An opportunity lost

Print edition : September 30, 2000

The opposition parties criticise the Prime Minister for going overboard on issues of national importance and have started asking him probing questions about the visit.

ON his return from the fortnight-long visit to the United States, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said that between New Delhi and Washington there was "increasing convergence" of views on "non-proliferation issues" . He claimed that there was also "g reater appreciation" in the U.S. of the Indian government's management of the country's internal and external security affairs. The response of the U.S. media and general public to the visit was lukewarm; Vajpayee did not make it to the front pages of an y of the leading U.S. dailies, and only than one-fourth of the legislators were present when he addressed Congress. However, this was more than made up by the high-level interaction Vajpayee had with President Bill Clinton and top administration official s. Vice-President and Democratic Party candidate for the presidency Al Gore took time off from campaigning to meet the Prime Minister. The Republican Party candidate George W. Bush, had a 10-minute telephonic conversation with Vajpayee.

Clinton, Vajpayee and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh after the dedication of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Washington.-WILLIAM PHILPOT/REUTERS

Now that Vajpayee is back, the Opposition has started asking probing questions about the visit. There have been demonstrations in New Delhi to protest against Vajpayee's speech at a gathering in which activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) shared t he dais with him. The Prime Minister had said that he was proud to be a "swayamsevak" and that he was committed to the Hindutva agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP). The Prime Minister later tried to distance himself from the statement but th e damage had already been done. The liberal facade of BJP leaders has a tendency to crumble when they are on foreign soil. During his visit to Israel in July this year, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh was quoted in the Israeli press as saying tha t India's relations with Israel suffered adversely owing to "Muslim vote bank politics".

Arab and other Muslim countries have not been happy with frequent statements of top Indian officials and Ministers, including Jaswant Singh and Home Minister L.K.Advani, implicitly equating Islam with terrorism in their speeches during their trips abroad . Vajpayee's constant references to "jehad" and terrorism in the U.S. may have touched the right chords in certain quarters in the U.S. but they could be misunderstood in the Arab and Muslim world. A Pakistani official points out that "jehad" had been a politically correct word when the U.S. and Pakistan together waged a war against the legal government of Afghanistan in the 1980s. He said that U.S. memories could not be all that short. According to the official, U.S. officials who had wor ked closely with Pakistan during the Afghan war were still in influential positions.

But now there seems to be a tilt towards New Delhi in Washington. The military takeover in Pakistan has not had many backers in the U.S. Pakistani officials admit that the overthrow of the democratically elected government has resulted in a diplomatic se tback for their country. Clinton and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had got on a first name basis. The Pakistan government's handing over of the two prime suspects in the 1998 Nairobi embassy bombing was appreciated in Washington.

The new tilt in Washington is reflected to an extent in the resolution authored by Congressman Benjamin Gilman, which called for enhanced US-India relations. The resolution, passed during the course of the Vajpayee visit, said: "China's hegemonic ambitio ns, Islamic terrorism spilling out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the narco dictatorship in Burma, and China's illegal occupation of Tibet, are serious concerns to both the United States and India." Gilman went on to add that the U.S. and India "must devel op a closer military and intelligence relationship... to confront our mutual enemies".

There was pressure on the Clinton administration to raise the "religious freedom issue" with Vajpayee. Elliot Abrams, Chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, wrote to Clinton in the second week of September urging him to raise with Vajpayee "the need for his government to take more effective steps to protect the religious freedom and the lives and security of persons of religious minorities in India". The Commission recommended that the U.S. President "impress on the Prime Minister that promotion of religious freedom is indispensable to healthy relations between India and the United States". According to diplomatic sources, the religious freedom issue figured in the talks between Clinton and Vajpayee.

The Opposition has alleged that Vajpayee made far too many concessions to Washington. Critics of the government say that one reason why he was received so enthusiastically was the significant concessions the Indian government extended to U.S. multination als in the telecommunications and power sectors, which have been opened up for them. The privatisation of these sectors was a long-standing demand of visiting U.S. officials. In the Joint Statement issued by the U.S. President and the Prime Minister on S eptember 15, the two countries agreed to build on the new momentum in their relationship "to further enhance mutual understanding and deepen cooperation across the full spectrum of political, economic, commercial, scientific, technological, social and in ternational issues".

THE Joint Statement specifically highlighted the role of the two countries in launching the "Community of Democracies" earlier in the year. The concept behind the "Community" is a throwback to the Cold War days and is aimed at isolating countries such as Cuba and China. France, for instance, had refused to sign the document calling for the establishment of the Community at the U.S. sponsored meet in Warsaw in June.

India, on the other hand, was a co-convener of the Warsaw meet. The French government was of the view that the exercise was an attempt to impose Western political culture on the rest of the world. It was revealed after the conclusion of the Vajpayee visi t that the Clinton administration had even wanted India to assume a leadership role in the Community and host a summit in New Delhi. Good sense seems to have prevailed in South Block: despite immense pressure from Washington, New Delhi declined the dubio us privilege of hosting the next meeting of the Community of Democracies. The concept behind the community of democracies runs counter to the principles of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)).

The Joint Statement also expressed optimism about the prospects of improving the bilateral trade environment and contributing to the strengthening of the global financial and trading systems. It also noted significant progress on other important economic issues, which included mutual taxation and investment in the power and other sectors. The two leaders pledged their "committed support for efforts that will make capital markets more efficient, transparent and accountable to attract the billions in priv ate investment that is needed". They recognised the need for "appropriate technology for power generation". The leaders "noted with satisfaction the signing of several major commercial agreements, under which U.S. firms will contribute to the development of the power industry in India".

The Joint Statement said that the two leaders had discussed matters relating to international security. It particularly, mentions "the long history of Indo-U.S. cooperation in U.N. peacekeeping operations, most recently in Sierra Leone". The difficulties that Maj.Gen. Vijay K. Jetley, the Indian commander of the peace-keeping force, had got himself into were highlighted in the U.S. press during the Vajpayee visit. According to informed sources, the Indian side had expressed their concerns to the America ns about the political predicament in Sierra Leone. It was at the urging of the Clinton administration that India had sent its peace-keepers to troublespots such as Somalia and Sierra Leone.

After the killing of American soldiers in Somalia, the U.S. had refused to be part of any U.N. peace-keeping in Africa. In Somalia and Sierra Leone, it found countries such as India to do its bidding. In Somalia, the Indian peace-keepers could not achie ve much but they came out relatively unscathed. In Sierra Leone, the Clinton administration has not been able to bail them out of the political quagmire for which the Americans are responsible to a great extent. A few days after Vajpayee's return, the In dian government announced that it was withdrawing its troops from Sierra Leone. In Washington, Clinton and Vajpayee had agreed to "broaden their cooperation in peace-keeping".

India made a strong commitment in the Joint Statement of its intention to adhere to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), even before the issue has been debated in Parliament. "India reaffirmed that, subject to its supreme national interests, it will continue its voluntary moratorium until the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty comes into effect," the Joint Statement said. It reiterated that the Indian government would "continue efforts to develop a broad political consensus on the issue of the Treaty, w ith the purpose of bringing these discussions to a successful conclusion", and support for a global treaty to halt the production of fissile material for weapons purposes. Both countries have agreed to continue their dialogue on security and non-prolifer ation, notably on "defence posture". Some experts feel that discussions that related to India's defence posture could effectively amount to restraint in terms of nuclear deployment. The Joint Statement is also a written commitment by India that it will n ot conduct another nuclear test until the CTBT is ratified.

Youth Congress activists demonstrate outside Parliament on September 19 in protest against Prime Minister Vajpayee's failure to put pressure on President Clinton to declare Pakistan a terrorist state and to end the sanctions imposed on India in the wa ke of the Pokhran-II tests.-AJIT KUMAR/AP

Several leaders of the left parties have criticised the Prime Minister for "going overboard on his United States visit". Harkishan Singh Surjeet, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said that the Vajpayee had expressed opinions on serious issues without taking the people's representatives, the political parties and Parliament into confidence. Surjeet said that India under the BJP-led government had been kowtowing to Washington with the result that it has lost its leadership posit ion among the developing countries. "The U.S. will only look after its own business and strategic interests," Surjeet warned.

The general secretary of the Communist Party of India, A.B. Bardhan, said that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was pursuing policies that were contradictory to the time tested and consistent foreign policy positions India had been espou sing. "The present government works for the benefit of a political party rather than for the good of the country," he said. Vajpayee, speaking at the banquet Clinton had hosted in his honour, had said that the U.S. and India "stand on the right side of h istory".

Foreign policy spokesman of the Congress(I), K. Natwar Singh, said that the Prime Minister's trip was a failure as he could not get the sanctions imposed by the Clinton administration on India in the wake of the Pokhran-II nuclear tests, lifted. He said that India's demand for a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council also did not get a positive response from Washington. Instead, the U.S. President had once again reiterated his views about Kashmir being the "main cause of tension in the region and t he core issue" between India and Pakistan, Natwar Singh said.

Natwar Singh said that Vajpayee should have registered a protest against the comments of the U.S. President. "The new phraseology is unacceptable to the people of India. During the last 53 years not a single U.S. President had made such comments," he sai d. U.S. officials in Islamabad have gone out of their way to stress that they will work with Pakistan's military government on contentious issues such as Kashmir and terrorism rather than seek to isolate and discredit Pakistan, as desired by New Delhi. I ndia wants the Clinton administration to name Pakistan specifically as a state that supports terrorism. Vajpayee did not succeed in this endeavour.

According to CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Prakash Karat, the only achievement that the government has claimed from the visit is that India has now emerged as a "strategic ally" and "political partner" of the U.S. Karat said that the reality is that the Ind ian government has accepted the status of a "junior partner". "The Vajpayee government has unreservedly accepted Washington's position on international issues by its proclamation of allegiance to the U.S.," Karat said. He pointed out that during the cour se of his visit, Vajpayee did not express "any qualifications or reservations" on U.S. policy.

India itself has many problems and areas of conflict with the U.S. "The continuing sanctions on India are only a part of this," Karat said. The U.S. stance on economic issues, the CTBT, transfer of technology, and the democratisation of the U.N. are othe r major issues where there are serious differences between Washington and New Delhi. Karat said that no one was against India and the U.S. having a balanced relationship. He said that the relationship had become even more "one-sided" after the Vajpayee v isit. "In the anxiety to be acceptable to the U.S. we are willing to give up our principles," he said.

Karat criticised Vajpayee's preoccupation with Pakistan during his visit. He said that the government had not learnt from similar mistakes made immediately after Pokhran-II. According to Karat, the government seems to be willing to accept U.S. arbitratio n provided the U.S. tilts towards India. "This is not a sensible policy, as the pro-U.S. tilt will undermine all other aspects of our foreign policy," Karat said. He characterised the present government's policies as unidimensional. "Whatever America wan ts us to do, we do," he said. On the other hand, according to Karat, the U.S. position on issues such as Kashmir and CTBT has not changed. Before the Vajpayee visit, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot had made it clear that as far as the Clinto n administration was concerned, these two issues would be the main issues. Karat pointed out that there was no public articulation by the Prime Minister about India's anxieties about the U.S. position on these.

The sustained pressure from the Clinton administration on New Delhi for a resumption of dialogue with Islamabad may yield results soon. Vajpayee insisted in Washington that dialogue with Islamabad could be resumed only when cross-border terrorism is stop ped. But a speech by Jaswant Singh in San Francisco in the third week of September, indicated that there would be a resumption of high-level talks. "India remains committed to dialogue. We can change friends but we cannot change neighbours. So have patie nce, talks will be resumed," Jaswant Singh told his audience. Pakistani officials say that even Track II initiatives are becoming exercises in futility with the Indian government stonewalling all efforts for the resumption of dialogue. Probably, Vajpayee 's U.S. visit could have led to the change in the hitherto hardline Indian attitude towards dialogue with Pakistan.

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