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September 11, 1998


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Talks will reconcile India's strategic needs with strong non-proliferation regime: Celeste

Vaishali Honawar in Washington, DC

Leaders of India and the United States need to speak with candour and determination to reconcile India's strategic needs with a strong non-proliferation regime, US Ambassador to India Richard Celeste said in Washington on Thursday.

"Our policy (on nuclear weapons) requires us to be aggressive and has led to a difficult time," said Celeste, speaking at a breakfast meeting organised by the Asia Society's Washington chapter. "Both countries want a better relationship... we have a great, unfulfilled relationship."

Several meetings between US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Jaswant Singh on the nuclear question have not yet achieved significant results, but "it takes a lot of work in both places before the talks can reach a conclusion."

While he could not give out any details at this stage, the talks were moving in the right direction, he added.

Admitting that the US government was concerned over the sanctions imposed against India in the wake of India's nuclear tests, Celeste said, "Sanctions are a very blunt instrument... they complicate the process (for better diplomatic relations). When we put restrictions on Exim financing, we disadvantage our own people and companies."

Celeste, who served as governor of Ohio from 1983 to 1991, assumed the post of US ambassador to India in November 1997. He has previously served in New Delhi for four years in the 1960s, under then ambassador Chester Bowles.

India's current situation can be explained by answers to three political, economic and strategic questions, Celeste said: Can a coalition government lead? Will the promise of reform be realised? And, can we reconcile India's strategic needs with those of the United States?

Stressing there was no question about the survival of Indian democracy, Celeste said a coalition government would be a "one-term reality in India for some time to come."

The survival of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government depends on how things go over the next six months, as different parts of the economy and the country move at different paces, he said.

But despite some frustration within the country with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for not taking up "tough issues quickly, adroitly," he does not think that the current government is threatened, not even by All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham leader J Jayalalitha.

The country now has to work towards a stronger central leadership and the focus had to shift to individual states, some which were showing great initiative, he said. He called particular attention to Orissa and Andhra Pradesh whose Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu "has a strong political agenda" and an ambitious plan for industrial development.

In the field of economic reform, Celeste said there is a consensus in India today over the country's liberalisation programme.

However, there is "far more rhetoric than action" in the country's reform agenda. "Indian business people talk of frustrations." India, he said, has a 5 per cent growth rate but needs to speed it up to 7 to 8 per cent to achieve real growth.

Economic reform would be greatly helped by a lowering of bureaucratic control, he said, adding that he was encouraged by the move of revenue secretary Nand Kumar Singh to the Prime Minister's Office. "A tough but reform-minded secretary in the PMO is a positive sign."

One of the setbacks to the Indian economy, said Celeste, was the wary view Indian businessmen took of global competition. But sectors such as information systems, comparable with American operations, have been opened up with great results.

"Indian entrepreneurs can perform to similar standards, if they try, in every other field," he said. "Information technology can make India a backroom for any operation in the United States."

Lauding the leadership role assumed by Indian immigrants in the United States, Celeste said dissatisfied at home, thousands of Indian professionals come to the United States to realise their dreams, and "we reap the harvest of this ambition."

Real relations between the two countries, he said, are not to do with governments but with the flow of human beings.

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