Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Obama and the Fly

From the Tribune, Chandigarh

“Cruelty to animals”, cried the SPCA. “How do flies get into the White
House?”asked the health authorities. “With such skills, he should be
in Afpak, hunting Osama bin Laden”, said the terror warriors.”The
President should have the freedom at least to kill flies”, said the
apologists. “We always knew there were flies on the walls of the White
House”, said the Republicans. “He is not the Buddha (or Mahavira) to
waste his time saving pests”, said the rationalists. “He should be
cloned for every home to be a human fly swat”, said the super
marketers. “This is the change we have been looking for’, said the
Democrats. “Yes, we can”, said President Obama. The cacophony

The affair was simple. President Obama was in the White House, sitting
for a chit chat with a CNN editor, exchanging ideas on how to bring
about change in this world. There appeared a tiny fly, much like the
one that sat on Shakuntala’s nose, giving an opportunity to Dushyanta
to make a dramatic appearance with a sword in hand to save a damsel in
distress, and began to hover around the President much to his
annoyance. The CNN camera whirred on, though the editor stopped
questioning the President and began following the fly. The President
did what any one else would do in such dire circumstances and began to
wave the fly away. But the fly, like a disguised demon, determined to
seek salvation by dying at the hands of the Lord himself, settled on
his suit sleeve. Then it happened. With a swift karate chop, which
would be the envy of Bruce Lee, the President struck the fly, and
wonder of wonders, got it. He threw the carcass on to the White House
carpet and resumed his dialogue as though nothing had happened.

The scene was played on TV screens a million times, as though the
President had accomplished one of his many feats. It was as though he
made a brilliant speech without the teleprompter. He deserved all the
praise, because it is not easy to kill a fly with bare hands. The fly
is very swift in movement and you have to be swifter than the fly. And
to do it in one shot in front of the cameras is nothing short of a
miracle. But in a free country, there is no dearth of opinions and
hence the flood of commentaries ranging from high praise for his
courage to condemnation for taking the life of an innocent being.

For me, the event was evocative. I once served with an ambassador,
whose forte was karate; he was indeed a black belt, pretty high in the
karate hierarchy. He liked demonstrating martial arts to his admiring
colleagues, though there was a rumour in town that diplomats came in
the expectation of a demonstration of “marital” arts by the youthful
ambassador. He took pride in the fact that he could kill flies by the
dozens with his serviette on the dining table and he demonstrated the
art every time he had guests for lunch or dinner. The city was not
Washington and flies were a perennially present everywhere. He would
challenge his guests to beat him in the game, but most of them shied
away even from trying. My not joining the younger colleagues in
cheering him was seen as part of the inevitable squabbles between the
number one and the number two. But once I had to speak up, but only in
his ear in Hindi that it was not polite to engage in his pastime at
the dinner table of a pious Buddhist former Prime Minister of the
country! I reminded him that India too is a non-violent nation, though
in his own part of the country, chopping of heads was a part of the
sporting tradition.

I wished I had the skills of the venerable ambassador when I was
confronted with a fly when I was trying to record a conversation in a
studio. Every time I came to make an important point, a fly came and
settled on my nose. The cameraman cut off the shoot and chased the fly
around in the room and I myself joined in the hunt. The fly
disappeared till we resumed the recording and came to the same point.
Since it was targeting my nose and not my suit sleeve, there was no
way we could even try to kill it. Nor could we record the programme
for the week. I smiled when the anchor announced that the week’s
analysis of world events could not be brought to the viewers for
technical reasons. She should have said that there was a fly in the

As we go to the press, public opinion in the United States has not
determined whether the President was justified in his action. It will
be left to the Presidential historians to pass the verdict. But the
fly must have been preserved for a pride of place in the Obama library
in Chicago.
Creativity and Connectivity
(A review of ‘Clueless in California’ by B.S.Prakash. Konark Publishers

