A new beginning?


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OVER the past year India and the United States have shown a new cordiality towards each other. There has been a sharp increase in government to government contacts, and a gradual increase in US public interest in India and Indian elite support for improved Indo-US relations. The US has shown greater understanding of India’s security concerns, while India has shown renewed interest in US economic concerns, for example, by opening up the insurance sector to foreign investment. The two countries are beginning to agree on the debated international threat of terrorism, especially by fundamentalist militias.

After the Kargil conflict, US policy towards an Indo-Pakistani peace process has been more sympathetic to Indian dilemmas. As far as international affairs go, India has agreed to join the US, Poland and Britain in an initiative to promote democracy world-wide, and has indicated a willingness to rethink some of its traditional postures towards the West and the Middle East. After a gap of over 20 years, a US President, Bill Clinton, will visit India in early 2000. It is in his term that the department for South Asian affairs has become full-fledged, instead of a sub-set, and there has been a flurry of visits by different ministries, including a recent visit by US Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson.

How much does all this add up to, and what does it signify? Obviously, the burgeoning Indo-US relation does not compare to the US’ relation to Europe, or in Asia to China or Japan or South Korea or the South-East Asian nations or Australia. Unlike these, it is just beginning and it is difficult to predict how far and how fast it will develop. As yet, it is not even clear whether the US government will lift sanctions against India following the tests, or withdraw their opposition to the release of World Bank loans.

What is clear is that both governments are interested in developing strong relations, and are willing to overcome the baggage of the Cold War years. This is a major change, which has been in the making through the 1990s but has suffered important shifts and starts as Indian governments rose and fell. Now it would seem, however, that there is a broad-based consensus both within India and the US in support of improved relations (to the extent that Republican candidate George Bush named India as a coming power, whatever that means). In order to assess the nature of this change, it might be useful to separate what are three interconnected issues: one, bilateral Indo-US relations; two, Indo-US relations in international affairs; and three, Indo-US-Pakistan relations.



As far as bilateral Indo-US relations go, the two countries have been exploring ways to accommodate each other’s economic interests for some years and continue to do so. This is a process which is likely to expand, though not perhaps at the pace which the US would want, or on the terms which India would require. The hitches in the process are partly having to find a via media between the differing priorities of the US and India, lack of an aggressive statement of economic priorities on the Indian side, and US reluctance to engage seriously with India’s economic and development problems.

As Cogentrix’s proposed power project in Karnataka shows, there are innumerable hitches in India’s approval process; on the other hand, Cogentrix’s terms – that the state electricity board cover losses caused by default and theft – is obviously of concern when Indian electricity boards are impoverished precisely because they are incapable of collecting debts or checking theft (the ongoing and mounting problems of Pakistan’s state-run electricity corporation with US power producers is a case in point).

India’s problems are further compounded by uneven implementing institutions and insufficient vision of the sectors which could benefit most. For example, with the skills and adaptability which many lower middle class Indian groups display – most of all, fluent English – India could well become an important international service provider. Similarly, with an investment outlay that Indian agencies can well afford, India could become an important international tourist destination. Worst of all, the Indian government has shown little interest in either developing a social safety net, or pushing for its consideration in world economic fora.

It is salutary that while India opposed linking preferential trade to labour standards in the recent Seattle round of the World Trade Organization’s negotiations, she did not push for a different category of social clauses, which would, for example, prescribe multilateral investment by both business and governments to raise labour standards and create social safety nets in developing countries. Nevertheless, while these are difficult problems, they are not insuperable, and over the past decade the two countries have moved closer on points of common interest, such as information technology, while working on lessening areas of disparity. There is also growing interest in state level economic exchanges, for example, between the US and the southern Indian states (The US has long worked at this level). Health is another area of potential cooperation, especially on AIDS.



