After its nuclear ceremony in 1998 upset the western powers, the Vajpayee government made a serious effort to rebuild its relations with the United States. His foreign minister, met frequently with Strobe Talbott to work out an agreement; it did not work out. When the US invaded Iraq to remove Saddam Hussain in 2003, it offered India a slice of the pie if India sent troops in support. Vajpayee refused to join the expedition. In this Telegraph column of 29 July 2003, I criticized the government's timidity.
Life after the no
The decision of the Union cabinet to refuse America’s request to send troops was too predictable. For a party trying to bring an indigenous stance to foreign policy, the world can be confusing; and when beset by confusion, the simplest decision is a negative one. Admittedly, the option was not a very attractive one. High casualties were assured; no glory was promised. The lure of contracts was tempting, but nothing firm was being offered. The displeasure of Iraq’s neighbours, or of Muslims at home and abroad, would not have worried the government too much. Its relations with neither are close, and both would have appeared to be dispensable constituencies. A government that has invited Ariel Sharon as an honoured guest cannot be very mindful of Muslim – or even human – sentiment. The reason given for rejecting America’s request, that an explicit United Nations mandate was necessary, was a respectable one – and only tangentially selfish, although a UN mandate would mean that the UN would bear the costs. Hopes were initially raised in the army that like in previous assignments abroad, postings in Iraq would mean levels of pay that could enable a soldier to retire in five years. Once the United States made it clear that India would have to foot the bill for its own troops, the attraction was considerably diminished.
The loss of contracts is real. The United States has made it clear that it will run Iraq in its own way, according to its own rules. Amongst the rules is the unstated axiom that proximity to power in the US will determine access to contracts. An Indian general in the executive council in Baghdad would have meant a foothold in the corridors of power; more important, it would have meant a flow of information out of a structure that is going to be extremely opaque. But India’s ability to undertake large public works can be exaggerated. In the last great boom in the Middle East, India did not take the lion’s share of contracts; Koreans had walked away with the largest piece of the cake. Indian public enterprises have earlier obtained contracts because of the government’s influence; but they are now moribund, except perhaps for the railway construction companies. The biggest losers are big corporate constructors such as Larsen and Toubro. But not all is lost. Even if the big construction contracts will be impossible to get, they will still need a great deal of steel, cement, copper wire and aluminium windows. India is the closest large industrial base to Iraq, and it would still make sense for the contractors to order their materials from here. But to get those orders, Indian manufacturers would do well to keep a tab on the contractors being chosen and woo them. A listening post in Washington may be particularly useful at this point; the industry chambers should set one up.
Perhaps the most serious aspect of the decision is the background. India has always had a powerful anti-American lobby; it covers the entire spectrum from the reddest communists to the most saffron communalists. The objective basis of anti-Americanism disappeared with the fall of the Soviet Union. Narasimha Rao moved smartly towards the center and repaired the relationship with the US; but his government did not try to get close to the US. Paradoxically, it was the succeeding Hindu nationalist government, with its own parochial bias, that took the initiative after its nuclear ceremony had badly rocked the boat; in three years it achieved the impossible – it made the US government take serious strategic interest in India.
Just when the foundations had been laid and the construction of a relationship could begin, Prime Minister Vajpayee in his wisdom decided to change his foreign affairs minister. He sent Jaswant Singh to the finance ministry, where his performance has been on par with his predecessor’s. But the change in foreign policy is palpable. Jaswant Singh was absorbed in the Indo-US relationship. Yashwant Singh’s, approach to the US retains vestiges of the caution, not to say wariness, that characterized the old-world, jaded Indian nationalist. He is much more comfortable confabulating with his peers from the neighbouring countries; there too, he is wise enough to let the Prime Minister take the credit for any big move like an overture to Pakistan or a visit to China. It would be wrong to attribute a change in foreign policy to a single foreign minister; no doubt Yashwant Singh gets guidance and support from more senior leaders in the alliance like Advani and Fernandes. Perhaps the Prime Minister was himself uncomfortable with the indecent haste in getting closer shown by Jaswant Singh and his US interlocutors. After all, he takes his Nehruvian heritage seriously – perhaps seriously enough to inherit his anti-Americanism as well.
Whatever the reason, the Indo-US relationship is now drifting. The American political structure is such that the direction of its international policies can change rapidly and radically. Jaswant Singh engineered one such change and exploited it beautifully. Now there is a danger that by its distant nonchalance, the foreign policy establishment will engineer a change in the opposite direction, and we will be back to the days of Narasimha Rao, if not worse.
Which was all right in Narasimha Rao’s days, when the US had little interest in the Middle East. But today, it is obsessed with the Middle East. Whatever Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s other misconceptions may be, he is right on one thing: there is no evidence that Osama Bin Laden was involved in 9/11 attacks. But the US used him as an excuse to claw Afghanistan out of the hands of Taliban. Although our help, so eagerly offered, was not used by the US, the change of regime in Kabul has been the best thing that could have happened from our point of view – something far bigger than we could ever have achieved with our own arms. Evidence is mounting that the US-UK claims of Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction were a complete invention. But the US has used that canard to wrest Iraq out of Saddam’s hands. These are not isolated events; the US is bent on redrawing the map of the oil basin of the world, stretching from Central Asia to Saudi Arabia. That will vitally affect our interests. If we cooperate with America, we might be able to influence the outcome. However, the inclination of the present Indian leadership is to sit on its hands and pray.
That would be a pity, because whatever our international ambitions, the US can make or mar them to a considerable degree. Maybe it is right for India to stay shrunk in its own borders, and to react verbally to all changes in its environment. An outward-oriented foreign policy requires an intellectual effort and an entrepreneurial bent of mind; it is difficult to see the government mustering these. But relations with the US also involve trade – almost of a quarter of our trade is with the US – investment – of which the US is by far the biggest source – technology – in which the US leads the world – and training – Indians are now the largest foreign group of university students in the US. Flatfootedness may be all right in conventional foreign policy, but can be very costly when it comes to the nation’s economic fate.