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India & The USA: A New Plateau

by Rakesh Agrawal

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Photo of Indian PM Atal Behari Vajpayee. Bhopal, INDIA - The Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, goes for an official visit to the US as the fifth Indian Prime Minister to do so. There is a decided warmth in the atmospherics, not seen since Jawaharlal Nehru's first trip to Truman's America. How will the Vajpayee trip fare?

Let us first see where are the possible catches.

Firstly, the timing. In its last few weeks the Clinton administration has exhausted its political capital, and is unlikely to be able to give assurances of implementing anything of significance that it may agree with Vajpayee.

Then, there is the nuclear and missiles issue the Comprehensive [Nuclear] Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to consider. Domestic considerations make it clear that Vajpayee can't sign anything away at this stage, even if he is so inclined.

Official sources suggest that the US continues to be disinclined to see India as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, though this has been a long-standing Indian desire which has become stronger since India unofficially burst into the tightly-controlled international nuclear weapons league

Much as this country may wish otherwise, Washington's perception that Kashmir is a 'dispute' which India must sort out with Pakistan has also not undergone change. In the end, US prescriptions for peace in the subcontinent will turn on its own evaluation, not India's, no matter how much official drum-beating is occasioned here about Washington's growing political warmth for New Delhi.

Late last year, the US House of Representatives passed a 'non-binding resolution' calling for a strategic partnership with India - an expression which denotes close understanding in bilateral and world affairs and approximate congruence of thought on regional and international matters. This may reflect the rising esteem with which the American people may now have come to regard this country. But anyone can see that the sentiment hardly squares with the pattern of actions of the US Government toward India, even under Clinton, with whom Vajpayee might claim a near-perfect relationship.

But having said the above, let us not gloss over the possible pluses of last week's visit.

It must be admitted at the outset that the Indian PM's visit to Washington is intended to cement a growing relationship and not to break fresh ground. The latter would indeed be impossible during the last weeks of Bill Clinton's second term in office, when the new government-in-waiting is expected to set about re-inventing itself. However, despite the electoral hustle, it is presumed that there will be a modicum of continuity in the main strands of the US foreign policy, even after Clinton.

What then, are the positive indications in the whirlwind?

A salient feature of the emerging relationship is the US's grudging acceptance of India as a de facto but not de jure nuclear power.

This is not just the acceptance of a fait accompli. Behind it lies an acknowledgement of the validity of India's concern over the intensifying Sino-Pak[istani] nuclear and missile cooperation, and of the fact that the NPT regime has no antidote to it.

  1. There is also a growing awareness of the need to work together in areas of common concern -- particularly to combat terrorism and the trade in narcotics. Underlying both is a mounting concern over the fate of Pakistan and what its slide into Talibanisation could mean for the whole world.
  2. There is an awareness that India's slow but steady economic progress, its growing middle class domestic market, and its progressively more open economy is likely to make it an important player in global markets. It is already one in the infotech industry. Given the right domestic policies, others could follow.
  3. And behind these shifts, lies a profound change in the American perception about India and the Indians --- from viewing India as an adversary in the Cold War, at one time, to gradually accepting it as a potential partner in building a stable and peaceful 21st century international order.

For eight years, President Clinton put the propagation of democracy at the very top of his international agenda. Where he broke new ground was in publicly acclaiming not just India's democracy but the way India had used it to overcome the awesome challenge of nation-building in the largest and most ethnically heterogeneous country in the world. No-one can deny that India is still a democracy

There is also an awareness in America of the contribution that non-resident Indians in the United States (NRI's) and Americans of Indian origin are making to the future of their country. For not only is the community, with an average family income of over $ 90,000 per annum, the richest in the country, but a large number of its income earners are to be found in cutting edge technologies and at the universities that will be the foundation of future American prosperity and dominance.

The Indian community in the US has created for itself a fund of goodwill and seems to be cracking all the knowledge-industry codes.

The award of the Pulitzer prize for literature to Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies" was an announcement of the entrance of the Indians even in the highest literary echelons of the American society..

Vajpayee's main purpose during his visit should be to make it clear to his hosts that India recognises the change that has taken place in the American perception of India; but at the same time he must also make it clear that he understands that in order to play a constructive part in the making of the 21st century world order, India must accept some constraints on its absolute freedom of action.

The Prime Minister needs to make it clear that signing the CTBT is no longer an issue in India; that behind the posturing of the various political parties, the consensus on signing it is almost complete and only the optimum moment for doing so remains to be decided.

He needs to ask the United States to judge India's conduct not by what it might profess but what it actually does. And he needs to remind them that India's record on the control of nuclear and missile technologies is second to none.

Above all, Vajpayee needs to remind his listeners that, if the partnership is to grow, the US too needs to iron out the inconsistencies that bedevil its relationship with India. It is not possible for the US to invite India into a working partnership based on nuclear restraint and continue to punish it by keeping the threat of economic sanctions alive and denying it access to technology in the most draconian of ways.

The US needs to face squarely the consequences of continued curbs on India in the face of an acceleration of Chinese nuclear and missile technology transfers to Pakistan during the last year.

Today the US needs to face the possibility that Pakistan may be beyond the point of no return, and that for reasons of their own the Chinese will not admit this. And it needs to decide whether it will help India to safeguard itself against the emerging threat, or continue to oppose its attempts to do so by denying it access to technology. In the latter case the much-vaunted partnership could meet an early death.

RELATED LINK: The Times of India

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