Foreign Service officers, by definition, are people with a flair for words, whether in print or in speech. They also have the opportunity to have a variety of extraordinary experiences worthy of sharing. No wonder, therefore, many of them turn writers of imagination and talent. But their writings are mostly consigned to the archives of the Ministry of External Affairs, sometimes even unread. Many a gem of unimaginable worth must lie buried in the dusty cupboards of South Block, Akbar Bhavan, Shastri Bhavan and even Patiala House. Some, of course, find the freedom of retirement conducive to creative writing for a wider audience. Of late, several people find time and leisure to write fiction or essays on non-political matters, which do not attract the provisions of the official secrets act. One of them, Vikas Swarup, has not only produced a sensational novel, but also reached, with its movie adaptation, the red carpet at the Oscars. With the standards set so high, it is difficult for others to measure up to expectations.
B.S.Prakash, presently ambassador in Brazil, was the right man in the right place at the right time in California as the Indian Consul General, with a parish bigger and more important than those of many ambassadors. Even while doing a splendid job there as the representative of a resurgent India, Prakash was dazzled by the technology and the lifestyle of the new breed of multitasking youngsters, including those from South Asia. They spoke a different language, worked differently and even dreamt differently. The American setting and the entrepreneurial atmosphere added more mystery to them. His curiosity was aroused more than the call of duty required him to do and he began to delve into the phenomenon and, what is more, began recording his observations in highly readable essays for Rediff.com, India’s premiere web portal. ‘Clueless in California-America in Bits and Bytes’ is a collection of those essays, brought out imaginatively by Konark Publishers, Delhi. The book is undoubtedly a valuable contribution to the body of literature on the dot com world in Silicon Valley and beyond. It also tells the saga of thousands of Indian immigrants, who chased their dreams to California and either made their millions or eked out a living by driving taxis. Prakash treats them all with objectivity, sympathy and good humour.
The fascinating tale of an enigmatic American, imploring the author to be wary of a chip being put under the skin to make him an agent of the devil, right in the beginning of the book sets the tone. It is a world full of people and ideas, bewildering in its variety and reach. The strange shopping habits of the Americans are equally fascinating. Even millionaires carefully clip shopping coupons from newspapers and use them to get discounts in cents. The art of availing of sale in stylish shops is something to master. Things are purchased to save money, not to spend it, but you may never see them again till you have your own garage sale, when one man’s trash becomes another man’s treasure. Even the author is tempted to stop writing to rush to buy a digital camera at half the price.
The gun culture in America puzzles Prakash, but he is assured that guns do not kill people, only people do. The similarities and differences between cricket and base ball lead to the conclusion that each is crazy as the other and equally addictive to players and spectators alike. The burger culture convinces him of George Santayana’s theory that the special character of the American is to “apply mind to matter”. In America, mind is being applied continuously, rigorously and systematically to produce solutions to every problem. The book has its own fairy tales like an arranged marriage taking place after a chance meeting on a plane leading to romance and wedding of total strangers. Well, authors of essays should be permitted some flights of fancy. But Prakash swears that such things do happen in Silicon Valley.
California was, after all, the birthplace of the United Nations and Californians are as interested as the Ghanaians about the future of the UN. But they have long considered the UN as a useless body, which has not stopped any war, not even the Bush war on Iraq. Passports and visas are perennial subjects of conversation among the Indian immigrants till they finally get their green cards, or, even better, US nationality.
The heart of the book, of course, is the life and culture of the computer geeks and dot com millionaires and the way India has finally captured the imagination of the Americans. Prakash quotes Tom Friedman, recalling his mother telling him to think of the hungry millions of India before wasting food. Today’s mothers are telling American children to finish their maths homework for fear that the bright kids of India would come and make them starve. The whole transformation is beautifully described. By listening “silently and respectfully to the paeans sung for technology”, he has discovered “the speed, the ease, the efficacy, the joys of the toys, the quantum transformation, in short, how the ungadgetted world is indeed not worth living.”
Away from the tumultuous world of California, Prakash must be either enjoying the relative calm in Brasilia or having severe withdrawal symptoms. But write, he must, not just for the archives but also for his admirers he has won through his first book. The creativity must continue despite less connectivity. “Clueless in California could not be more clued up”, declares the new IFS icon, Vikas Swarup, enthusiastically.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Remarks by Ambassador T.P.Sreenivasan
Luncheon Meeting of the US-India Security Forum.
June 25, 2009.

The canvas given to me is very wide: US-India Security Relations in
the context of the nuclear deal, the elections and the appointment of
the first NRI Minister. There is no way I can cover all these in a
short time. Thank you for coming. I know you are here to renew old
friendships rather than to be educated by me on these issues. I shall
speak in that spirit.

When you say security relations, I do not think that you mean only
military cooperation. Security is comprehensive covering safeguarding
national integrity, energy, environment, combating terrorism and
fighting the pandemics. These issues cannot be resolved by any one
country by itself. Cooperation rather than confrontation is the order
of the day. US-India cooperation is imperative in resolving these
issues and we are fully engaged. The cooperation between us will go
forward, regardless of changes in Governments in either country.

