Sunday, August 27, 2000

The idea of India in the U.S.

Next week, health permitting, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee will undertake probably the most significant foreign 'yatra' of his political career.
This nearly fortnight-long trip to the United States could be a milestone in the history of bilateral relations, and yet it is a visit that that some have dubbed as unnecessary and irrelevant. Others have suggested that this new engagement with the U.S. goes against the principles that have traditionally guided India's foreign policy. All this is pure baloney, articulated by those who belong to the dustbin of history, or those apparatchiks who still yearn for the old days of Stalinist communism.
Let us face some hard facts. There is arguably no other relationship that is as critical to India today as the one with the U.S., and dubbing anyone who says this to be a CIA agent will not change the truth. The U.S. is the only real superpower in the international system, and its hegemony is unlikely to be challenged - even by a determined China - for the next 25 years.
Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has been a key player in the international relations of Asia and will continue to exercise a vital influence on the region in the future as well. Additionally, the U.S. remains India's largest trading partner, and is the single most attractive destination for skilled human capital from India.
Admittedly, while India and the U.S., the largest democracies in the world, have often been viewed natural allies, it is estrangement rather than engagement that seems to have defined relations between New Delhi and Washington through much of the last half century. Also, the Pokhran II nuclear tests by India in May 1998 reduced Indo-U.S. relations to a new low point.
Is this beginning to change? Strident anti-Americanism remains a feature of Indian public opinion and the U.S. still seems unwilling, it seems, to recognize those Indian security concerns, particularly over China and the nuclear nexus between Beijing and Islamabad, that find expression in its nuclear policy. But there are signs of change.
India and the U.S. have sustained a high-level strategic dialogue for nearly two years. During the Kargil war of 1999, the U.S. displayed an unprecedented sensitivity to India's security concerns. New Delhi and Washington, both key targets of Islamic terrorism, have formed a joint working group on the issue. More computer professionals from India were given H1B work permits in the U.S. last year than citizens of any other country, and Indians played a vital role in making U.S. industry Y2K compliant.
The extremely successful Indian expatriate community in the U.S. is playing an important role in bringing the two nations together. Both countries have a stake in the role that China plays in the Asia-Pacific region in the future and in ensuring the stability of Pakistan. Washington seems to increasingly be accepting India as a nuclear-weapons power. President Clinton's trip to India, earlier this year, was an enormous success.
In short, both the present and the potential future make the relationship with the U.S. vital for Indian interests. True, Vajpayee will be meeting President Clinton when he is virtually legless. In about two months a new president would have been elected, and in about four there will be a new occupant in the White House. But the Vajpayee visit must not be narrowly viewed in terms of engaging the current Democratic administration. The trip should be (and presumably is) about engaging America and cementing the gains made over the last two years.
The Vajpayee visit, more specifically, must be viewed in terms of four missions. First, it is about reaching out to American business. U.S. corporations, viewed for years as exploiters and unreliable partners, can become India's most vital allies if the relationship of mutual dependence that exists can find firmer roots.
The example of China should be of extraordinary significance. Perhaps the only real reason for American reluctance to take a harder stand toward Chinese irresponsibility on a score of issues, including their dubious record on nonproliferation, has been the relationship of enormous economic interdependence. It is relationship that a forward-thinking India could prudently emulate.
Second, the Vajpayee visit should also be about reaching out to Indian Americans. Indians in the U.S. are arguably the country's most valuable assets in America. They are on the verge of becoming a powerful economic force, and - with some direction - could emerge as a powerful lobby for Indian interests. While it is difficult to imagine Indian Americans having the same influence as, say, the Jewish lobby, there is enormous scope for them to play a role, and perhaps even a decisive one at that, in shaping U.S. policy toward India.
Third, the Vajpayee visit should also be about reaching out to the policy community, including, but not only, the lawmakers in Congress. Vajpayee is addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress, and his speech must reflect the vitality and the openness of the "new" India, and its willingness to share American responsibility in the management of the international system. India is ready to be a partner in the quest for global stability, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, which promises to witness turbulence in the years to come, and Vajpayee must stress this without mincing words.
Finally, Vajpayee must also engage the two most important presidential candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush, and their aides. Meetings are scheduled with both Gore and Bush, and these occasions must be used to establish a personal bond, and put India on the road map for a future American president.


Monday, August 21, 2000

Gore versus Bush: Who will engage India?

