Monday, July 18, 2011

India-US: The Limits of Engagement

By T.P.Sreenivasan

Unsavoury incidents involving diplomats and their families are not rare in friendly countries at the best of times. The issues are dealt with in terms of diplomatic protocol and reciprocity, without even the press getting wind of it. When reciprocal expulsions become necessary occasionally, care is taken to order home those diplomats, who have completed their terms so that breaches of diplomatic civility do not cloud bilateral relations. But the US and India have been showing increasing irritability in dealing with such issues. Some harsh US actions have elicited uncharacteristically sharp responses from the South Block. The US is even holding up clearance for a new Indian Consulate in Seattle, Washington, according to press reports.

India-US relations are far too important, diverse and complex to be affected by thoughtless actions of law enforcement agencies or even diplomats. But the oversensitivity, demonstrated of late, appears symptomatic of a deeper malady. The creeping disillusionment in major areas seems to spill over to the diplomatic level. As Hillary Clinton packs her bags to come to Delhi and Chennai next week, she needs to think of ways and means to convince her hosts that the strategic partnership is alive and well. Hers is indeed a rescue mission. Many areas in the strategic partnership require immediate and focussed attention.

Of course, both sides will vehemently deny this proposition, as they did to me in Washington and New Delhi a couple of weeks ago. Both will point to the umpteen working groups, quietly working away to fulfil the promises of the Obama visit and the last round of the strategic dialogue, not to speak of high level visits from both sides. They will quote trade figures and speak of the intensity of the economic dialogue to demonstrate the robustness of the relationship. They will even attribute any gloomy assessments to ignorance. But ask them about civil nuclear cooperation, balance of trade, India’s candidature to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the record of cooperation in the Security Council on West Asia and non-proliferation and then you will hear from both sides the tales of unfulfilled promises and unchanging mindsets. The grievances on both sides are so well balanced that it is difficult to determine who should or can make the first move.

Since the nuclear deal had raised the highest hopes for a sea change in the relationship and had accomplished most, the disillusionment is also most acute in that area. Our perception is that President Bush signed the deal for his own selfish reasons, but the official line and popular thinking in America is that it was a price paid to win India as an ally. A senior American official recently repeated the question we had heard from 2005 as to what India had done in return for the nuclear deal, which dramatically changed India’s profile. The give and take within the deal itself is not at issue here, but the transformation of the relationship from a friend to an ally. India is willing to comply with the letter of the deal and expects the same from the US, but the US wishes to see fundamental changes in Indian policy. The US feels that while India has derived immense benefits from the deal, it has made no readjustments in policy, worthy of a natural ally of the United States. The unchanged voting pattern of India and echoes of cold war rhetoric continue to make them uneasy.

To make matters worse, the promise of nuclear trade worth billions of dollars has remained unfulfilled on account of the Liability Law and we have done little to help President Obama reduce his unemployment burden, which has reached unbearable proportions. No American President has won a re-election if the unemployment rate is 7% or above. There is no sign that President Obama can bring the unemployment down to safe levels by 2012. The “fighter aircraft shock” has worsened the situation. In the American view, India opted for the purchase of an aircraft from Europe, while the US was offering a friendship package. India, on the other hand, believes that we adopted the Liability Law in our own interests and chose the fighter that suited our functional requirements. These are done deals, which have little scope for changes at this stage.

India maintains that the US should find ways to accept the suppliers’ responsibility and also fulfil the promise of full civilian nuclear cooperation, including transfer of ENR technology, in accordance with the “clean” NSG waiver for India. India would also like the US to push harder for India to be admitted to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a promise held out by President Obama during his visit. More than the practicality of these measures, the truth of the matter is that the Obama Administration would rather have no nuclear trade with India than dilute its non-proliferation commitments. I was told two years ago that the US would not be unduly concerned if there was no nuclear trade at all, provided it was compensated in other ways. ( “The US may have no nuclear trade with India” Rediff column dated April 21, 2009). Moreover, the increasing scepticism regarding nuclear power after Fukushima has also become a factor in nuclear cooperation. Steering around the nuclear irritant is still a major challenge.

On the Indian side, the lack of any forward movement on the reform of the Security Council after the promise held out by President Obama in the Indian Parliament is another instance of disillusionment. India continues its heroic efforts at the UN to move the proposal forward, but without any tangible support from the US. The latest G-4 move, masterminded by India, to seek an endorsement of the principle of expansion in both categories has elicited no US response. The US stakes in the expansion puzzle go beyond bilateral considerations.

If anything, India’s performance as a non-permanent member of the Security Council has only enhanced concerns in the US over revival of Indian “nonalignment”. On Iran, Libya and Syria, congruence of policies is hard to accomplish even with the best of intentions. The latest US moves in Afghanistan and Pakistan are hardly conducive to increase confidence either. The emerging contours of policy on both sides cause concern.

When Strobe Talbott, recently chosen by “India Abroad” for the Friend of India award, said bluntly that “India and the US are not now and may never be allies”, he was pointing to the fundamental contradiction in expecting a fiercely independent India to serve US interests in the region and the world. The public opinion in India is such that the assertion of a certain distance from the US policies is essential for any Government in New Delhi. The limits of engagement with the US, breached during the first term of the Manmohan Singh Government, have come into play once again. The Prime Minister does not have either the leisure or the energy to go beyond those limits as he had done during his first term. The US too has learnt its lessons on the extent of the strategic relationship possible with India.