The US voted for change, big change, and India voted for no change.
But there has been change in India too in the sense that the Manmohan
Singh Government has been elected with added strength, not held
hostage any longer to the whims and fancies of coalition partners.
Among the many reasons for the victory of the Congress Party, Ashis
Nandy lists out the essential decency of Dr. Manmohan Singh, the
desire of the people to bring down the temperature in politics and to
teach humility to the arrogant leaders of certain parties, who
imagined themselves as Prime Ministers and the support to national
rather than regional causes, such as secularism and pluralism.

I would add two more factors: acceptance of the nuclear deal and a
strategic alliance with the US and a sense that the nation needs a
strong and stable Government to battle terrorism of the Mumbai
variety. If Dr. Manmohan Singh stood up for something in the last five
years, it was for his foreign policy and the credibility of his
Government in dealing with foreign Governments. He would not have been
brought back if there was no acceptance of his foreign policy.
Similarly, his firm diplomatic stand against Pakistan after 26/11 was
broadly approved by the people. The nation felt that a firm, stable
and wise leadership was necessary to deal with such contingencies. The
restrained liberalization policies of the Government and popular
measures like employment schemes and loan waiver for farmers also
played their role.

It must be remembered, however, that the second Manmohan Singh
Government would not go either for a closer embrace with the US or for
unbridled liberalization of the economy. The Government will be more
confident, but will remain in the present path. Suspicion of the
United States and socialism is a part of the psyche of the Congress
leaders also.

India-US relations will be pursued vigorously by both Governments as
its logic is unquestioned, but ironically, at a time when India is in
a position to give priority to them, the US has other priorities and
preoccupations, which have made it less receptive to Indian
sensitivities. The international economic situation has brought
US-China relations to the forefront and there is talk of a “G-2” to
resolve global problems. If the US and China divide the world between
themselves and relegate India to a secondary position in Asia,
India-US relations cannot have the vigour of the Bush era. Similarly,
the nuclear deal will be implemented, but at a slower pace if the US
agenda on non-proliferation stresses the NPT regime as the preferred
route to nuclear disarmament, making India a target rather than a
partner again in non-proliferation. Unless there is agreement on the
sequencing of follow-up measures, the implementation of the nuclear
deal is likely to run into rough weather. Both sides have to steer
clear of hazards and move with determination. As for defence
arrangements, things are likely to move on, as envisaged during the
Bush Administration.

The new Afpak policy of the Obama Administration may also cause
certain discomfort in India if the focus is on what India can do to
make Pakistan feel comfortable enough to fight the Taliban,
Suggestions for concessions on Kashmir to achieve this end have not
been received well in India. The important thing is for the two
countries to engage in a serious discussion to prevent irritants from
emerging in the relationship. We cannot expect President Obama to take
bold initiatives in the first term, but he has pledged continuity in
the recent statements from his Government, notably the speech by
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the US-India Business Council.

You also wanted to hear about the significance of the appointment of a
NRI Minister in the Ministry of External Affairs. Shashi Tharoor lived
abroad most of his life but he remained an Indian citizen throughout.
His appointment is in recognition of his distinction as well as his
impressive victory at the elections. He crossed the hurdles of
dynasty, party hierarchy and election funding on his own and mounted a
successful campaign. His success shows that you do not have to serve
the country in a particular capacity to win recognition. Indian
passport holders have the choice of returning to the country and
entering public life. To that extent, his election and elevation give
reasons for NRIs to feel reassured. As he is a talented and
experienced person, he will do well in any assignment.

Thank you, Rajesh and others for hosting the lunch.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

India can pursue independent foreign policy
by T. P. Sreenivasan

An assertion heard in the context of the foreign policy of the first Manmohan Singh Government was that it abandoned India’s independent foreign policy, or was in the process of abandoning it, had it not been for the pressures of its leftist partners. Now that Winston Churchill’s “little man walking into the little booth with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper” has rejected that assertion, at least in the sense that his little cross has led to the advent of a second Manmohan Singh Government, time has come to examine how independent or otherwise was the foreign policy of India in the last five years. The critics of that policy have not been vindicated, though they will say that foreign policy was not an issue at the elections.

Foreign policy, by its very definition, has to relate to the world realities and it has to be reshaped constantly on the basis of the response it gets from its “consumers”, who are the foreign countries, whose actions we aim to influence by our foreign policy moves. An independent foreign policy, in that sense, is a myth. It must have, as its basis, a solid sense of the world around us and must be adjusted to derive the most from it.