In about two months the United States will have elected its new president. It is still not clear whether the eventual winner will be Al Gore or George W. Bush. Till recently, nearly every opinion poll had Bush leading Gore by more than ten points, and many analysts had almost assumed that the Republicans would return to power after eight years.
But that judgment seems to have been made prematurely, and the Democratic convention has lead to a major swing for Gore. Some opinion polls now have the Gore-Lieberman ticket running ahead of the Bush-Cheney one. On present evidence, this presidential election may be one of the closest in American history.
It is one of the ironies of American politics that despite the fact that the American people are generally experiencing unprecedented prosperity -- and economic issues normally dominate most U.S. elections -- it is by no means certain that Gore, despite this latest surge in his favor, will occupy the Oval Office next January.
Political pundits attribute this contradiction to two factors. First, public exhaustion (and disgust) with the controversies that surrounded Bill Clinton during his two terms, especially the sex scandal with Monika Lewinsky. Second, Gore's own lack of charisma.
While Gore is a gifted cerebral politician with an impeccable background and with fine political training, he lacks the warmth, the color and the verve to reach out to people who do not share his background.
The added irony is that had Clinton himself been running again, which is prohibited by the American constitution, he may have won again. The reason is simple. There has been rarely in any political arena a politician so brilliant as Clinton, or as charismatic as him.
We Indians cannot rubbish this. Recall the impact of Clinton's address to the joint session of the two houses of Parliament. Our parliamentarians nearly mobbed him and were clearly in such great awe of Clinton that one analyst suggested that had the American president asked the lawmakers to sign the CTBT then and there they would have done so without raising an eyebrow.
In other words, Gore is burdened by the Clinton legacy, but does not have the personal charm of the incumbent president to be able to transcend the controversies that surrounded the White House during the last eight years.
Not surprisingly, Gore has chosen Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. Lieberman, an orthodox Jew, is regarded as the moral conscience of the United States and was a strident critic of Clinton during the Lewinsky saga.
But which will be better for India? A Democratic administration led by Gore or a Republican one under Bush?
In many ways, Gore is going to be more predictable. His stance on most issues is well known, and even leaders of other countries have become familiar with his style of working. But is this enough? True, there will be a greater continuity to the U.S-India dialogue if there is a Gore administration, but it will be without the benefit of individuals whose personal interest made all the difference.
It is highly unlikely that Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot, for instance, will find a place in a Gore government. Talbot is a brilliant analyst, and has a fine understanding of the politics of arms control, but he was in government because of his close personal friendship with Clinton, which goes back to their Oxford days when both of them were Rhode Scholars at the University.
Gore, who probably recognizes Talbot's qualities, will still not keep him because of the overwhelming need to demonstrate that he is his own man and that the Clinton days are finally over.
Let us also be clear that it was Talbot who demonstrated the sensitivity and sophistication to not only engage India in a meaningful dialogue, but also to develop a personal relationship with External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, which was vital to furthering Indo-US relations.
Without Talbot, it may well mean a return to the bad old days of absolutist positions, especially on the nuclear issue. Make no mistake: the Gore camp is full of the same kind of non-proliferation 'wallahs' who have been the bane of Indo-US relations through most of the 1990s.
In addition, Gore comes with the huge baggage of environmental issues, which might translate into problems in trading relations with developing countries and may even see the possible introduction of environment-related non-tariff barriers.
Add to this list the bleeding-heart liberals (so close to Gore) concern for human rights in Kashmir and elsewhere, and you may have the perfect recipe for a disastrous U.S.- India relationship under a Gore administration.
Where will US-India relations go under a Bush administration? Although it is difficult to chart a definite course, there seems to be some evidence that the Republicans may locate the relationship on a firmer ground. There are at least three reasons for this optimism.
First, the Republicans are more concerned about the future of China, and its possible emergence as a belligerent and revisionist superpower that will seek to challenge American influence and power, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. Many Republicans are beginning to recognize that India, with its own deep concerns about China, could be one vital counter weight to the Dragon. This may mean that a Republican administration will be more sensitive to Indian security concerns, and more willing to accommodate India's own aspirations to be a great power.
Second, the Republicans, although no less concerned about proliferation of nuclear weapons, may have a less absolutist view of India's nuclear policy. Most important, given their own skepticism about the CTBT, the pressure for India to sign the treaty is bound to ease considerably.
Finally, while Bush may not have a great understanding of foreign policy, his team of foreign policy advisors is amongst the most scholarly and analytical in the U.S. This includes the former Stanford Professor, Condolisa Rice, and Richard Haas of the Brookings Institution. Both Rice and Haas have a healthy respect for India, and recognize the importance of forging a close strategic partnership with New Delhi.