As far as India is concerned, a major drawback thus far has been the Indian government’s over-reliance on government to government negotiations instead of cultivating the Indian diaspora in the US to aid and advise it on how to broaden India’s access in the US. This situation is gradually beginning to change, as the Indian government starts to recognize the rapid increase of Indian-American visibility in the US economy – most notably India’s new venture fund for information technology and her courting of Silicon Valley Indians.

But India’s US missions are still comparatively lazy. This is especially so when it comes to projecting India’s development needs. The Indian government does little to increase awareness abroad of the country’s needs or poverty alleviation programmes, and has made little effort to seek innovative ways to advance development cooperation. For example, the UN Development Programme’s initiatives to harness business to development has proved helpful in environmental and employment generation schemes, and could be an example worth following independently.



On foreign and security policies, however, it is more difficult to develop bilateral relations. The Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests locked the two countries together in international security concerns and escalated the Kashmir conflict, even, it is rumoured, to a point at which Pakistan considered using a nuclear threat during the Kargil war. India has worked hard to decouple itself from Pakistan, and the Talbott-Singh dialogue, which began after the 1998 nuclear tests, undoubtedly showed a hitherto unseen level of commitment in the face of what appeared to be slow and at times invisible progress.

The major achievement of the dialogue was to smooth communications between the two countries, and to begin to build an Indian constituency for nuclear arms control (and the Indian government’s assurance that the recent Senate vote against ratifying the CTBT will not affect its efforts to strengthen this constituency has been well taken in the US). India has achieved some international recognition of the fact that its security concerns extend beyond South Asia – for example, in maintaining independence from the Chinese security umbrella – but as long as hostilities continue between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, it is going to be difficult for the US, or the international community, to view either country’s security independently of the other’s.



This does not obviate bilateral military cooperation between the US and India in specific areas; indeed, it would be helpful for both countries’ militaries to begin to understand each other, and especially useful for the Indian military to learn more about contemporary strategic thought, not to mention technologies. Indeed, India’s comparative naiveté on nuclear technology – especially operational and warning systems – has been the subject of considerable and stringent comment in the US, given India’s professed ‘doctrine’ of minimum deterrence (deterrence itself having never been more than double-speak for an arms race).

At the level of foreign policy, the Indian government has recently begun to deal with the challenges with which it has been confronted in the post Cold War period. On a trip to address the UN General Assembly in New York in September 1999, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh regretted India’s relative and self-imposed isolation in the years immediately following the Cold War. This was the first time that the Ministry of External Affairs had acknowledged India’s strangely defeatist stance towards an event her leaders had consistently wished for – the end of the Cold War – and it showed that the Indian government is at last considering what role the country should play in a post Cold War world.

The task is not an easy one: the years of relative isolation cost India dearly in terms of weakened relations in East and Central Europe, the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, Central Asia. Repairing those relations will in itself take time and concerted effort. Formulating an effective post Cold War foreign policy, which will balance India’s needs as a developing country in a neglected Asian region with her long time ideals for a multipolar and just world order, will take more than time and effort: it will take hard thinking and harder bargaining.

At the same time as he regretted India’s quietude in the post Cold War years, Jaswant Singh expressed some anxiety as to how the US would view an Indian role in post Cold War international affairs. Given that he did not describe India’s policy objectives, or therefore her desired role, his anxiety seemed at first perplexing. On second thought, it became clear that he was asking whether the US would support Indian bids to play a larger role in international affairs, for example, to a seat on the UN Security Council.



The issue of Security Council expansion has been on the UN’s agenda since soon after the end of the Cold War, which called the structure of the Security Council into question. The reason it has not been resolved is that the UN is still to debate what would be an appropriate post Cold War structure. In the interim, the permanent five members are torn between whether to expand and how to limit expansion. Unofficially, Germany and Japan have been accepted candidates for expansion for some years, as economic powers; adding India might open questions about whether nuclear and/or economic power are sufficient criteria by which to determine Security Council membership, or whether additional criteria are required.

