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Getting over the Pak obsession?

By T V R Shenoy
June 11, 2003 17:28 IST
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Dateline Washington: It has been 17 months since L K Advani's last visit to the American capital. That is not a very long time by the standards of international diplomacy, yet much has changed in that time in the ever-evolving relationship between the United States and India.

On January 9, 2002, the conversation between the Indian home minister and his American interlocutors was about almost nothing but war. It was, please remember, less than a month since the terrorist attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001, the Indian Army had been steadily building up its forces on the border, and the Americans were concerned for their close ally General Pervez Musharraf. Matters could scarcely be more different today.

On June 9, 2003, the first question that everyone who met the deputy prime minister wanted answered was about peace, not war. Would the prime minister's initiative to make a lasting peace with India's troublesome Western neighbour succeed? How strong were the suspicions of the hawks in India, and would they succeed in putting a spoke in the wheels of the prime minister?

Both the American government and the various think tanks appeared to take it for granted that outright conflict would no longer be an option, so much so that the issue simply never came up. The deputy prime minister, I understand, was able to strike a delicate balance between reassuring them of India's dedication to peace while reaffirming the nation's commitment to striking both at terrorists and their sponsors.

In 2002, the second question that inevitably arose was about India's nuclear weapon policy. (Nobody in the United States seemed quite sure if we possessed one to be honest!) This time, once again, the question was simply not brought up at all by the Americans. Somehow or the other, the message seems to have got through that India is a responsible power which will never brandish its weapons unnecessarily. (There was never any question, at any point in time, of India being party to proliferation even though Delhi has consistently refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, with every government -- irrespective of party affiliation -- condemning it as biased.)

The third difference was the vastly changed American attitude to General Musharraf. In November 2001, Prime Minister Vajpayee met President Bush; the front page of The New York Times carried a laudatory article on the Pakistani leader on the same day. Let us just say that the newspaper would not do so today!

The Pakistani leader has become something of an embarrassment to the American government. It is privately acknowledged that his regime has failed to curb militant activity -- aimed not just at India but also at the United States. General Musharraf has admitted that his writ carries such little weight in parts of Pakistan that Osama bin Laden himself is probably hiding somewhere along the frontier with Afghanistan. There have even been reports -- unconfirmed I should add -- that Pakistani troops have fired on American patrols in Afghanistan.

I am afraid therefore that General Musharraf shall find his welcome far colder than it was back in November 2001 when he was the darling of Washington. One unkind rumour has it that President Bush has chosen to take his guest to the presidential ranch precisely in order to escape questions from the media. (Normally, only a contingent of photographers goes along on these trips.)

This brings up the fourth major change between January 2002 and June 2003. On previous occasions -- and irrespective of which Indian leader was meeting his or her American counterpart -- Pakistan would consume a large chunk of the exchanges. Now, there seems to be a recognition by both sides that the two nations have much more to talk about. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made an aggressive pitch for an Indian presence in Iraq for instance. There was talk of sharing intelligence.

At another level Indians and Americans discussed trade and other economic issues. This is a healthy change, a small indication that Indian diplomacy has begun to outgrow the obsession with Pakistan and, equally important, that other nations have recognised and appreciated the change.

So, are the United States and India destined to be the 'natural allies' that some have predicted? It is far too soon to make such a declaration. There is decades worth of bureaucratic inertia to be cleared away in both capitals if nothing else! But the sustained diplomacy of the current government is paying off, and this visit by the deputy prime minister is a vast stride forward.

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T V R Shenoy