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'US will work with whoever wins the election in India'

May 14, 2014 11:41 IST

What will a BJP government in New Delhi mean for Washington? Four senior US officials who served in the Clinton administration during the NDA government, offer their perspective, says Aziz Haniffa.

Adding to the list of United States think tanks brainstorming on India’s Verdict 2014 was the Wadhwani Chair for US-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last week, with a twist.

The CSIS assembled four senior US officials who served in the Clinton administration during the last Bharatiya Janata Party government -- to glean from them how a new BJP government led by Narendra Modi would deal with Washington.

The panel discussion, ‘The BJP Regime 1998-2004: Looking Back, Looking Ahead,’  was moderated by Rick Rossow, the new Wadhwani Chair. It featured Richard Celeste, former ambassador to India and former Ohio governor; former assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs Karl F Inderfurth (who was Roscow’s predecessor and is now a senior adviser at the CSIS); former assistant secretary of commerce for trade development Raymond Vickery; and Donald Camp, former principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, who also served a long stint at the National Security Council as director, South Asia, and who is a senior associate at the CSIS.

The packed audience ranged from former and current administration officials and diplomats to South Asia policy wonks and Congressional aides to students from the area colleges like Georgetown, George Washington, American, and Johns Hopkins.

At the outset, Rossow issued a caveat.

‘Ten years ago today, just ahead of the 2004 election,’ he recalled, ‘the BJP had won almost the same percentage of seats in the same five states, and polling data showed them winning 200 seats, which would be up from 182. The next morning, Sonia Gandhi was forming the government. Nothing is certain in Indian politics — so take this for what it is.’

Celeste, who was ambassador when India conducted the Pokhran nuclear tests in May 1998, which resulted in US-India relations nosediving and Washington slapping Delhi with punitive sanctions, declared, ‘The US government is going to work with whoever wins this election. So, no one should take our comments as though we are sitting here wishful talking about what the outcome is.’

The post-Pokhran period, Celeste recalled, ‘represented the most sustained high level diplomatic exchange in the history of India as an independent country and the United States as a partner.’

He said, ‘Y2K became an incredible driver of the economic relationship between our two countries -- it opened up a whole new perspective on the part of American business as to the capability of Indian businesses and it presented the BJP government, which was committed to a forward-looking economic policy and committed to strong ties with the Indian Diaspora in the United States. It created an opportunity for sustained conversation even at a time when sanctions were in force between our two nations.’

Kargil, Celeste said, ‘was important because it represented, first a blow to the efforts on the part of the Government of India to move forward and dialogue with Pakistan…It also represented the first time really, where the United States had to make a clear choice between India and Pakistan, and we chose India because the facts were with India.’

Celeste said, ‘So, from all of this, how would I describe what it was like to work the with BJP? The BJP is a proud party, a nationalistic party, and it is devoted to what it believes is in the national interest for India. It is not apologetic about that. And, it never apologised for making the decision to test nuclear weapons.’

But there was no denying that the BJP leadership, he said, ‘wanted a positive relationship with the United States -- that was important to them -- and they wanted a positive relationship with the European leadership as well.’

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC