Mission to Washington PM is willing, but there are critics and comrades

Mission to Washington
PM is willing, but there are critics and comrades
by H.K. Dua

Washington has lately been sending across the word that President George W. Bush has ordered an extra length of red carpet to give Dr Manmohan Singh the kind of reception given only to a few heads of government. Key functionaries of the Bush Administration have also been telling New Delhi that the Prime Minister’s visit later this month could mark a watershed in the relations between India and the United States.

There are influential people in Dr Manmohan Singh’s government who are also looking forward to the visit. They tend to believe that the world situation has changed over the years and that the time has come for India to give up its old mindset, look far into the future and evolve a new relationship with the world’s most powerful country.

Often in the past, the love-hate relationship between the two largest democracies has witnessed hesitations and prevented them from coming closer. Often, adversarial feelings, embedded in mutual distrust, have ruled the relationship. Often, a step forward has led to two steps backwards.

There are people in the United States who still do not relish India having developed nuclear weapons or trying to emerge as a major power of the 21st century. They think that India is too big a country and it will always be difficult to tame its ambitions for carving out an important role for itself in the world and an independent foreign policy.

Lately, there are, however, more people in the US establishment who think that India can be gainfully co-opted into the US strategic view and its global and Asian policies. The number of the Americans who have reservations on India is said to be going down lately.

While the Bush Administration seems to have worked out its strategic policy on Asia, including a role and place for India, the establishment in New Delhi is not yet sure on how far it can go in developing a new relationship with Washington. India is slowly giving up its old mindset, and the realities of a changed world are being acknowledged, but there are some lingering feelings that the new relationship with the US will cramp India’s search for an independent foreign policy.

Dr Manmohan Singh, despite his gentle profile, does not shirk from making major departures from settled policies if it helps the country in a given situation. In the 1990s, as Finance Minister, he launched irreversible economic reforms, overturning the earlier dogmas and policies. Whether he is fully ready now to follow his instinct for a new foreign policy needed for the 21st century and take the plunge now for a cosier relationship with Washington remains to be seen.

With the Soviet Union having collapsed and China determined to emerge as a major power in the next 20 years, the US is keen to retain a leadership role in the world, possibly in the company of important regional powers. Hence, Washington’s keenness to have India on board.

The attitude of a part of the establishment Dr Manmohan Singh is himself presiding over and of the Left parties backing his government can place constraints on his taking major steps forward in the talks in Washington. The Prime Minister has to prepare his colleagues in the government, the bureaucracy and the top brass of the military for what he would like to do.

He has also to make special efforts to tackle the Left parties who are making more than proforma noises against forging closer ties with the United States.

The comrades, who are already worked up over the government’s plans for disinvestments in BHEL and have chosen to boycott the UPA’s coordination committee, have now pounced upon the 10-year agreement the Defence Minister, Mr Pranab Mukherjee, signed last week in Washington on the future collaborations between the two countries in crucial areas of defence and military affairs.

The details of the Defence Minister’s statement had hardly come to be known when the CPM’s politburo met suddenly to issue a statement loudly protesting against the nature and content of the emerging defence relationship with the US. The CPM and the other Left parties supporting the government have taken a hard position on the defence agreement, and it looks like Dr Manmohan Singh will require considerable persuasive skill to talk the comrades out of their fears of India getting sucked into the United States’ global and strategic designs.

The CPM politburo statement is too critical to bring comfort to the government. It says that the 10-year agreement, if carried forward, will place India in the same category as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines – all traditional allies of the United States. In particular, it has questioned the collaboration between India and the US in multinational operations and in missile defence, fearing that Washington is drawing India into its missile defence shield round the world as also in naval operations in the Indian Ocean.

India has been entering into strategic partnerships with several countries improving bilateral relations, acquiring flexibility in foreign policy and updating it for the present needs and future prospects. The nature and content of strategic partnership – lately a catchphrase – vary depending on the country and the context. A strategic partnership with the United States acquires a different dimension considering that the US is the only super power. And if Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit is to be a watershed, as Washington would like it to be, it is bound to evoke excitement among those in India who for long have been wanting closer ties with the US and protests from those who have been critical of Washington’s global and South Asian policies.

President Bush and Dr Condoleezza Rice have lately spoken about Washington’s support to India’s keenness to emerge as a major power in the 21st century. The coming visit could see Washington agreeing to greater flow of advanced technology, relaxation of a few sanctions so that India could buy nuclear fuel from the US or some other countries and greater cooperation in science and technology and research and development in many high-tech areas, agriculture research, fight against HIV and AIDS.

While the UPA government is unlikely to undo the 10-year defence agreement Mr Pranab Mukherjee has signed, it remains to be seen whether the Prime Minister goes about convincing President Bush to travel a few more miles to meet some of the essential Indian needs and concerns that have blocked improvement in Indo-US relations during the last few years.

Whether President Bush meets some essential Indian concerns is not yet clear, but there are no signs that the US is going to supply nuclear power reactors which India badly needs to reduce its dependence on oil, or let it have access to more-advanced areas of nuclear and space technology, despite the fact that India has always stood for non-proliferation and recently passed a law against weapons of mass destruction.

India has also been wanting Washington’s support for its claim to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The US has spoken about India’s importance and its playing a greater role in the United Nations and has said that it meets all the criteria which it has proffered for a permanent seat at the Security Council. It is, however, highly unlikely that Washington will announce support for India’s seat at the UN Security Council during Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit.

The Prime Minister is indeed attaching considerable importance to the visit. For it to be a great success, he may have to spend the next few days convincing critics in his own government and the Marxists that what he is doing is in the wider national interest and that India, given its confidence and capability, cannot become a surrogate US state. On the other hand, he has to convince the Bush Administration that it should meet India’s concerns crucial to its really becoming a major power of the 21st century.

Dr Manmohan Singh’s challenge is essentially political at home and diplomatic in Washington.