Speaking to a couple of journalists on the lawns of the National Center for the Performing Arts in Mumbai on Wednesday, Talbott, President of the Brookings Institution, Washington, DC and former Deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, recounted this anecdote to stress the point that the only three things he had been asked about during his visit to India was the nuclear deal, Pakistan, and to an extent, Iran.
He was in Mumbai to release Mumbai Vision 2015: Agenda for Urban Renewal, published by the Observer Research Foundation, which has a partnership with Brookings.
Asked about the state of India-US relations, he quipped: 'Good, but...'
"The two countries were making good strides in their relationship, but it was certainly not irreversible," he explained. "The nuclear deal between the two nations now before the US Congress had become too much of a centerpiece," and that, he felt, was a mistake. For one, there many other issues which needed attention, like the environment, urban issues and poverty, which deserved equal, if not more attention from the two nations, he said.
India got the best deal it could, he explained, and there was no need for so much anxiety in India over it. The fact that Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton had endorsed the bill was an indication of the broad bipartisan support that it enjoyed, he said. "It is virtually a done deal. Let it go through Congress, and let us move on."
There were two distinct camps on the deal in the US, he said. One was that India had got a very good deal. The other was that this deal would jeopardise the non-proliferation regime. 'No one says India was taken to the cleaners,' although there were some in India that felt that way.
This, however, could prove counterproductive when it came to the 'major American preoccupation with Iran,' he warned. 'Because of this good deal, some people will have expectations that India will endorse the American position on Iran. And then they will ask, why did Prime Minister Manmohan Singh go for the Non-aligned
We are thus, 'setting ourselves up for the danger of excessive expectations,' he said, making a case for 'broadening' of bilateral relations. The Indian-American community, he added, was 'punching way above its weight,' and had played a major role in the recent surge in bilateral relations, he felt.
At the moment, while the community was equally divided between the Republican and Democratic camps in the US, President Bush's 'embrace of India' could lead to a tilt towards the Republicans, he said.
Every US administration had hoped that India would not go nuclear, he said, noting that he had first come to India as a journalist covering then secretary of state Henry Kissinger's visit to India in late 1974, soon after India's 'peaceful nuclear explosions'.
'Once India exercised its sovereign right outside the NPT to test, the US had to strengthen India and at the same time strengthen the non-proliferation regime,' he said, noting that President Clinton, who 'loved India,' had perhaps made a mistake by going to China and standing with then President Jiang Zemin to criticise the Indian tests.
Since then, the progress made in improving Indo-China relations was far more remarkable, given that then Prime Minister A B Vajpayee had cited fears of Chinese one-upmanship as one of the reasons for testing, Talbott said.
Hence reports that the US-India friendship was aimed at countering China was 'insulting and dangerous to India,' he said. Such talk would not help promote India's relations with China, and nor would it help the US, which also needs to engage with China, he warned.
The fate of the 21st century, he argued, depended on three nations: India, China, and the US. 'If they can get together, it is a win win situation.'
When he first came to India, he had felt that 'India was a big country with a big chip on its shoulder,' Talbott said. 'Today, it has global level strategic self-confidence.' Pakistan does not. This gave India more room to maneuver , 'more room for taking risks for peace with its neighbor,' he concluded.