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'It's the most transparent deal in Indian history'

By Sheela Bhatt
Last updated on: October 04, 2008 01:02 IST
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Naresh Chandra, former Indian Ambassador to the United States, is a pioneer in more ways than one. He successfully withstood the wrath of the the American nuclear non-proliferation lobby after the 1998 nuclear bomb tests by India. He was one of the key players in navigating the new Indo-US ties to a new  high. The efforts, started by the A B Vajpayee government, will now culminate on October 4 when US Secretray of State Condoleezza Rice signs the Indo-US nuclear deal with Pranab Mukherjee.

Naresh Chandra was also a party to the then key Strobe Talbott-Jaswant Singh talks under the umbrella of Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP). On the eve of the historic day, the ex-diplomat shares his views on the nuclear deal and its real impact.

What is the big picture you get after signing the nuclear deal? Will the Indian foreign policy change?

If anybody is arguing that India's foreign policy will be changing, then answer to this question is : so what?  Some people argue against closer ties with bigger power or stronger power. But, to take it to the extreme that you can't have truck with the superpower is a self-defeating argument. Then, your neighbour will have a fine time if you are isolated. The military ties will follow, now. We had a military relationship with Soviet Union. We will have to wait and see the terms of new military ties. American arms supplies are not always on commercial terms as the terms of supplies of Soviet was also not strictly on commercial terms. Now, the scene is shifting. It must shift because over dependence on one country is not good for defence security of India. It's a good thing because what America can supply can be supplied by France, Germany and other countries. So US will have to be competitive. See, strategic ties not only depend on defence ties, but it's about the quality of technology that we get. Russia and China will give its arm and a leg to receive technology from the US. It's not like buying a bag of cement.

When you buy defence technology you are saving the lives of your soldiers. You are giving an edge to your military and you can't be sentimental or dogmatic. China and Russia do not have the technology that US has. The media ignores this fact that the frontiers of technology of the US exceed the technologies of world put together. The  Chinese are on their knees, begging for US technology. Why should India go with the second best and Pakistan gets the best technology? Political parties in India may gain in opposing the deal, but the Indian soldier loses. When Pakistan was getting technology from China, was it reading its political manifestoes? The name of the game is that you do best for your soldiers. To upgrade your military power is not the small priority. It can't be judged on the basis of how will affect your election prospects. What will media say that "I have become a stooge of US" and all that is a secondary thing. The political leader has to serve its Army first. You should see India's growing relationship with Israel in that context. By having military ties with Israel or the US, you are not endorsing their policies. Are you endorsing China's policies by doing trade with China?

Isn't it true that America wants India to be under their security, military and nuclear matrix?

You go to them with your own package. I am afraid we are not a matured nation if we shrink just because America is coming to you. We should go to the US with our shoulders stretched. Look at their negotiators in the eye. You have the right to say where to get off.

You know India is not opting for cheap gas from Iran.

No, this is not a fact. It's an allegation. Iranians are shifting ground. They do not abide by their commercial terms. They raise prices to an absurd level. In Kudremukh, they have stalled the deal. They have been changing terms of the pipeline at least four times. There is a huge question mark on the security issue of the pipeline. I am sure you or any journalist in India will not put their personal money in the pipeline. It is a lie to say we are not going for the pipeline under American pressure is not correct. It is correct that the American pressure is there against the pipeline. I am not an admirer of the US nor a critic because being a critic or admirer is a useless exercise. We should work in the interest of India without passing judgments on others.

How do you see the US-India-Pakistan dynamics?

The US is interacting with Pakistan with the same motive as they do with India. The US is in adverse situation with the Muslim world like Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But, Pakistan is not just another Islamic country. It has one of the most sophisticated armies and bigger than all the gulf countries put together. It has nuclear capability. Do not term Pakistan with the UAE, Syria or Jordan. The US has to be very careful when they pick up or let Pakistan down. The US investment is not giving them enough returns. They are playing hot and cold there by trying to take advantage of Pakistan's military power. We had a great problem in convincing the US that the  Pakistan Army finds it convenient to divert terrorists to India and the ISI provides logistic support in the most blatant manner. There is no doubt that Pakistan has not given up their policy of creating troubles in India. They have a special programme to the taint the Indian Muslim groups to show off that India is also not free from indigenous militant Muslim groups. The US will try to restrict them as much as they can, but I don't think the US will be very effective.

