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Natural allies in the making

Natural allies in the making

Author: K P Nayar
Publication: The Telegraph
Date: November 16, 2001

Introduction: For New Delhi, Vajpayee's visit to Capitol Hill is of great importance

An unfortunate aspect of Atal Bihari Vajpayee's just concluded visit to Washington was the relatively low public profile of the prime minister's day-long activities in Capitol Hill on the first day of his stay in America's capital.

It is perhaps inevitable that when a meeting with the president of the United States of America tops the prime minister's agenda, followed by a joint press conference covered live by the major television networks around the world, Vajpayee's meetings with American lawmakers naturally receives less attention and publicity

It would be a mistake if such a low profile deflected attention either at Raisina Hill or at the Indian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue from the importance - more than ever now - for India of actively engaging the US congress.

Capitol Hill provides important pointers to where US policies, be it domestic or external, are headed. More often than not, discussions and hearings at committees of the senate and the house of representatives reveal what the White House and the rest of the administration are trying to hide.

In the current, post-September 11 context of fighting terrorism, it is sometimes forgotten that it was the congress which last year exposed efforts by the administration to placate the Taliban and cut deals with the militia's reclusive leadership, including Mohammed Omar. Again, it was on Capitol Hill that the administration's efforts in 1996 to virtually recognize the Pakistan-sponsored student militia as the legitimate government in Afghanistan was seriously and successfully challenged.

A detailed analysis of congressional activity on the day Vajpayee arrived in Washington provide straws in the wind about the controversy which erupted last week over an American proposal for a "military alliance" with India.

When the story about the proposal broke on the day Vajpayee met the American president, George W Bush, the external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh, described it as nothing less than "purefiction".

And yet, records of discussions in the house of representatives on the day Vajpayee met congressional leaders and members of the India Caucus suggest that Singh may have been attempting to mislead the public on the whole episode.

The impression that there can be no smoke without fire was reinforced when the defence minister, George Fernandes, more or less contradicted his interim replacement in the defence ministry until a few weeks ago and talked of the possibilities of greater military cooperation with the US in future.

The American congress came into the picture when Benjamin Gilman, the Republican congressman from New York spoke on a resolution in the house of representatives on November 8, welcoming Vajpayee to the US.

Six congressmen from both parties took part in the debate on the resolution which expressed the "sense of the Congress" on relations with India. Towards the end of his address, moving the resolution, Gilman spoke of the meeting between the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, in summer this year when they signed a friendship treaty and followed it up with the creation of the Shanghai pact. The friendship treaty and the Shanghai pact of likeminded states in the former communist bloc were widely seen as a response to the Bush administrations pre-September 11 unilateralist policies and its planned expansion of military might. Obviously concerned about the growing closeness between Moscow and Beijing, Gilman said on record on November 8 that "we", that is, the US, "are now embarking on a similar friendship with India and prime minister Vajpayee".

Other congressmen picked up the theme, some spoke obliquely, others were more forthright and direct. Frank Pallone, the Democrat from New Jersey and one of the more active members of the India caucus, dissected Indo-US relations while speaking in support of the resolution.

Pallone argued that "more important right now, I think, is the importance of the defence relationship, and we understand that some of the conversations and talks that are taking place between the prime minister and president Bush relate to that defence relationship".

He continued: "I have been a long advocate of the need to increase our defence relationship, whether that means supplying military equipment or doing more military exercises with India."

Ed Royce, the Republican from California, who is also co-chair of the India Caucus, spoke of the recent international fleet review in Mumbai, which he attended.

American naval ships took part in this fleet review although military sanctions against India were in force at the time the event was taking place.

Royce quoted the statements of the secretary of state, Colin Powell, on India's role in maintaining peace and stability in the Indian Ocean and its periphery. What all this demonstrates clearly is that the US proposal for a military alliance with India is not the fevered imagination of some overactive journalist. The discussion in the house of representatives shows that not only is there some two-way dialogue on the course of a military relationship between Washington and New Delhi, but also that American lawmakers have been briefed about it by the administration.

There is no other explanation for congressmen discussing the contours of an alliance which last weekend's media scoop in New Delhi exposed. American lawmakers spoke about it, obviously unaware of its domestic fallout in India a day before the Indian media uncovered it. The discussion in the house on the resolution was far more important for New Delhi than was projected in public. Lawmakers said all the things the Indians wished to hear post-September 11.

And what they said made it clear that notwithstanding the reception which Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf is now receiving worldwide, the interests of the US and India coincide in the long run in many areas.

Tom Lantos, the Democrat from California, pointed out while supporting the resolution that "it is important to realise that some members of this (anti-terrorist) coalition share our values. India is one of them".

Without naming Pakistan, Lantos said: "Not all members of the coalition are built on the same set of democratic values that our society is built on and India's society is built on. For many, this coalition is just a marriage of convenience. With respect to India, it is a marriage based on shared and common values of pluralism, respect for minorities, freedom of religion, political privileges of voting... and freedom of expression."

Jim McDermott of Washington, the Democratic co-chair of the India Caucus, obliquely referred to the defence relationship when he praised India's offer of military bases soon after September 11. It was "something that had never happened before", McDermott added.

Congressman after congressman spoke of the long-term value of Indo-US ties and many reminded Americans that post-September 11, these ties had only become stronger. India's rapidly developing ties with Israel have helped too in this country where the Jewish lobby has a virtual carte-blanche on policy.

Lantos said: "Our democratic friend India and our democratic friend, the State of Israel, have been subjected to terrorism for over half a century." In a way, the lesson to be learned from this one discussion on Capitol Hill is a repeat of what New Delhi learned after its nuclear tests in 1998 and the Kargil crisis a year later. On both those occasions, India's route to influencing the administration's policy was through the congress. It is no different now.

The US's politicians share none of the memories or the sentiment in the Pentagon or in the state department of the good old days of kinship with Pakistan.

As the statements by Lantos, Pallone and others showed, the congress is willing to go far, far beyond the administration in calling the Pakistani spade a spade even in these days when the US needs Musharraf much more than the other way round.

The best thing Vajpayee did was to spend a whole day on Capitol Hill, notwithstanding its rigours, a day before meeting the president in the White House. The meetings in the senate and in the house of representatives not only boosted India's self-confidence. It also reinforced New Delhi's belief since Vajpayee came to power that India and the US are "natural allies".
 


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