Thursday, December 03, 2009

Dr Singh's cotton candy visit

By T.P.Sreenivasan

Indian foreign policy', they used to say in the late 'sixties, 'is 80
percent protocol, 10 percent alcohol and 10 percent Tikky Kaul'.
Today, Tikky Kaul has become a distant memory and the percentage of
protocol is certainly less, even if alcohol may be more.

A good percentage of Indian foreign policy today is cold calculation
to cope with the challenges all around. But Washington is still under
the impression that Indians can be won over by flattering protocol and
friendly hyperbole. Those who gloat over the Indian prime minister
being accorded the singular honour of being the first state guest of
the Obama [ Images ] administration should look at the other visitors
who were given no such honour, but went away with goodies in the bag.
Those close to the White House like the prime ministers of Israel and
the UK walk in and out without so much as a gun salute, while the
Indian prime minister gets pomp and splendour and plenty of good
words. Whether this is symbolism or form without substance, only time
will tell.

Dr Manmohan Singh [ Images ] himself set off the flow of sweet words
by asserting that the setbacks to the US economy were temporary and by
expressing confidence that the US would remain a preeminent economic
power. But he went beyond expressions of faith and optimism and spelt
out his agenda in no uncertain terms. He told Fareed Zakaria [ Images
] that India's [ Images ] ultimate goal was to join the NPT as a
nuclear weapons state and expressed the hope that it would happen

In the past, this was implied rather than spelt out in such concrete
terms. In fact, the nuclear deal is seen as an alternative to the
outright declaration of India as a nuclear weapons state. On China
too, Dr Singh was frank and forthright, pointing to the inscrutability
of the Chinese attitude to India. He virtually served notice on
President Obama that he should not take the Chinese at face value.

On Af-Pak strategy, he provided valuable inputs into policy making by
underlining the importance of defeating the Taliban [ Images ] and the
need for the United States to stay in the region till the mission is
accomplished. He did not hesitate to spell out the Indian position on
climate change, however unpalatable it might have been for the Western

As against the clear Indian agenda for the visit, President Obama
seems to have launched a charm offensive, full of admiration for India
and its prime minister and promises of action in the future. Except
for the presence of an uninvited socialite couple at the banquet, the
protocol was perfect and the menu was exquisite. But the visit did not
move the relations further in any of the areas of special interest for
India. It has merely raised expectations.

The Indian and the US delegations, we now know, burnt the proverbial
midnight oil to conclude an agreement on setting up of an enrichment
facility, as agreed upon in the deal. There is optimism that only one
more sitting is required to dot the 'i's and cross the 't's in the
agreement. But the agreement on the setting up of a separate facility
under IAEA safeguards was a done deal under the 123 agreement, by
which permission was already given for reprocessing. The Obama
administration will be merely implementing the deal by drawing up the
procedures and modalities. Much more needs to be done in the US and in
India for the nuclear trade to flow and there is much hesitation among
the new czars in the State Department to contribute to India's nuclear
capability. They would rather let the rest of the world meet Indian
requirements than take the responsibility for Indian capabilities.

The Obama administration is still taking the NPT, CTBT and FMCT route
with regard to India. The deal, for them, is a temporary measure till
the edifice of nuclear non-proliferation is built on time-tested
pillars. To deal only with the participation of American private
companies in nuclear trade is to evade the real issues.

Perhaps, Dr Manmohan Singh's expectation that India would eventually
be admitted to the NPT as a nuclear weapons state has arisen from
Hillary Clinton's [ Images ] suggestion that the US should work with
India to develop a 21st century version of the NPT. But the White
House has shown no enthusiasm for the idea and her statement is being
seen as evidence of the fissures developing between her and the
president on some foreign policy issues.

The prime minister may have noticed that the US is seeking new
concessions from India such as a moratorium on fissile material
production and signature on the CTBT as new measures over and above
the provisions of the nuclear deal. The question being asked is not
what more will be done for India in the nuclear field, but what India
would do to support the US agenda on non-proliferation.

Clearly, discretion demands that we do not ask for anything new in
this area and operate the NSG exemption to our advantage. Nothing is
farther from the minds of the nonproliferationists in the US than the
recognition of India as a nuclear weapons state. That proposal should
await a more propitious moment.

The Indian visit took place as President Obama was finalising his new
Af-Pak policy, which came to light within a week after the prime
minister left Washington. There is hardly any evidence that the advice
of the prime minister made any difference to the surge cum exit policy
outlined by the President on December 2, 2009. In what may well be the
first time in history, the prime minister virtually endorsed an
occupation force in Afghanistan. He stressed the importance of the US
staying the course in Afghanistan and defeating the terrorist outfits
there. No joint efforts were discussed or approved in Washington and
the leaders merely agreed 'to enhance their respective efforts' in

President Obama did 'consult' the prime minister on phone before
announcing his new policy, but it appeared to be in the context of
India's possible assistance to training the Afghan forces. While
President Obama stressed his continuing interest in Pakistan even
beyond the war, he made no mention of the terrorist threat to India
even obliquely on account of Pakistan's sensitivities.

Dr Manmohan Singh was uncharacteristically blunt on China in public in
Washington and he may have been even more direct in his private
conversation with President Obama. But, as an economist, the prime
minister may well have understood the logic of the US policy towards
China at this critical moment in the global economic crisis. He must
have, however, stressed the inadvisability of assigning any special
responsibility to China in resolving the problems in South Asia. But
beyond assuring India of no external intervention in India-Pakistan
matters, President Obama could not have given any cause of comfort for
India in the context of China.

Nobody had expected any movement in India's quest for permanent
membership of the UN Security Council during the visit. But the
formulation in the joint statement on this issue is even weaker than
before. In the statement, President Obama merely 'looks forward to a
stable and prosperous India playing an increasingly important role in
world affairs' without any reference to UN reform.

On the vital issue of climate change, there was a comprehensive
understanding in Washington, which reflects the Indian position
accurately. Neither side conceded anything new in this context, but
the balanced text indicates the way Copenhagen conference will go in
finding a political compromise without specific agreements for
concrete action. The subsequent India-China-Brazil-South Africa
position has reinforced the perspective of developing countries on the
issues in Copenhagen and the battle lines have been drawn. The
Washington statement has only helped to identify the issues.

If the objective of the visit was to demonstrate the continuity in
bilateral relations beyond the Bush era, that has been attained by the
assertion of India's indispensability by President Obama, recalling
President Clinton's statements in 2000. But beyond that, the US
appeared to be looking for Indian concessions for favours received,
not to go the extra mile to meet Indian aspirations.

Those who have eaten cotton candy can understand the feeling in India
a week after the visit. The colourful and huge cotton candy is
attractive and mouth-watering. It melts in the mouth and satisfies the
sense of taste and smell. But it finishes too soon and leaves the
consumer no more satisfied than before. A certain sticky mess remains
around the mouth and a sense of emptiness persists. If left exposed
for a time to the atmosphere, it becomes less fluffy and coarse and
eventually disappears.

The visit was pleasing in every respect and full of symbolism, but
there is no guarantee that the promises will be fulfilled. The Obama
administration itself has been high on promises and low in
implementation so far and the Indian case may be no exception

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