How do you see the US-India cooperation in Afghanistan?

The problem is that wherever America goes, it Americanises the situation.

Afghanistan is not US's problem. It's a world problem, it's our problem. It's a problem for Iran and Pakistan where Afghan refugees are swarmed with. Rather, fear in the neighbouring countries is that the US might declare victory and walk out. Can you imagine Afghanistan minus NATO-US troops? I don't recommend Indian troops in Afghanistan because it has to be a carefully considered decision and I think situation is not ripe now. The one reason not to send troops to Afghanistan is because the US wants it!.

Don't you think better ties with neighbours will help India more in strengthening security?

That's a fact. But, believe me, when you have stronger relationship with the US you will have better ties with your neighbors. China takes notice when US President and Prime Minister of India talk. Hu Jintao didn't take call from New Delhi but he could not refuse the call from Washington. That's a reality. Having the US on your side adds edge to your cause. It goes without saying that you should not depend on the powerful friend and not lose your autonomy. Except Burma (I refuse to call it Myanmar) everyone will sit and take notice of the US-India ties.

How will China view the surge in the Indo-US relationship?

In short term, they are making right voices, but they want to encircle India. They want to assert and want to see that India is not even second to them in Asia. However, they are revising their policies. They have made good use of the fact that you are not a nuclear power and not a member of  United Nations Security Council. I hear a loose talk in India that who is the US to take us to UNSC? People also say the nuclear power is not good. People quote Rajiv Gandhi's disarmament speech -- that was a great thing to happen. What a great impact it made. But, the impact on whom? Not on the Chinese.

The fact is that when the Chinese will find that India is getting into the 5 plus 1 category they will revise their policy on India. The Chinese will give a greater regard now then they were giving to India so far, that is a fact. Now, what do critics say? They allege that we are annoying China and we are moving away from our non-alignment path into the US camp. What we will gain we will lose in our friendship with China. What friendship they are talking about? We are doing trade with China. What kind of trading is going on?

India is sending basic raw materials like iron ore and Chinese businessmen are sending goods, which kill our industries. The Chinese had a very fine time till now. They had access to the American space technology, supercomputers, missile and the nuclear technology when the doors were shut on India. I don't see how Indians were happy with the situation.

It amazes me. The jokers here played the card of Indian scientists versus America. Tell me, what about the Chinese scientists? Their brains are going overboard to extract technology from the US. Where is the pride? You are bringing in pride of Indian scientists to trump the collaboration of America with India. Nothing can be crazier. I find superceded scientists of the Atomic Energy Commission coming out and talking like patriots. Let them tell us what papers have they published? 

Isn't it fact that the US is using India to counter-balance China in the region? Is not that  affecting seriously India's independent relationship with China?

What can you do about it?  You see the point is if the US and NATO powers in their calculation feel that India can be a balancing factor in Asia then, you take into account. I don't understand why should these frighten you?

India and China are two old nations; we know how to deal with each other.

Then, deal with it. I don't understand this sort of chest-beating. I am telling you seriously they would like (US and NATO) to do it. I am not contradicting it so, play the game. When you enter a football ground how can you say this guy is coming in my way and is hitting my leg? Of course, it is his job. Once you start coming up and you become more and more international player, every nation tries to use your emerging power to its best advantage. And person who thinks otherwise is a fool. The way you have to play on it is that you have to take full advantage.

Your theory is based on assumption that in India a brilliant leadership is there. Who will be able to balance their policies?

That is a second part. I am sketching out what is a wise policy. The implementation is the  second step and there you have a point. You take this on board (US' offers to India). Don't reject it. Use it but you tell, not just tell, but convince China that, "We are not playing this game. We will not play this game because India is convinced that if you and I are locked in warm embrace the rest of the world will laugh all the way to the bank. We are no way going to match or pit our resources against yours. We hope that you will do the same. Although, friend, your record has been quite bad but, we hope and trust our civilizational traditions and Chinese wisdom that you will see to it that India and China must co-operate. We are the two most populous countries our needs are similar.

