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What's the Bush fuss for?

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Last updated on: March 01, 2006 23:22 IST

United States President George W Bush's India visit threatens to be the most untimely, and quite possibly, the most unproductive, exercise as such odysseys go.

For one, Mr Bush is about to cross the halfway mark in his second and final term, casting a shadow on his pronouncements and promises.

As it is, his words carry little weight in his own country because his public standing is abysmally low at the moment, thanks to his being enmeshed in unsavoury controversies like 'illegal' wire-tapping, reports of barbaric torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and his handling of domestic issues such as the horrific mismanagement of the aftermath of the Katrina disaster and the parlous state of the economy due to the drain caused by Iraq war and by an unprecedented trade deficit.

He has been widely characterised as one who lacks the guts to take responsibility for the many mistakes he has committed.

The Congressional elections due this winter may see conspicuous erosion in the present Republican strength, further whittling down Mr Bush's prestige and authority during the remaining years of his tenure.

All this would not have mattered much were he an outgoing, cheery, charismatic personality like Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. But he comes nowhere near them in being able to leave a memorable trail by sheer bonhomie.

He comes with a burdensome personal baggage that is sure to mark his visit as an un-enthusing one from the word go.

All signs, therefore, are of the host and the guest going through with it as an unavoidable ritual, and not as something that puts pep into the strategic partnership.

Tango Gone Wrong

Coming to substance, taking the centrepiece -- the so-called civil nuclear cooperation -- of the Bush-Singh Joint Statement of July 18, 2005, there was a lot of hoopla about its being given a final shape before Mr Bush's arrival and taking off in a big way.

To the contrary, it has -- one can say expectedly, in hindsight -- got mired in second and third thoughts on both sides. To be blunt, it is getting more problematic by the day.

India can get out of the mess of its own making only by unconditionally capitulating to the dictates of the US on what should constitute civil and military nuclear facilities, and providing iron-clad commitments to adhere to the embargo on any further nuclear testing, thereby forswearing India's right to a minimum nuclear deterrent based on its judgment of its security environment.

The members of the pull-all-stops, pro-US cabal -- as India's foremost security expert Mr B Raman calls it -- surrounding Dr Singh are egging him on to take the plunge and at the same time bad-mouthing the scientific community which has boldly come out against caving in to the US pressure.

But braving the strong backlash of public opinion is not going to be that easy. Therefore papering the cracks and putting the best face on it will be all that will be left for both sides to do.

Why Bother?

Although, on the touchstone of national interest, there is no need to consider this a disaster, the visit will certainly be viewed as losing its sheen for having to sidestep something that had been given such a great build-up as the litmus test of the US-India strategic partnership.

The opinion in the US itself has never put much store by this 'nuclear agreement.'

In fact, the American media has better (or worse) things to cover than Mr Bush's visit, and what with the non-proliferation diehards in the US Congress trying to blackball the 'agreement' and several members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, spearheaded by Sweden and Canada, expressing strong objections to making any special exception of India, the Bush administration also may be in no hurry to sew it all up at one go during the visit.

End of the world? Not really.

A widely-quoted paper titled 'Negotiating the US-India Nuclear Cooperation Deal' -- by Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L Stimson Centre -- emphatically says, 'It is false and foolish to assert that (the partnership) would be jeopardised if the nuclear deal were not consummated in the exact form contrived by perhaps a dozen individuals negotiating in extreme secrecy… Indo-US relations are moving ahead smartly in defence cooperation, trade and investment, agriculture, public health and many other areas… there is every reason to believe that our two countries will work side by side in the years to come on promoting democracy and combating terrorism.'

Krepon also dangles the hope that in the future Washington could even support a permanent seat for India at the United Nations Security Council.

Taking the issues mentioned as a sampler, defence cooperation is already an established fact, further buttressed by the pact signed by Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee and US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and there is not very much more that a Presidential presence can do to give it a push.

Bilateral trade and boost to investment are the predestined staples of the agendas of every joint meeting that India has with other countries, and no new issue is looming that needs to be resolved by the US President taking a hand himself.

Nobody has been able to put his finger precisely on what 'promoting democracy' signifies. In American eyes, the Palestinians freely electing their own government is not democracy, and hence should be financially crippled and crushed, whereas General Pervez Musharraf's military regime is the acme of democracy, worth pouring billions of dollars to prop it up.

Agriculture and public health are unglamorous issues, with little scope for spin as being so momentous as to justify a trip by a lame-duck President.

That leaves us with the fight against terrorism and India's claim for a permanent seat at the Security Council.

The visit can be partially redeemed if Mr Bush is coming with some sensational initiatives up his sleeve on both these counts.

For instance, if he were to say in any declaration that comes out of his confabulations with Dr Singh that the US would stand guarantee for Pakistan closing down the terrorist camps, stopping the continued impregnating of the young minds in madrasas with jihadi poison and rubbing out the vipers' nests of al Qaeda and Taliban elements from its soil, that would be something worth celebrating.

If he were to go farther and demonstrate the determination of the US to get custody of the arch-nuclear proliferator A Q Khan, for making him cough up information on all his nefarious networks, the visit would be seen acquiring an aura of credibility.

And, of course, if he were to announce the US' ready support to India's case for a Security Council seat, his coming all the way and creating all the hullabaloo would be well worth the trouble.

Bending Backwards

If -- at least, on our side, taking Mr Bush head on -- the prime minister were to politely but firmly convey India's displeasure for the traducing of India and its acclaimed scientists and prominent public figures by the American ambassador and the minions of the consular and visa services of the US embassies, he would have sent back the President impressed with our sense of national self-respect.

For, the US does not believe in turning the other cheek and understands only the policy of tit-for-tat.

For instance, simply because then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri -- on the eve of leaving for the US on a State visit on the invitation of President Lyndon Johnson -- had the 'temerity' to make some mildly disapproving observations about the American role in the Vietnam war, Johnson not only abruptly and instantly cancelled his invitation but stopped the ships carrying wheat for India, which was in the throes of drought and famine.

The treatment meted out to world renowned scientists Dr Govardhan Mehta and Dr Placid Rodrigues -- making them stand for three-and-a-half hours in a queue and subjecting them to demeaning questions -- is unbecoming of a civilised country which preaches human rights day in and day out.

Do the same thing to distinguished Americans wanting to come to India and the US might go to any lengths -- pre-emptive strike, regime change, reading the riot act -- to teach the offender a lesson.

Is there a ghost of a chance of any of the deformities in US policy and insults to India's achievers being raised by the prime minister? Perish the thought!

So, what is all the fuss about the visit for?

Also see
The Bush visit

B S Raghavan