The other question is who should foreign policy be independent of? Once it is established that we should hear every one in the process of formulating and implementing foreign policy, the argument that policy should be independent of external influences does not hold. The only consideration has to be whether or not the foreign policy benefits India. The impression created during the first Manmohan Singh Government was that somehow the government could not be trusted to have a sound judgment about India’s interests. Or worse, there could be ulterior motives in pursuing a particular policy. The net result was the creation of a veil of suspicion and an atmosphere of pressure, making it difficult for the government to act decisively. The world watched in consternation when other countries had to deal not with one Government of India, but also with its different factions. The government, it looked, lacked independence to pursue a foreign policy. When the government was being criticised inside the country for lacking an independent foreign policy, it was being perceived abroad as being unable to be independent enough to keep its commitments.

The independence of Indian foreign policy has been questioned before both internally and externally. Freedom of thought and independence of action were at the heart of the nonaligned movement, but the movement itself was seen as a natural ally of one of the power blocs. While India took its decisions independently, on the basis of its own judgment, it was seen as tilting to the Soviet Union, more so after the Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1971 and the Bangladesh war. History will testify that India did not succumb to pressure from the Soviet Union on issues such as Asian Collective Security and some of the other strategic moves of the Soviet Union. India proved that it was too big and too independent a country to be subservient to any other country.

The events of 2004 to 2009 did not make India any less independent, just as the events of 1970 to 1977 did not make it any more dependent on any foreign power. In 2004, the UPA Government inherited the shattered theory of “India Shining”, shattered not by the rest of the world, but by the Indian electorate itself. The rest of the world was dazzled by India’s growth, the nuclear tests and the way India coped with their aftermath. They had abandoned their attempts at isolating India and had come round to working with a nuclear India despite apprehensions about India’s nuclear posture. The most remarkable achievement of the UPA Government was the way it went about bringing India into the nuclear mainstream, an effort, which was seen as surrendering our independence. Suffice it to say here that the much criticised shift in policy took place in Washington than in New Delhi. The NDA Government left off the talks with the United States, accepting four of the five benchmarks the US set for normalising relations. The fifth, strategic restraint, a euphemism for restricting India’s nuclear arsenal, was as unacceptable to UPA as it was to NDA. It was the change of heart in Washington that it could work with the other bench marks that led to the nuclear deal. In achieving it, there was give and take, but those decisions were taken with India’s interests kept intact. Even if the elections were not fought on this issue, Dr Manmohan Singh, identified as he was with the deal, would not have become Prime Minister again without wide acceptance of his stand on this issue.

India’s Pakistan policy is another matter in which the charge of dependence was made. It was alleged that Washington had its hold on our responses to Pakistan. The truth is that India has been ferociously independent in conducting our relations with Pakistan. The most innovative ideas reported to have been put forward in the back channel negotiations on Kashmir were not conjured up outside India. The sketchy details that have emerged have been received well in the West, but no one outside could claim any credit for them. For the rest, India was basically watching the chaos in Pakistan and encouraging the advent of democracy. We did not need anyone’s advice to respond to President Zardari’s overtures. The Bush Administration, mercifully, took no interest in Kashmir at any time. The charge of external influence came up in the post 26/11 situation due to American activism. But today, there is recognition that the Indian response was prudent, logical and inevitable. The rest of the world may have wished that there would be no conflagration, but our decision not to take that route was dictated only by our judgment.

Our vote on Iran at the IAEA is another issue on which there were charges of external pressure. But long before the Iranian situation became a contentious issue, India had taken the position that Iran should abide by its commitments under the treaties that it had signed and that should remove the fears of the international community by answering the questions raised by the IAEA. We had a sense, right from the beginning, that Iran had something to hide and that it was important to have a full disclosure of their peaceful intentions.

On neighbourhood policy, the charges were not about independence, but about ineffectiveness of our policy to turn things around in our favour. Some have the perception that we have unlimited influence on our neighbours and if we do not have it, we should force our way there. Some feel that it is India’s duty to solve all the problems of our neighbours. The test of a good neighbourhood policy is whether it protects our political and economic interests in the neighbourhood. Goodwill from small nations towards their big neighbours is limited and any evidence of interference will be resented. Neither unilateral concessions nor strong arm tactics will help us to deal with our neighbours. In Sri Lanka, the eventual outcome has suited us, while in Nepal, we would have desired a different outcome. But our policies of restraint and helpful posturing have enabled us to retain our influence and to be able to play a role in the eventual dispensation.