Tuesday, August 8, 2000

A lesson for Pakistan

In Kashmir's recent history, rarely have either militants or policymakers demonstrated real courage. But two very brave decisions were made recently. The decision of the Hizbul Mujahideen to announce a unilateral ceasefire for three months, followed by an invitation from the Government of India for unconditional talks, will probably be remembered as one of the most courageous acts in recent years.
It is very easy to make war, even cowards can kill. But, to make peace requires real valor, and both the Hizbul - despite its history of terror - and the Government of India - despite its known ad hocism over Kashmir - have shown tremendous strength. The challenge is now to translate the Hizbul's ceasefire, and the government's offer of a dialogue, into sustainable peace on the ground, although there is some evidence to suggest that, at least in the short term, the violence by other groups may increase as a result of the ceasefire.
The Hizbul's decision for a ceasefire is important for at least three reasons. First, the Hizbul was easily the strongest Kashmir militant group operating in Jammu and Kashmir, as distinct from the primarily foreign groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayba, Harkat-ul-Mujhaideen or the more recently created Jesh-e-Mohammad. Although considerably weakened since its peak in the early 1990s, it still boasted of an impressive cadre of nearly a thousand militants.
After its decision to cease fire, there are no longer any Kashmiri militant groups of substance operating in the state. Recall that local arm of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), the other major militant group, had announced a ceasefire over five years ago. But this had led to a split within the JKLF with Yasin Malik, based in Srinagar, and Amanullah Khan, based in Rawalpindi, heading the two factions, with the former having renounced violence.
Second, the Hizbul had, at one stage, a huge following within Kashmir, and continued to have some influence on the Kashmiri mindset. The JKLF's support was restricted primarily to the urban areas, while the Hizbul's following extended to the rural areas. Due to its close connection with the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Hizbul was able to tap into a huge network of madrasas. The Hizbul also was one of the main sources of logistical support for the Pakistanis and Afghans who came as part of the Harkat or the Lashkar. The Amir of the Hizbul, Syed Salahuddin, was also the supremo of the United Jehad Council based in Pakistan.
With the decision to cease fire, not only will the network of Jehadi groups be considerably weakened, but also the ordinary Kashmiris can feel confident enough to openly reject the gun, which was not possible for fear of reprisals by the militant groups, especially the Hizbul.
Finally, the Hizbul's rise was rooted in the politics of J&K. Syed Salahuddin, also known as Yusuf Shah, had contested the 1987 elections to the J&K Assembly, and had lost, it is widely believed, because of massive rigging. The militancy was sparked off by the malpractices during that election, and the supporters of Salahuddin were among the first militants. The famous HAJY group (Hamid Sheikh, Ashfaq Majid, Javed Mir and Yasin Malik) that initiated the JKLF, for instance, were polling agents for Salahuddin. The Hizbul's rejection of violence, albeit temporarily, signals a gradual return of the disaffected to non-violent democratic politics, although from still outside the mainstream.
Why did the Hizbul choose to announce a ceasefire now? What were the motivations behind the decision? The most important factor was public opinion. Kashmiri public sentiment against violence is at an all time high, and militancy has lost the legitimacy that it had once acquired.
Majid Dar, the leader of the Hizbul who announced the ceasefire at a news conference in the outskirts of Kashmir, pointed out that a high-level team of the Hizbul had come back to the Valley about three months ago and held discussions with field operational commanders and other prominent Hizbul leaders. According to him, "The wishes of the people were also gauged, and it was realized that the desire for a peaceful solution among all sections of society including the local political leadership" was all pervasive.
No less important was the fatigue and exhaustion of the Hizbul cadre. For more than a decade, the Hizbul has faced the wrath of the Indian security forces, and faced heavy casualties during this period. They have not been able to replace their fast diminishing cadre, because Kashmiri youth are unwilling to join the ranks of the militant group.
Recently, the successes of the security forces against the Hizbul had increased, and - some believe - that had the operations against the military group continued with the same ferocity, the Hizbul would have faced extinction within a year or so. To add to its woes was the manner in which Pakistan's ISI was marginalizing it, and pushing forward the dreaded Lashkar and the Harkat, who were believed to have a more motivated group of Pakistani and Afghan fighters.
It is also possible that sustained pressure from the Americans on Pakistan and Pakistan's own desire to present a moderate face to the West (and to get India to the negotiating table) may also have contributed to the Hizbul's decision to cease fire. It may well be that the Hizbul's decision, primarily motivated by local factors, may have received some support within elements in the Pakistani establishment who were under pressure from the United States. This may have facilitated the news conference by Syed Salahuddin in Islamabad.
The real test of Pakistan's moderation is not, however, in the Hizbul's ceasefire, but only once the Laskhar and Harkat also announce a similar decision. On present evidence, however, these jehadi groups are likely to escalate the violence in order to demonstrate that the Hizbul's ceasefire does not count for much.
It was wise of India to offer to hold unconditional talks with the Hizbul. Any group who is willing to eschew violence should be welcomed to the negotiating table. And only when Pakistan is willing to similarly condemn all acts of violence, and stop aiding and abetting violence, should it be accorded a similar invitation.