Those needs can become competing and rest of the world can play one against the other.

Instead we should have a level of co-operation and not play the big power game which US and other powers are playing. But, the fact remains that big powers want India to play these games but India is not complying."

If China thinks anytime that India is playing the American game, India and China should sit down and talk directly. India can convince China that we are following our own road.

Instead of these words, will it be better if India's top-level leadership attends SCO and not send merely a minister of Murli Deora's nature. 

Yes, I agree. It's like this; strategy is all right in a long run, but when you are playing tactics for today you have to see the number of present-day factors. Today, the role of the Chinese has not reached at a position that India can go overboard. If we do so they will take it as a sign of weakness on our part. And we will be taken for granted. If Chinese are nasty to us, we should at least tell them that they have been nasty to us without causing permanent injury to relationship. We should let them know that we have been taken for granted. The way China is trying to to keep us out of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation,  the way they supported some anti-waiver countries at Vienna, the way they stand up for Pakistan and their statement on Arunachal Pradesh suggest something. At this moment to be milk and honey to them is not correct for India. We have to proceed practically. We can't go overboard. But, there is no denying that thrust of our relationship with China has to be positive and friendly.

When the agreement is signed, how will you describe it as the turning point?

It's a new chapter in the Indo-US relationship. It's a turning point. Within India also, a many things have happened. Our leaders were afraid in going a bit far with the US.

Every time they did there was such sniping from the press, Left parties and the crowd that is found around the India International Centre. It is for this reason that no leader, no chief minister or no mayor or anybody had guts to name any building , any institution, road or by-lane after an American leader. You will find Ho Chi Minh or Archbishop Makarios and even Olof Palme, but not Martin Luther King. Jr or Lincoln or Washington.

It is worth analyzing why is it so? Is it because we are fiercely independent? But, then we have so many English names, we have so many French and German influences, too.

Somebody had argued it may be out of cowardice that nobody is willing to bell the cat and be dumped as an American agent or a CIA guy! Finally, the 123 agreement puts a break to this thinking. This confining border on our political leader is finally broken. I think, the credit for it must go to Dr Manmohan Singh. Every possible allegation has  been hurled at him, but I think he has come out of it cleanly.

Do you think the nuclear agreement has divided India?

That's true. It was reflected in Parliament voting, too. But, India is divided on every other issue, too. India is divided on Tata's Nano project and even on Raj Thackeray. See the leader can't say that because the nation is divided so I can't take decisions. What is Parliament for? Parliament has to decide on issues on majority of one vote. Period. The US is the English-speaking nation by one vote. When the US Congress met to adopt its national language, German and English were voted upon and German language lost by one vote. So what's great about the issues that divide?

When you faced the opposition of the US government and the media after Pokhran-II, have you ever thought the ties will change so drastically?

No. It required orchestrated steps both the governments, which I find very surprising. Now, that it's happened people take for granted, but I am amazed that the 123 agreement is happening. I never thought that there would be a US president who will move this far to change the law, to break the rules, to withstand the attack of the non-proliferation lobby and force his diplomats and officers to come to terms with what Indian side wanted. I think, it is a very well-negotiated deal.

People say it is not transparent. Four times, Parliament has discussed it clause by clause. It is the most transparent, most written-about and most analyzed agreement in the history of India. America is signing this deal for the same reason. It is doing it in its self-interest.

What is it?

It sees that India can be a responsible player for the more liberal democratic order in the world. And, the disadvantage we have today vis-à-vis China has to be eliminated. And, that the American influence has to be prevailed without confrontation and friction. With the growing Chinese power, an emerging and stronger India is better for harmony and the balance of world.

And what are the advantages for India?

If people are willing to be on your side, then what is your problem? If your fundamentals are improving and people are giving you more weight then why should we worry about it? Its time India entered the field and joined the game instead of running outside the boundaries.     

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