Our links with China, Russia, Japan and the European Union have also won approbation of the public in India, though none of these was smooth sailing or without hazards. Our nonaligned links were preserved and nurtured and new partnerships with Brazil and South Africa have prospered. We are no nearer to becoming a permanent member of the Security Council and the chances are bleak not because we have not tried, but because the world is not ready for it yet. We should appear unattached on this issue as permanent membership without veto will be a liability rather than an asset. We should remain ready and willing, but we should not do any deals for it or make our bilateral relations hostage to the support we get on this issue.

No one will claim that the election results are a vindication of India’s foreign policy in the last five years. But the truth is that foreign policy was thoroughly examined in an unprecedented manner and it found favour with a majority of the people. We should not forget that it was on foreign policy issues that Dr. Manmohan Singh staked the very existence of his Government. He is now fully equipped to follow a foreign policy free of extraneous factors and his enhanced prestige around the world will be good for the nation.

The writer, a former Indian Ambassador, is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington.
June 17, 2009

'Pakistan will project it as a diplomatic victory'

I saw several smiling faces in Washington as news came from far away
Yekaterinburg (till 1991 Sverdlovsk, named after the Bolshevik leader,
Yakov Sverdlov) the city over which Gary Powers' U2 spy plane was shot
down, that India had agreed to resume the dialogue with Pakistan.

Several of them, think tankers, had advocated resumption of the
dialogue between India and Pakistan as an important ingredient in
President Obama's [ Images ] Afpak policy.

It did not matter if India insisted only on discussing terrorism or if
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [ Images ] reprimanded President Zardari
in front of the cameras. Resumption of dialogue it was for the US
State Department and Pakistan, a gain after the dialogue had derailed
following the Mumbai [ Images ] attacks. They did not want any credit
for the new development, but they clearly relished it.

"How can Pakistan accept the fact that the dialogue was only about
terrorism against India?" I asked one of them.

"That is not a problem. Pakistan will claim that the dialogue is on
Kashmir because terrorism is an issue related to Kashmir. They can
advance the argument that they are simply supporting the liberation
struggle in Kashmir. As far as they are concerned, the resumption of
dialogue lets them off the hook as far as Mumbai is concerned.
Pakistan will project it as a diplomatic victory," he said.

That is precisely what Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi
did in his statement to the press:

'The two foreign secretaries will meet at mutually convenient dates to
discuss the steps taken on either side to deal with extremism and
terrorism. From those discussions, the political leadership will
re-engage at Sharm-el-Sheikh (the Egypt [ Images ] town where the next
Non Aligned Summit will be held).'

He went on to talk about India and Pakistan being victims of terrorism
and about the joint anti-terror mechanism that was set up in Havana,
ironically, at another Non Aligned Summit venue. He did not give in
even on the question of the release of the terrorist, who masterminded
the Mumbai attacks.

'We could not interfere in the lawful release of Jamaaut Dawa chief
Hafeez Mohammed Saeed. The provincial government is contemplating
appealing the court decision,' was his comment.

In other words, the highly sophisticated construction that Foreign
Secretary Menon placed on the decision to talk about terrorism without
resuming the dialogue was deliberately drowned out by Pakistan and the
United States. Under Secretary William Burns must have reported
'Mission accomplished!' within days after his recent visit.

He had openly advocated resumption of the dialogue and Pakistan too
had echoed it. It is also a moment of minor victory for Richard
Holbrooke. After all, disengaging Pakistan from the Indian border and
committing its might to combat Taliban [ Images ] forces is part of
his strategy and it is important for him to relax the stand-off
between India and Pakistan. He would like to put Mumbai behind him and
move ahead.

The beginning of the dialogue, the terms, the scope and objectives of
which were left to India and Pakistan to decide on, was also necessary
for the United States to push India and Pakistan gently to move
towards the formula reported to have been identified in the back
channel talks.

An old Kashmir hand, Ambassador [ Images ] Howard Schaffer, has just
published a book entitled Limits of Influence, tracing the history of
US efforts to solve the Kashmir issue. Although the title reflects
American exasperation over the limits of its influence on the issue,
Schaffer says in the introduction to the book that the time has, in
fact, come for a more active role for the US in Kashmir.

He argues that the improved relations between India and the United
States and the progress made in back channel talks make it the right
moment to push for a solution. No wonder William Burns pulled out the
old formula of a solution acceptable to the Kashmiri people.