The Hillary visit will certainly make progress on a number of vital issues of cooperation, the logic of which is beyond question. But an alliance of minds, which is essential to elevate the strategic partnership to a higher level, appears hard to accomplish. A new sense of realism, rather than undue optimism, will prevail in India-US relations in the future. As long as expectations are curtailed and mutuality is established, there will be neither recrimination nor disillusionment. In the end, it may not be a defining relationship of the new century, but a mutually beneficial partnership.

Friday, July 01, 2011

MATTERING TO INDIA The Shashi Tharoor Campaign By T P Sreenivasan


P.Ravindran Nayar

T.P.Sreenivasan's book, "Mattering to India: The Shashi Tharoor Campaign" takes a critical look at the phenomenal sway the glamorous diplomat had over the ballots and his image as a politician which got mired in controversies.

The New Indian Express June 28, 2011

When Shashi Tharoor moved into a hill top house up a narrow by-lane in a quiet residential area in Thiruvananthapuram, prior to his contesting the parliament elections in 2009, the excitement among the people was palpable. The local residents were pleased that an internationally renowned UN diplomat and brilliant author, who had the additional qualification of being suave and handsome and genuinely articulate, had come into their midst, elevating the pot-holed by-lanes of Palace Garden to instant stardom. Taking up residence in Thiruvananthapuram was a precursor to, or rather a pre-requisite for, Tharoor’s seeking a ticket to contest the elections. And such was his charm that long before he quietly vanquished his detractors in the Congress Party, who were many, and made himself the favoured nominee of the party High Command for the Thiruvananthapuram seat, there were considerable sections of people, especially youngsters, who had made up their mind to vote for him in case he contested.
But winning the party ticket did not mean that it would be a cake walk for him in the election. Much needed to be done and his credible victory with an impressive margin was the result of really hard work put in by Tharoor, says former Ambassador T P Sreenivasan in his book Mattering to India:The Shashi Tharoor Campaign.
Sreenivasan has based his title on a flamboyant quote from Tharoor himself. ’India has always mattered to me. Now I want to matter to India,’ Tharoor had once said.
Being a close, long-time friend of Tharoor, what Sreenivasan has attempted is an intensely personal narrative on the runup to the elections and the many factors that led to Tharoor’s impressive victory with a huge margin. Sreenivasan was both an observer of and participant in many of the events recounted in this book.
Born in London, brought up mostly outside the state and working for long outside the country, Tharoor was in every way a rank outsider as far as Malayalees were concerned. His link to Kerala was mainly through his ancestral family in his native village of Kollengode, Palakkad district. But he had a far better link to educated Malayalees through his many books and countless articles on matters of interest to Kerala.
Srenivasan explains how such a virtual outsider, who was not proficient in the local language and had never lived in Kerala, overcame the several impediments he faced and generated a veritable Tharoor wave. With a team of aides, which included some of his friends and well wishers from abroad, Tharoor slowly but steadily worked his way up , neutralizing opposition and enlarging his support base. The campaign was hectic in the sense that on many days Tharoor was up and about for 22 hours a day, leaving just two hours for a catnap.
The book, which makes absorbing reading, gives rare insight into the manner in which Tharoor successfully overcame opposition to his candidature from within the Congress and outside. This included how he managed to negate the threat from two strong contenders for the party ticket, former MP V S Sivakumar and Vijayan Thomas,who was the main support base for the party’s television channel. According to Sreenivasan, Tharoor mollified these two with the help of the Congress High Command. Once he was sure of the party ticket, Tharoor sought to neutralize opposition from BJP leader and former Union Minister O Rajagopal who was most likely to be the BJP nominee.Though Rajagopal would not have won the seat he was sure of garnering a good chunk of the votes, reducing Tharoor’s chances of victory. Srenivasan says that it was through the good offices of Mata Amritanandamayi that Tharoor ensured that Rajagopal, her disciple, opted out of contest.
Statistics of the poll results apart, Sreenivasan has included guest essays from two journalists and some people involved with the campaign to supplement his views. Many of Sreenivasan’s articles on Tharoor during and after his abortive bid for the top post in the UN also find a place in the book. It has a Foreword by Dr Babu Paul,former Chief Secretary,Kerala, who does not conceal his fascination for Tharoor. ‘There is a certain charisma about the man. It is as if there is a magnet implanted somewhere in his thoracic cavity,’ he says.
Though the book was probably planned after his victory in the polls and his elevation to the Union Council of Ministers as Minister of State for External Affairs, by the time it was out Tharoor was embroiled in a series of controversies from Twitter to IPL and was out of the ministry.The book makes a detailed reference to these events, as also to his subsequent marriage to Sunanda Pushkar, in an epilogue which sums up the sordid resignation drama thus:
“The glittering image that Tharoor brought with him after his elitist and western upbringing and his life in rarefied circles dazzled many people. His apparent ability to play down that elitism and be one with the people in dress, food and language made him an instant hit. His impeccable image gave the impression that he would be the harbinger of change in Indian politics, which had become corrupt and inefficient. But the messiah image was marred when his elitism manifested itself in his five- star life style and fondness for fame, wealth and other pleasures of life. He is perceived today as clever and shrewd but not much different from others before him. He may well return to prominence and political leadership, not because of the promise that he will change the system, but because he is far less guilty than many others who have flourished in politics with fewer talents and skills.
“In George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan, the executioner says after burning Joan of Arc at the stake that we have heard the last of her. Warwick, another character in the play, responds: ‘The last of her? Hm! I wonder!’
“We have not heard the last of Shashi Tharoor.”

Mattering to India The Shashi Tharoor Campaign
By T P Sreenivasan
Pp 165 Price Rs 550