[Reader-list] "PLAYING IT CRISP - Is the Indian political class maturing in its dealings with the US?"

Kshmendra Kaul kshmendra2005 at yahoo.com
Wed Sep 16 16:26:33 IST 2009

"PLAYING IT CRISP - Is the Indian political class maturing in its dealings with the US?"
K P Nayar
For four days last week, the Union home minister, P. Chidambaram, was the envy of many of the 174 ambassadors resident in Washington. Actually, he was the envy even of some of those who claim to turn the levers of State power in America’s capital. The access that was given to Chidambaram in New York and in Washington during his maiden visit to the United States of America as home minister made some prominent members of the US House of Representatives and the Senate rub their eyes in disbelief. The Obama administration officials frankly admitted that some US lawmakers who interacted with the home minister could not have as easily met so many key people in Washington, especially at the nerve centres of US intelligence and in the war rooms that protect America against terrorism.
The home minister’s visit has held out hope that may be, just may be, India would at last show some belated signs of maturity in its dealings with the US. This columnist has covered every single Indian ministerial and senior officials’ visit to Washington in the last nine years. Most of these ministers wanted a photo opportunity with the US president: never mind that the visitor was dealing with, say, food processing industries back home. Not that all of the visiting ministers were uninterested in — or incapable of — conducting any serious official business in Washington. A meeting with the US president was, however, billed as the high point of ministerial visits.
On one occasion, an external affairs minister reversed his foreign secretary’s strict insistence on reciprocity and went to the PMO to make sure that a visiting US secretary of state will meet the prime minister after the Indian ambassador in Washington — who favoured such a meeting — cleverly let it be known to the minister that there is no hope of his meeting George W. Bush during his next visit to America if the secretary of state was confined to the external affairs minister during that trip and was not allowed access to the prime ministerial residence on 7 Race Course Road.
Chidambaram, on the other hand, was not obsessed, even for a minute, with being photographed with Barack Obama. But then Chidambaram is not Anand Sharma, Ghulam Nabi Azad or Jaipal Reddy, and it may be too much to assume that the way the home minister conducted himself last week was synonymous with the Indian political class having acquired maturity in its dealings with Washington. 
Look at how a big song and dance is being made in New Delhi as the US visit — and the “first state visit” under the Obama presidency — of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, draws near. And the Americans know how easy it is to massage India’s ego: even as Chidambaram was in Washington, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, Robert Blake, made it a point to underscore in a policy speech that Singh’s visit was, indeed, the first state visit. This columnist has never seen a US official underline such frills of absolutely no consequence, with no bearing whatsoever on substantive policy, in America’s dealings with China, Russia, Japan or France.
Chidambaram came to the US with a precise agenda and rare clarity on how to go about fulfilling what was on his agenda. He did not plead with his US interlocutors to help save India from cross-border terrorism. He did not whine like the little boy who runs to his big brother to complain that his cousin or neighbour had given him a beating.
At a meeting with representatives of select think-tanks in Washington, Chidambaram got the opportunity to say a lot of what he wanted to tell Americans when a participant asked why India was unwilling to have a joint investigation with Pakistan into the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November last year. Without once raising his voice or giving in to emotions, like a lawyer clinically cross-examining a witness, Chidambaram explained to Americans at this and other meetings what precise evidence India had given to Pakistan about the involvement of the Lashkar-e-Toiba and of its chief, Hafeez Sayeed, in the attack on Mumbai. The implication of everything that Chidambaram said was that the Pakistan judiciary was right in letting Hafeez Sayeed go free. Because the Pakistani government had failed to investigate Indian leads, it had let evidence grow cold and deliberately not presented proof in court, which would have put Hafeez Sayeed behind bars. A judge, the
 home minister repeatedly noted, can only act if he is shown evidence against the people who are being prosecuted. The authorities in Pakistan had simply abdicated their responsibility to do that despite several dossiers from India which contained leads that ought to have been followed up. Chidambaram made the Americans squirm when he reminded them that Pakistan’s reluctance to investigate, prosecute and destroy the terrorist virus that is threatening to overwhelm that country has nothing to do with India pointing a finger at the Pakistan establishment. 
Six Americans died in the terrorist attack on Mumbai, and yet, Islamabad has refused to allow the Federal Bureau of Investigation to conduct any inquiry in Pakistan. It is an argument that cuts deep into the American psyche: every US government has valued American lives to be worth acting against those who endanger those lives. And yet, when it comes to Pakistan, there is a sense of helplessness in Washington about doing anything, which the home minister more than hinted at in his interactions in the US. Some of those present at official meetings where Chidambaram rolled out these arguments were the very people who have been arguing that Pakistan should be the centrepiece of US security strategy for South and Central Asia in the next decade..
Notwithstanding the sparring, it was clear as Chidambaram left for New Delhi that the Americans were very pleased to have had the opportunity to meet face-to-face the top man in India who was dealing with terrorism on a day-to-day basis. The last time men and women in the US, whose job it is to protect America, had that opportunity was six years ago when the deputy prime minister and home minister, L.K. Advani, went to Washington. Interacting with two home ministers in India, Advani and Chidambaram, the Americans must be wondering what it is in India’s political system that makes home ministers so much superior, so very personable and businesslike, compared to other members of the Union cabinet. For all the legal arguments that Chidambaram presented, his incontrovertible logic and his eloquence, nothing is going to change in Washington: the Americans are stuck with Pakistan on Afghanistan and Central Asia.
But then, Pakistan, contrary to television hyperbole, was only part of Chidambaram’s agenda in the US. As part of his thorough preparations for the visit, Chidambaram read Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counter­terror Force — the NYPD (acronym for the New York Police Department). It is a new book written by Christopher Dickey, the Paris bureau chief of Newsweek, who wanted to investigate how the NYPD had kept New Yorkers safe since September 11, 2001. After reading the book, Chidambaram decided to craft his own programme in New York, unlike most Indian ministers. He asked for meetings with the FBI-led Joint Terror Task Force, the NYPD and the agencies involved in protecting New York’s mass transport system. In Washington, he similarly insisted on a personal tour of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre: his idea is to create a centre in New Delhi that mirrors the talent and capacity of the one in Washington in being able to deal with
 threats to India.
Chidambaram wants the US to help India in creating its anti-terrorist infrastructure to a standard that has prevented another attack on America since September 11, 2001. Lest the Americans should drag their feet on such help, the home minister’s brahmastra was that it was in US interest to help in India’s acquisition of counter-terrorist technology and equipment because it will, in turn, provide greater security for American investment in India as bilateral economic relations become deeper. It was an argument that no one in Washington could counter.


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