Appearance of unconcern

Print edition : April 11, 1998

NOBODY in the Clinton administration lost sleep over the possible electoral outcome when India went to the polls, nor has the Bharatiya Janata Party's assumption of power left anybody scratching his or her head. The initial statements of the United States Government were, if anything, on thelines of the statements that had been put out on a routine basis over the last two years or so: Washington was prepared to work with any government that emerged in New Delhi.

As a matter of fact, the point has been made in some quarters that the U.S. should not have any problem with the BJP at least from an ideological viewpoint. In terms of international policy, the BJP was one of the first to call for "genuine non-alignment", or India distancing itself from the Soviet Union. In the present scheme of things, the assessment has been that the BJP, as the leader of the coalition Government, will be forced to scale down its domestic and foreign policy platforms. In the realm of foreign affairs these include the policies on nuclearisation and economic reforms and liberalisation.

Knowledgeable people in the U.S. had come to believe that one reason why the BJP was upping the ante on the nuclear issue was that the party had been forced to give up much of its rhetoric on domestic issues given the nature of the coalition arrangement. The same holds good as far as the toughened stance on economic reforms and liberalisations is concerned.

To say that the Clinton administration is worked up over the recent utterances by BJP leaders on the nuclear issue - the need to keep the nuclear option "open"- would be to give too much credit to the single-agenda specialists who wish, for obvious reasons, to see both New Delhi and Washington tied down to this problem. The fact of the matter is that the Clinton administration has come to believe that there is nothing much different in what the BJP is saying now from what has been said by previous Indian governments. It would be too naive on the part of the U.S. to believe that a new government in New Delhi would say that the nuclear option cannot be kept open.

It is for this consistency on the part of successive governments in New Delhi that no one in the Clinton administration is talking about "sanctions", although there can be no illusion that India will be spared of puntive measures if it actually decides to pursue a nuclear weapons programme. The response would be firm and take different forms: it would go beyond bilateral action. The U.S. would try to involve multilateral forums and try to persuade its allies to move in the same direction as it moves.

The critical point to note is that no one in Washington talks about sanctions "if" India goes nuclear. Discussing hypothetical situations would poison an environment that has shown signs of positive development in the last several months, and the inclination in Washington has been to avoid harping on issues that could hamper such developments. In fact, senior U.S. officials have stated that South Asia is not on the brink of a nuclear war and that the nuclear issue was one of many issues that the U.S. pursued in the region.

There is also the realisation that harping on the "irrationality" of South Asians will serve little purpose: some people would consider this as bordering on racism - which would hardly enhance the image of Washington in South Asia. The reasoning is that the U.S.' interest in India goes far beyond preaching nuclear non-proliferation or human rights. A case in point is the recently started strategic dialogue, in which the two countries are addressing a range of bilateral, regional and global issues that goes beyond the traditional agenda.

Of course, there are those who believe that the U.S. and India could strike a mutually beneficial bargain on the nuclear question. One suggestion is that India emulate the example of China in seeking U.S. technology and the help of U.S. companies for civilian nuclear power. Another suggestion is that if nations that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty but have not abided by them have received incentives, surely there must be something for nations such as India, which have not signed them but behaved.

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