This is a discussion worth having and worth pushing for, but India would then have to push for such a discussion rather than simply lobby for candidacy. Meanwhile, there are other fora to whose membership the US could propose India, and it would be worth the two countries’ while to begin an exploration of what these could be. On the economic front there are several possible fora, such as APEC or an expanded version of the G8, and there are several interest groups (apart from the diaspora) in the US who would be willing to lobby for US support for Indian candidacy.



On the peace and security fronts, however, there are few fora other than the UN. ASEAN’s Asia-Pacific security forum is one possibility. SAARC would be an obvious forum to develop South Asian peace and security, and were it be so developed it could institute cooperative relations with ASEAN, the OSCE and NATO. However, SAARC’s two most powerful members, India and Pakistan, have for typically shortsighted reasons opposed a substantial role for SAARC in either economic or security spheres. This is a point India needs to consider very seriously indeed.

In the post Cold War world, alignment with a superpower is not in itself a guarantee of either status or security (Israel is the only possible exception to this norm, but for obvious reasons, it has to be taken as exceptional rather than exemplary). Successful international relations in the post Cold War world require multilateral or regional associations plus a relationship with the US. Australia’s role in the East Timor peace keeping force is a case in point. Had India accepted Indonesia’s request to put together a peace keeping force for East Timor, the country would have been much better placed to make its bid for international status.

Objectively, India and the US ought to have many areas where their goals would overlap in international affairs. In an era of ethnic and communal conflict, both countries are committed to pluralist and secular democracy. In practice though, their common interests do not translate easily. American interventionism is viewed suspiciously by India even when in response to humanitarian crises or in support of multiethnic democracy – for example, though the Dayton Peace Agreement was a weak agreement whose results have done little to rebuild Bosnia, it did at least create the option to create a pluralist Bosnian state.

India, which had at the beginning participated in peace keeping in the former Yugoslavia (General Nambiar led the UN peace keeping forces in 1992), chose not to join the post-Dayton peace keeping missions (IFOR and SFOR), studiously ignored the Kosovo crisis, and rejected the Indonesian request to lead a peace keeping mission in East Timor. India’s reasons for the rejection were worth considering: that the Indian Army had been badly burnt by the Sri Lankan peace keeping mission in the 1980s.



Nevertheless, one would have hoped that the years of introspection would have produced a deeper political philosophy of the do’s and don’ts of peace keeping rather than a retreat from it altogether. India’s participation in international peace keeping has dropped from 12,000 troops in the Congo in the 1960s to an upper limit of 500, mostly technical assistance, in the 1990s (the only exception being in Somalia).

For their part, Americans tend to brush away Indian concerns about peace keeping, which if taken on board could help make peace keeping missions more successful – as, for example, in Somalia, where Indian peace keepers stepped in to ease the standoff between US humanitarian intervention forces and an embittered local populace. Indeed, the Bosnian mission could learn a lot from the Indian Peace Keeping Force experience in Sri Lanka: not least amongst its lessons was that king-making by an occupying force can lead to the isolation of moderates in the median term, making the transition towards peace more rocky.



One final point on the question of US support for a wider Indian role in post Cold War relations. India appears to have forgotten that it is better to approach such a question from a position of strength rather than weakness. By this we mean not military or economic strength alone, but moral force. Since Independence and during the early decades of the Cold War, India commanded far greater international respect than her actual strength would confer on her, because she was willing to take an ethical position on contentious issues internationally; and indeed, used her relationships to pursue important quiet diplomacy (as when Nehru intervened with the Soviet Union in the late 1950s to protect Hungarian dissidents).

Jaswant Singh’s approach, in contrast, can be characterized as hat in hand, while the Ministry of External Affairs’ approach can be characterized as purely defensive (if one looks at India’s opposition to the International Criminal Court or its votes on the former Yugoslavia in the UN). Together the two lead to the impression that India does not really desire a wider role in international affairs. If this is the case, the Indian government will have to do a lot of explaining domestically, as the Indian populace has grown up on the assurance that India has a standing in the world.

