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India-US: unequal partners

By B S Raghavan
Last updated on: July 22, 2005 19:53 IST
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India's Communist parties have grounds to be unhappy with the manner and content of the India-US Defense pact (formally titled 'New Framework For The US-India Defence Relationship'), which Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee and US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld signed in Washington June 28.

It will be unwise to dismiss their public opposition. With most other policies, their resentment arose from not being consulted by the ruling United Progressive Alliance (which the Communist parties support from outside) and because, in their perception, it deviated from the National Common Minimum Programme. But in case of the India-US defence accord, the Communists' grievance is shared by the people of India.

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The grave reservations against the 'framework' should not be viewed as a spill-over from any past hang-ups against the US. Even those for strengthening and expanding relations between the two countries are uneasy about India's unwariness in sewing up agreements and arrangements with the US. Guarding against unwariness so that national interest is not compromised should be a core part of any country's foreign policy.

Guardedness becomes all the more essential when it comes to dealing with a superpower. The US regards the world its fiefdom, brooking no trammels to exercising what it considers its innate right to impose its prescriptions and sanctions. But it is also a self-made nation, which has carved out a niche with its unique achievement in blending democracy with development.

This consideration acquires paramount importance when it comes to defence issues. Thus, however inconvenient and unpalatable, the Communists' opinion cannot be brushed aside, as Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh did with the remark that the agreement is 'innocuous' and merely updates a 1995 agreement. Whatever else it is, innocuous it is not. It goes far beyond mere updating the 'Agreed Minutes of Defence Relations' signed in New Delhi in January 1995 on a low-key and subordinate level.

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That the Americans also do not look on the 'framework' as an extrapolation of the 'agreed minutes' is obvious from the lengths to which they went to put it in place and celebrate the fact.

The 'agreed minutes' was relevant only to the extent that it was the precursor to military-to-military cooperation and holding of joint military exercises. Americans participating in them were taken aback by Indian defence forces' mastery of strategic and tactical dimensions of India's security environment. They were amazed by the harmonious, synergistic relations between the defence forces and civilian authorities and the skilled conduct of operations which in many respects excelled that of their American counterparts.

The then A B Vajpayee-led government's unqualified support in 2001 to the US national missile defence program and the readiness with which, in 2002, India facilitated the US campaign in Afghanistan by deputing two Indian ships, INS Sharda and INS Sukanya, to 'relieve' the American naval ship, Cowpens, to patrol the Malacca straits, must have convinced the Bush administration that Indian defence policy makers were sufficiently 'softened'. That they would be receptive to a 'framework' that would make India, like Japan, an integral part of its efforts to preserve and advance its global offence and defence system and to put muscle into its Proliferation Security Initiative.

It was the Pentagon which reportedly was keen to finalize the pact. It pressured India's defence ministry to sign it before the Indian prime minister's visit to Washington July 18 to 20 to provide a propitious curtain-raiser to his talks with President George W Bush and his speech to Congress.

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The US administration has been greatly impressed by a report by the reputed defence and nuclear expert Dr Ashley J Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace emphasizing the need for the US to bolster India as 'a potential hedge against a rising China' and to arrest the 'growth of Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean rimlands and Chinese penetration of Myanmar'.

Mukherjee too was equally eager in view of his assessment that India was in 'a dangerous neighborhood' and 'an increasingly untenable security environment'.

It would have been proper, since it concerned the country's security and defence (which the minister himself agreed at a media meet), to prepare public opinion by having it debated in Parliament and securing national endorsement.

Mukherjee decided that entering into an agreement with the US brooked no delay and did not want the issue to get mired in any time-consuming controversy. The overjoyed Americans signed the deal without much ado.

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So much so, Rumsfeld and his team accorded Mukherjee and his delegation the rare honor of feting them over dinner with a glittering assemblage comprising Vice-President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, chairman-designate of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace, Senator John Cornyn, Texas Republican and co-chair of the Friends of India in the US Senate, and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, GOP co-chair of the House Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans.

Intriguingly, media reports have not mentioned the presence and participation of India's three service chiefs, the defence secretary or the PM's secretary at the signing ceremony.

The defence minister committing to act in tandem with the US on strategic defence priorities has spawned a number of reports pointing to matters of such importance as to come within the purview of Parliament, But the minister has maintained a Sphinx-like silence on it.

Advanced weapons for India

For instance, it is rumored that Washington has given the green light to Lockheed Martin and Boeing to offer F-16 and F-18 warplanes to the Indian Air Force's multi-role fighter program.

It has also pledged support for Indian requests for other transformative systems in areas such as command and control, early warning, and missile defense.

Reports are also circulating that the US has 'cleared' the sale of state-of-the-art PAC-3 (Patriot Advanced Capability-3) anti-missile system to India and that a deal had either been struck or is on the verge of finalization.

The 'framework' is calculated to accomplish the US' self-serving objectives — exporting what President Dwight Eisenhower called 'the military-industrial complex' — to India.

Which means the domination in vital areas of defense technology, production, command and control, putting China in its place, acting as an arbiter in determining the balance of power in the region and furthering the power and influence of the US with India as the front. This makes India an unwitting conduit for arms sales to third countries — under the guise of enlisting India as a 'major world power'.

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Communist Party of India-Marxist General Secretary Prakash Karat wants its potential as an instrument to promote US interests to be neutralized by the government taking care not to put any flesh and blood into it. Actually, even in its present form, it gives the US enough scope for manoevre.

One foreign media report, perhaps euphemistically or mischievously, says that India is now America's 'best friend'.

Everyone knows the connotation of that phrase!

Next: The blunt truth

(The author is a former director (political), in the ministry of home affairs)

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B S Raghavan