We had heard this before, as Foreign Secretary Menon notes, but part
of the reason for improvement in India-US relations was the fact that
President Bush and his men did not use the K word. He would not even
buy a cashmere shawl for his wife for fear of irritating his Indian
friends, according to Washington sources.

Indian diplomats have made sure in the Yekaterinburg deal that all of
India's concerns were taken care of. But Pakistan and the United
States will claim a minor victory while India highlights the small
print with luminous markers.

The test, of course, is whether Pakistan will do more to punish the
guilty men of Mumbai before the peace process really commences.
Pakistan is in no position to take decisions of substance for some
more time to come and there is no reason why we should give comfort to
anyone that, as on previous occasions, India will engage in the peace
process, regardless of the heinous terrorist attacks against India.

T P Sreenivasan, a former Indian diplomat, is presently a Visiting
Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, DC.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Five Day Rip Van Winkle
By T.P.Sreenivasan
A cruise is an expensive way of doing nothing. It also is imprisonment with constant fear of drowning. And yet, people of all hues, shapes and sizes spend their or their children’s hard earned money on the cruises that go nowhere. In my own case, the trip was to Bermuda, a bit of the last vestige of British imperialism and right back to New Jersey. For lack of anything better to do, we participated in various activities, ranging from mini golf to rock climbing. But eating and drinking were the main activities.
For me, a five day vacation, after many years, from the newspaper, the internet, the phone and the fax was an experiment in itself. The world, I knew, would take care of itself without my being a participant in its affairs. And it did. But I was bewildered by all that happened in the five days, during which I just watched the sea go by, most of the time deceptively placidly, but occasionally shaking the massive metallic marvel and carrying us off our feet. I felt like Rip Van Winkle, who could not recognise the world he had woken up into.
The making of a brand new Indian cabinet was perhaps the most interesting event of the week. As we sailed off, some Minsters were already sworn in, but Delhi appeared like a huge bazaar, where newly elected representatives of the people were haggling for the best deals for themselves. People must have been on live television, visiting 10, Jan Path and 7, Race Course Road to make their claims. Even with a massive mandate, the Prime Minister was not able to resist the pressure of his allies. Karunanidhi had withdrawn to his den in Chennai, threatening not to join the cabinet, unless his son, daughter, nephew and other cronies were taken in. The Prime Minister could not get rid of even masters of corruption in his old cabinet, I discovered. Politics is the art of the impossible, we should say.
The biggest surprise was the allocation of External Affairs to SMKrishna, though his name was on many lips even before Prnab Mukherjee was appointed Minister of External Affairs (EAM). The appointment was reminiscent of the appointment of PVNarasimha Rao as External Affairs Minister in 1980. Rao himself could not find the logic and he shared his surprise with GKReddy, the veteran journalist. He would have preferred an economic Ministry, Rao said to Reddy. Reddy was ready with his advice. He said that Rao should not ask for a change, because Indira Gandhi would immediately conclude that Rao was out to make money! Rao took the advice and did not ask for a change. The rest is history. But a similar experiment with Madhav Sinh Solanki was an unmitigated disaster. The “scholarly” Minister had not heard of the NPT when he took over as the External Affairs Minister of India! Krishna is sure to be a success with his US education and flair for public speaking and zest for life even at 77. His tennis prowess is known, but many may not know that one of his hobbies is designing of clothes. I remember discussing this hobby with him when he came to the UN as a delegate in the eighties. He may well turn out to be the best dressed External Affairs Minister we ever had.
Shashi Tharoor as one of the junior Ministers in the Foreign Office was logical, but for that very reason, there were doubts whether it would happen. Neither Natwar Singh nor KRNarayanan was given the External Affairs portfolio when they first became Ministers. One was in Chemicals and the other in Science and Technology before they eventually moved into External Affairs. For Tharoor, it will be a new experience as he was never part of the Indian establishment before. But his experience of dealing with conflicting interests and finding a consensus at the UN will stand him in good stead when he deals with policy. Ministers of State in the External Affairs Ministry end up doing protocol duties and undertaking goodwill visits, while policy is made elsewhere. Tharoor should be an exception because of his special skills. The IFS tends to gravitate towards the EAM because postings and promotions are with the Foreign Secretary and the EAM.
Another nuclear test by North Korea did not surprise me. They have been testing the waters ever since President Obama took charge. He was by no means soft with words when North Korea carried out a missile test, but there was nothing in his reaction which indicated zero tolerance. Another resolution from the Security Council, duly moderated by China, was not going to deter North Korea. The day is not far when Japan and South Korea break their nuclear virginity. For India, the North Korean test is a direct threat because of its linkages to Pakistan and China. We have been treating the North Korean case as a distant phenomenon, leaving it to the Americans and others to deal with North Korea. I remember asking Bob Einhorn, the US disarmament wizard back in 1998 why the US came down on India like a ton of bricks and rushed to North Korea with incentive packages. He said each case was different, but did not elaborate. We abstained on the North Korea issue at the IAEA on the ground that we were not members of the NPT and it was not for us to sit in judgment over NPT violations. Now that we are in the mainstream in the IAEA, time has come for us to take a more aggressive stand on North Korea.
President Obama made two significant appointments while I was at sea. Sonia Sotomayor is no stranger to the judicial system in the US and she has enjoyed bipartisan support in the past. But there is suspicion that the President Obama is overplaying the minority card in choosing the first Hispanic to serve on the Supreme Court. Obviously, President Obama anticipates trouble in her confirmation and hence the emphasis on her humble background and stellar reputation. Some utterances by her of the role of the judiciary have been dug out to bury her in the confirmation process. But President Obama has high stakes in her confirmation and he will do what he can to get the nomination through in the Senate.
The appointment of Congressman Tim Roamer of Indiana as the next ambassador to India was a surprise when it was first reported. President Obama could well have chosen an old India hand, who is universally respected in India, Karl Inderfurth. Perhaps Roamer got the job because he supported Obama in the early stages against Hillary Clinton, while Inderfurth was seen as a Clinton protégé. Old wounds seem to remain open even after the grand reconciliation. But Inderfurth is too good a diplomat to remain a Professor at George Washington.
I am glad I am back in the world of Twitter and Facebook, because, without them, one remains lonely in the most crowded of places. Social interaction is no more confined to cocktail parties and dinners, certainly not on cruises at this time of recession. But I must say there was no sign of recession on the ‘Explorer of the Seas’. All the available 3500 seats were taken and there was no dearth of food or wine. People readily signed up for expensive activities and indulged in luxuries without looking at the stock market. And as we stepped out, there were more signs of recovery, at least in India.