The most difficult of the three areas of Indo-US relations is the question of India-US-Pakistan relations. As we said at the outset, it was the nuclear tests which locked the two countries together in international – especially US – security concerns. And the root of the problem, as the US and most of the world see it, is Kashmir. In fact, it is not certain that if India and Pakistan arrive at a settlement in Kashmir they will have buried the hatchet altogether. The real unfinished business of Partition is in coming to terms with the partition itself, putting it behind us, and moving on.



This is easier for India than Pakistan, largely because the Pakistani state still seeks its identity in reaction to India. As Pakistani commentator after commentator has said, the just and fruitful Muslim society which was the vision of Pakistan’s founders, was never seriously attempted by any of its leaders. To be fair, it is difficult to imagine that a people who had always lived in a multi-ethnic society (however fissiparous) could leap easily into a theocratic mode and combine this with justice, opportunity and choice. Such a task would surely take many generations, and until Pakistan can solve its endemic identity crises India must expect some degree of tension to her West. Nevertheless, reaching a settlement on Kashmir would remove the most intense of Indo-Pakistani tensions, and pave the way for a wider peace process. Can there be a US role in this?

This is a complicated question, because there are so many layers to it. One effect of the tests was that the international community came to the conclusion that the Kashmir conflict had now assumed a nuclear dimension, with levels of threat that necessitated international prevention. US and British pressure was mounted on both India and Pakistan, and its result was to jump start the stalemated peace process between the two countries, which reached a nadir with the Lahore Declaration between Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Sharif.



Kargil and the military coup brought the peace process to an abrupt halt again, though it is significant that the US acted first to pressurize Pakistan to withdraw from Kargil, and then pushed General Musharraf to de escalate along the international border. They are now pushing for de escalation along the Line of Control. Both actions were very welcome to India, and have started a discussion within the country on whether internationalization might not be such a dangerous thing after all. As many Indian commentators point out, the issue has been internationalized already. This statement, however, ignores the fact that, at present, international pressure has been largely limited to tensions between India and Pakistan, and even on this score continues to be largely ineffective.

The Indian government has thus far resisted calls for a resumption of talks with Pakistan, on grounds that this would be tantamount to recognizing the military coup. For his part, General Musharraf has been deafeningly silent on Pakistan’s support for the terrorist acts of groups such as the West Punjab-based Lashkar-e-Toiba in Kashmir. The US could certainly play a role in breaking this stalemate by, for example, persuading Pakistan to push the Lashkar and allied groups to declare a ceasefire and withdraw from Kashmir in exchange for safe passage; India’s quid pro quo would have to be opening talks with Kashmiri separatist groups such as the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and the Hurriyat. It is a pity that neither country is prepared to take these relatively minor steps unilaterally, as each of these steps is demonstrably within the respective country’s own self-interest.

Pakistan needs to disband the many militias on it soil, which engage in domestic as well as external disorder. The task is a Herculean one, though it is easier as far as Kashmir is concerned, because simply cutting off aid and arms supplies to the militants would sufficiently debilitate them. India needs to restore democracy in the valley, because the losses it has taken in Kashmir are rapidly becoming intolerable. Kargil cost the country over Rs 20 billion, and Indian troops and policemen are dying every day in the valley. The arrest and continuing imprisonment of Kashmiri leaders is in any case indefensible. There are mounting calls within the Parliament and by civil society groups for talks with all the Kashmiri leaders, and though Kashmir’s Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah is resistant, he will come around if the central government pushes for talks.



As the date of President Clinton’s visit to India approaches, India can expect mounting pressure on him by US groups to seek a settlement on Kashmir. While pushing Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistani Army to withdraw from Kargil, President Clinton promised to ‘take a personal interest’ in Kashmir. Given the speed with which the US washed Sharif out of everyone’s hair, his commitment might not mean much. But he will certainly be constantly reminded of his promise. It is up to India to decide whether to turn his interest to advantage or not. But wouldn’t it be worth asking if his trip could be made to coincide with a militants’ ceasefire in Kashmir?