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In the wake of the dramatic defection of Republican Senator Jim
Jeffords of Vermont to the ranks of Independents last month, the United States Senate -- known as the world's most powerful deliberative body -- will be under Democratic control for the first time since 1994, and with it the all important chairmanships of committees, including the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Thus, when lawmakers return here this week after the Memorial Day holiday recess, the cantankerous curmedgeon Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who turns 80 this October -- an isolationalist par excellence and a critic of India for many years -- will be replaced by Sen Joe Biden, 58, of Delaware, an internationalist with a wide-ranging interest in world affairs and one who believes that sanctions against New Delhi must be lifted, but is also an ardent supporter of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Although analysts don't see much change in this body's policy toward India or South Asia in general, others, including diplomatic sources, believe that the exit of Helms can only be for the better and that even though some Indian Americans in his constituency had tried to bring him around to appreciate India and be more objective in his perception of New Delhi, this Cold War warrior -- who was convinced India was the erstwhile Communist enemy Soviet Union's surrogate -- has not changed his spots.
Helms, nearly two decades ago, had circumvented the State Department's refusal of a visa to separatist Khalistan activist Jagjit
Singh Chauhan, by inviting the latter to testify before a Senate agriculture
committee he then headed and give Chauhan the opportunity to rail against
His faithful foreign affairs aide Danielle Pletka entertained the likes of Khalistani and Kashmiri separatists and had been to Punjab surreptiously during the height of the Khalistani movement's terrorist campaign against Indian authorities and returned only to report on New Delhi alleged human rights violations.
Helms did attend some Indian American community events put together by some of his constituents and spoke fondly of India while the dollars flowed into his campaign coffers, and in an interview with this correspondent a few years back -- the first and only one he granted to a South Asian correspondent -- asserted that the US should cultivate India at the expense of China.
But when India exploded its nuclear weapons in May 1998, his true
Immediately following the Pokhran tests, Helms convened a hearing of his committee and the first words out of his mouth were: "I am astonished that the Indian government was able to catch the US intelligence capability sound asleep at the switch, revealing the stark reality that the Clinton
administration's six-year cozying up to India has been a foolhardy and
perilous susbstitute for common sense."
And he continued in the same vein, castigating India as it never had been in the US Senate, saying that "as long as there is breath in me, I will never support the lifting of the Glenn amendment sanctions on India unless they abandon all nuclear ambitions."
Helms said, "The appropriate US response must be vigorous international sanctions against India to be lifted only after India's nuclear program has been rolled back."
"Indeed," he said at the time, "if the administration plans to pressure India regarding arms control treaties, it should focus on the Nuclear
Helms then went on to make the absurd assertion that that "India's nuclear testing was compelling, additional evidence pointing to the need for a national missile defense to protect the United States. Because India has a
space-launch capability, which can be readily configured as an
inter-continental ballistic missile, India's actions clearly constitute
an emerging nuclear threat to the territory of the United States."
Thus, even before President George W Bush has infused the need of a NMD system into his campaign literature, Helms was calling for one citing India as a threat, and also said, "It is high time that the antiquated 1972
Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty -- which prohibits a national missile defense,
and which hamstrings even US theater missile defense -- is relegated to the
ash bins of history."
Even though some Bharatiya Janata Party activists here, in concert with Indian American supporters of Helms from North Carolina, scrambled during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's visit to Washington in 2000 and convinced him to host a tea in the committee's reception room for the latter -- which so impressed National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra that he spoke about it glowingly at a later press conference -- the crafty Helms was at the same time warning then President Clinton not to even think about lifting the sanctions against India.
But if Indian officials and the pro-India lobby think that the exit of the
parochial and archaic Helms and the advent of Biden signals a cake-walk for
New Delhi in the committee, they may be in for a surprise.
Biden was also a fierce critic of India's nuclear tests, though not carrying
it to the ridiculous level that Helms did.
Over the years, he did work for the dilution of sanctions against India, but
he always was in sync with the non-proliferation hawks in the administration
who believed the lifting of sanctions should come with the quid pro quo of
India signing the CTBT.
During the Senate debate in 1999, when the majority Republicans killed this major foreign policy initiative of Clinton, Biden made the most
passionate defense of the CTBT, saying that if the US Senate did not ratify
this treaty, it would let countries like India get off scot-free and lead to
an arms race in the sub-continent.
Biden's support for the CTBT has hardly receded and as recently as last
month, he questioned Christina Rocca -- the new assistant secretary of state
for South Asian Affairs -- if lifting the sanctions against India would allow
India the largesse of US aid and trade without New Delhi having to show no
reciprocity, particularly signing on to the accord.
But of course, there are perhaps more advantages to India with Biden being at the helm of this powerful committee. The Bush administration is now unlikely to be able to steamroll the NDM through the Senate and then boast that even India supports it. Thus, at least for the time being, New Delhi would be saved that embarrassment.
Biden will also be much more accessible to the pro-India lobby and Indian officials than Helms ever was and the fact that he is an internationalist and also has an Indian American aide Puneet Talwar and another who is an Indophile -- Jonah Blank, who has travelled extensively in South Asia and written books ranging from retracing the Ramayana to the Dawoodi Bohras, certainly helps.
However, with the realignments of the committee chairmanships, the leadership in the respective sub-committees will also change and in the South Asia context, Sen Sam Brownback of Kansas -- the author of legislation calling for the removal of sanctions against India and Rocca's patron (she was his chief foreign policy aide since 1997) -- will have to pass the helm to the ranking minority member Sen Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, a flaming liberal if ever there was one.
Wellstone, though generally a supporter of India who also interacts actively with the Indian American community in his constituency, is nevertheless also a staunch non-proliferationist and human rights activist. Thus, while he may, like Biden support the lifting of sanctions against India, he may try to extract something out of New Delhi and is also sure to influenced by the likes of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and their takes on human rights violations in South Asia, including those in India.
Wellstone is among the coterie of lawmakers who believe
that trade should be linked to the level of human rights protection a country
provides and has been a vociferous opponent of normal trading relations with China because of Beijing's plethora of human rights violations.
While Rocca was confirmed unanimously by both Republicans and Democrats, with both Biden and Wellstone lavishing praise on her and endorsing her nomination by Bush, which make analysts and even senior congressional sources to predict that any policy change toward India or South Asia as a whole is imminent, they admit that in a body where nuance is important, it could always make the difference and surprise the most expert Congress-watchers.
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