Friday, June 05, 2009

If only a fine speech could help!

After listening to President Obama's [ Images ] Cairo speech, I turned
to twitter (www.twitter.com/sreeniv) and tweeted, 'If only speeches,
good speeches, could resolve the problems of the world!'

My next tweet was an after thought, 'Obama and Osama have spoken at
the same time.'

I think I have said it all.

As is expected of a president who spoke his way to the White House, he
made a speech, which any speech writer would be proud of. I am sure
there are many in Washington who will claim paternity of one turn of
phrase or one quotation in it. And it was delivered with perfection
and a masterly use of the teleprompter.

But felicity of expression or even well intentioned articulation does
not suffice, particularly if the effort is to change a centuries old
mindset, marked by fear and mistrust. But as every commentator, Jew or
Muslim, black or white, American or Arab, has said, it is a welcome
first step.

At least, President Obama has made his position clear and there is
nothing in his speech, which is offensive or unacceptable. If policies
follow principles, we are in for exciting times.

Here at the Brookings Institution, which houses a special centre for
the Middle East, the Obama speech has been a matter of speculation
long before it was delivered. And now it is a matter of analysis by
experts, who may have contributed ideas. But one need not be an expert
to see that Obama has stated the American position in the best
possible light.

Uncharacteristically, the theme of the speech was not change, but
continuity, not blaming the past, but taking of responsibility.

Why was Egypt [ Images ] chosen as the venue for this historic speech?
President Obama stopped in Saudi Arabia and probably gave a copy of
the speech in Arabic to his host, but he did not deliver it there.

The reasons are not far to seek. Relations with Egypt are valued
highly in the United States as a model, which should be replicated in
other Islamic States. Perhaps, that is the model that President Obama
is contemplating for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

When he mentioned the billions that the US is pouring into Pakistan
and Afghanistan, he had precisely the Egyptian model in mind, by which
friendship is bought by massive assistance and stability is provided
by a leader, whose faith in democracy is not absolute.

After all, it was the Camp David accords that set in motion the long
process of the recognition of Israel by the Arab states.

The new beginning that President Obama has sought, he claims, is
rooted in history and traditions, strengthened by his own Islamic
experience. The idea is to trash the conflict between the US and Islam
in the modern era as the result of colonialism and Cold War.

