause to resist pressures.
India has come a long way from the days when it was felt that while the Democrats were sensitive to its interests, Republicans like Richard Nixon were inimical and even hostile. George W Bush's forthright rejection of the CTBT has been noted and quietly welcomed in New Delhi, where opinion is largely against acceding to the Treaty, especially in the light of growing nuclear and missile co-operation between Pakistan and China. In the post liberalisation period, large American corporations are now increasingly establishing their presence in India. They are adding their voice to those in the United States who are calling for greater co-operation and understanding with India.
It is true that continuing financial and technological sanctions imposed in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests remain an irritant in the bilateral relationship. But Vajpayee will certainly not be requesting the United States to lift these sanctions. He is not a person who would act like a supplicant, whatever India's difficulties. It will, however, certainly be India's hope and expectation that with the passage of time these sanctions will be removed as understanding and co-operation expand.
New Delhi and indeed people across India now realise more than ever that the Indian community in the US has a vital role to play in any effort to promote understanding and co-operation with the United States. There is genuine regret that the prime minister will not be able to meet all those Indians living on the West Coast who have contributed so much towards internationally projecting the IT skills of Indians and India. But there is little doubt that those organising the prime minister's visit will spare no effort to see that he meets a wide cross section of the Indian community when he is in New York and Washington.
Vajpayee's visit may not have much to show in terms of any new or long-term agreements. It would, however, certainly lay the basis for giving new dimensions and added momentum to a relationship that has thus far not developed to its full potential.
Gopalaswami Parthasarthy retired from the Indian Foreign Service in May 2000 after a long and distinguished career. He is a frequent contributor to these pages.
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