News APP

NewsApp (Free)

Read news as it happens
Download NewsApp

Available on  gplay  » News » Pannun 'Plot': 'US and India have bent backward...'

Pannun 'Plot': 'US and India have bent backward...'

Last updated on: December 15, 2023 09:48 IST
Get Rediff News in your Inbox:

' prevent this episode from disrupting ongoing cooperation.'
'The discovery of this plot had the potential to derail much of what has been achieved in the relationship during this administration's tenure -- I don't think that fact has been sufficiently appreciated in India.'

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi and US President Joe Biden in conversation during the G20 Leaders' Summit in New Delhi, Setember 9, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

"The US relationship with India is important to both countries, but it would be a mistake for New Delhi to assume that India's value to the United States vis-a-vis China gives it the latitude to undermine US sovereignty by targeting American citizens, however odious they may be," Dr Ashley J Tellis, Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tells Nikhil Lakshman/ in an e-mail interview.

Bombay born and raised, Dr Tellis served as a special assistant to President George W Bush on the US National Security Council. He also served as a senior adviser at the US State Department and at the US embassy in New Delhi.


US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken said last month that the US is taking the Department of Justice indictment very seriously.
Is this comment for mere public consumption or is the Biden administration perturbed about the conduct of a nation that it perceives as an ally?
What are the likely US measures that India can expect in response to this case?

I don't think the Biden administration's consternation about the planned assassination detailed in the DoJ indictment can be understated.

There is a striking unanimity within the US government that such activities are intolerable.

The discovery of this plot had the potential to derail much of what has been achieved in the bilateral relationship during this administration's tenure -- I don't think that fact has been sufficiently appreciated in India.

So, I don't think Secretary Blinken's statements were merely for public consumption.

In fact, senior administration officials have had several conversations with their Indian government counterparts over the past several months -- and senior US intelligence officials have travelled to India -- to convey the US dismay about the developments detailed in the indictment.

I imagine that what the US government expects of India are two things: That Indian national security managers conduct a thorough inquiry into this affair and hold those responsible accountable; and that the Government of India offers an ironclad assurance that such activities will never again recur on US territory.

Some Indians feel that the US reaction is disproportionate considering that it does not censure Israel when Mossad targets Iranian scientists or when the US itself assassinates Qasem Soleimani.
They ask why then is Washington so aggrieved about India wanting to get rid of someone Indian intelligence agencies perceive as a terrorist.

The key issue here is that the planned assassination detailed in the indictment was to have occurred on US soil.

That's about as big a challenge to US sovereignty as it gets.

As far as I know, Mossad has not conducted assassinations on US territory.

And Qasem Soleimani was designated as a terrorist by the United States and the European Union and personally sanctioned by a United Nations Security Council resolution for his long involvement in attacks on US citizens and other foreign nationals.

I'm not sure Gurpatwant Singh Pannun is comparable on that count.

Even if he is, as India might insist, the fact that his assassination was planned for execution on US soil guaranteed that it would become a source of crisis between the United States and India.

What impact -- short-term and long-term -- will this DoJ indictment and trial have on the India-US relationship?
Will it decelerate some of the wheels that are currently in motion?

Both the Biden) administration and the Indian government have bent backward to prevent this episode from disrupting ongoing bilateral cooperation.

The difference in India's reaction to the Canadian and the US accusations is striking and plain for all to see.

Clearly, for New Delhi, Washington matters more than any other capital.

So, I suspect that, barring any further surprises at the trial of Nikhil Gupta, the US-India relationship will weather this crisis if New Delhi can satisfy the two US expectations I flagged earlier.

Will the Nikhil Gupta trial further complicate things in the future?
Is it possible that this case could be resolved out of public view -- like the Devyani Khobragade issue was settled -- or don't Indians understand how the US judicial process works?

Unfortunately, I don't think it can be settled quietly. The Gupta matter involves criminal activities of extreme severity and Gupta, unlike Khobragade, cannot claim diplomatic immunity.

IMAGE: Modi with US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in New Delhi, November 10, 2023. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

Is there an expectation that the India relationship is too important for an event like this to derail it?
Could this invoke a sense of caution at the State Department and the Pentagon and indeed the White House about dealing with India and this government in the future?

The US relationship with India is important to both countries, but, as I noted elsewhere, it would be a mistake for New Delhi to assume that India's value to the United States vis-a-vis China gives it the latitude to undermine US sovereignty by targeting American citizens, however odious they may be.

Recognising India's significance, the Biden administration has approached the Pannun plot with great solicitude and dexterity, but India should not pocket this tact on the assumption that this is something it is owed because of its strategic importance.

In your long experience of studying the India-US relationship, is this alleged plot without precedent?
Indian diplomats and policy makers have always taken the high moral ground in international statecraft, asserting its belief in Gandhian principles.
Do you think this conspiracy is an aberration, perhaps a rogue plot, or does it reveal how Indian statecraft has changed from the past?

I think it is a reflection of changing Indian statecraft, which is increasingly expressed in ways that differ strikingly from the past.

Reaching for the high moral ground, which was so characteristic of India's past diplomacy, is now something of the past as well.

Could India's more assertive presence in the world have led whosoever allegedly conceived this business to assume that they would get away with it because of New Delhi's current standing in the world?

I think that may be presuming too much forethought.

What is more likely is that the activities of Pannun and his ilk abroad unnerved some in the Indian security establishment -- which has vivid and unsettling memories of the Punjab insurgency of the early 1980s -- and provoked an overreaction in the form of an assassination campaign.

Clearly, the Gupta arrest shows that such activities sometimes go awry -- and badly.

The DoJ indictment suggests that the tradecraft of the operatives involved was amateurish beyond belief.

What this tells me is that whoever planned and tasked this mission expected that the modus operandi that is usually successful inside South Asia would seamlessly deliver in the West as well.

In other words, the mission was expected to remain undetected and proceed successfully without leaving any fingerprints behind.

I doubt anyone had thought deeply about India's standing in the world or what the consequences might have been for India if this operation had been compromised.

IMAGE: Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher A Wray, right, with Central Bureau of Investigation Pravin Sood at the CBI headquarters in New Delhi, December 11, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

How could this, in your opinion, damage India's standing among those countries that are currently courting it?
Would there be hesitation, a reluctance in future dealing with India?

If anything, I think this episode will confirm India's new standing as an unrepentant practitioner of raison d'etat.

It has already bought Prime Minister Modi much approbation at home.

It will now serve to put other States on notice that, however uncomfortable it might be, they are now dealing with a more pugnacious India that will exploit existing international practices to advance its own interests.

Sometimes there will be pushback -- as is now occurring the case of the United States.

But there was little pushback when Canada leveled equally serious accusations in an episode that had a far deadlier outcome. That is something worth thinking about.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

Get Rediff News in your Inbox:
India Votes 2024

India Votes 2024