He wants to remove the negative stereotypes that each has created for
the other and move back to religious tolerance and racial equality,
stressed by the Western and Islamic civilisations alike.

In principle, there is nothing questionable in this approach, but
there is nothing in the speech that holds the key to open that door.
Every leader in the world has said some time or another that we should
follow our traditions, but we should not be prisoners of the past.

The problem lies in the interpretation of what tradition should entail
and what it expects the faithful to do. If self sacrifice for the sake
of that tradition gets currency, violence becomes legal tender.

Among specific issues, Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iraq come before
Israel and Palestine. No US president would have followed that
sequence a couple of years ago. For President Obama, the priorities
are clear. As he says, his first duty as president is to protect
theAmerican people, which include the soldiers in Afghanistan and

Moreover, the fountains of terrorism are in the Afpak region. The
troops cannot remain in Afghanistan and power alone will not do. The
battle in Afghanistan is legitimate, but there are doubts as to
whether war was the most effective way to deal with Iraq.

His defence of the war in Iraq is only that 9/11 led the US to act
contrary to its traditions and ideals and that the people of Iraq are
better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein [ Images ]. By
reiterating his schedule of withdrawal from Iraq, he seeks to remove
the dark Iraq blot from the face of America.

Anyone who looks for clues of what President Obama proposes to do in
the Middle East will be sorely disappointed with the speech. In the
scale of support to Israel and Palestine, it is obvious that blood is
thicker than water. It is one thing to say that the strong bonds with
Israel are unbreakable and it is another thing to say America will not
turn its back on Palestinian aspiration for dignity and opportunity.

Asking Palestinians to abjure violence at any cost and simply
restating that there is no legitimacy to settlements is not an even
handed approach. The basis of the final settlement is still the Road
Map and nothing else.

If President Obama's claim that he will, from now on, say publicly,
what he says in private is true, he could not have anything new to
tell Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or King Abdullah of
Saudi Arabia. No statesman can ever practice the Obama formula that he
will be conscious of God and speak always the truth, as dictated by
the Koran.

If he has nothing to offer beyond what he has said in Cairo on the
Palestine issue, making peace with Islam will remain a distant dream.
I very much hope that he has something else up his sleeve.

On Iran, President Obama has broken new ground by scaling down the
rhetoric and affirming that the US is willing to talk without
preconditions and by conceding that Iran can develop nuclear energy
for peaceful purposes under the provisions of the NPT.

Enrichment of uranium is not prohibited under the NPT and it was
demanded only as a confidence building measure. It is unfair to ask
Iran to abide by the NPT and also say in the next breath that
enrichment should be halted to generate confidence in the West.

Sincerity of purpose is evident in seeking an accommodation with Iran
in the larger context of seeking peace with Islam. It is here that the
speech seems to have the potential to open new doors. Iran, after all,
has a very important place in the Islamic world and the US cannot make
up with Islam, while threatening to go to war with Iran.

Long sections of the speech on democracy (not necessary to insist on
the Western style), women's rights, development and tradition, science
and technology are there to establish that the West and Islam have
much in common and the diversity can be an asset rather than a

They match with the initial sections of the speech in which the
President seeks to identify harmony rather than predict a clash of
civilizations. Here he seeks to reassure the Islamic world of a
certain flexibility of ideology, which should be welcome to the Muslim

It may have been no accident that yet another audio tape of Osama bin
Laden [ Images ] has emerged on the eve of the Cairo speech. The time
and context of the tape and its authenticity have not been determined,
but it anticipates the conciliatory approach in the Cairo speech and
dismisses it as of no consequence.

But the purpose of President Obama's diplomacy is to move away from
extremist fringes on both sides and prepare for an eventual meeting of
minds. But, as he asserts, no single speech can change much and all
questions cannot be answered on one occasion.

President Obama has struck the right note both in Ankara and Cairo and
set the Islamic world thinking about a world in which the US and Islam
can coexist.

What he expects in return is a scaling down of the terrorist threat to
the United States. Palestine is at the centre of any improvement in
relations, but the President has brought up a number of other issues
to establish certain complementarities between civilisations.

As the speech resonates well in the corners of the globe, the current
scepticism about any American pronouncement may well give way to hope
and optimism.

Former Indian diplomat T P Sreenivasan is currently a Visiting Fellow
at the Brookings Institution, Washington, working on a book on
India-US nuclear cooperation.