(on Indo-US relations)

M.L. Sondhi

The Hindustan Times, October 9, 1997

After examining the Gujral-Clinton summit and reviewing the unfinished domestic agenda, a veteran journalist has cautioned the Prime Minister to take a warning from the results of Mrs. Gandhi’s efforts at constructive engagement with the United States in the sixties.  After her return to India she had been compelled to take measures such as devaluing the rupee which contributed substantially to her party’s poor showing in the 1967 elections.  The writer warns that a reorientation of India’s posture through a concerted effort to build a consensus with the United States must not be allowed to divert attention from the traditional concerns which occupy our political landscape.  The critique has no complaint about the absence of coherent concepts in this second great opportunity for putting Indo-US relations on a more positive footing: it merely suggests a ‘wait and see’ approach, displays no interest in the upgrading of Indo-US politics and avoids focusing attention on the international competitiveness of the Indian economy.

Fortunately, Mr. Gujral knows that for better or worse he cannot allow old fears and memories to come in the way of a future construction and recalibration of Indian diplomacy.  He has begun to assign particular significance to India’s potential as a permanent member of the Security Council, and strongly argued India’s case in his speech at the UN.  Nevertheless the possibility of his American trip having a less than desirable outcome cannot be ruled out on account of the complexities and uncertainties which characterise the international security environment.

Mr. Gujral’s summitry was propelled more by random political developments than by an in-depth and structural assessment of India’s national goals, either in the short or the long term.  Had such a study been undertaken, India would have been able to strengthen its relations with the US within a strategic perspective which essentially enshrines our national interests.  The robust and occasionally blunt attitude of China contrasts with the more tension-avoiding ‘line of least resistance’ Indian approach.  There was more than a touch of appeasement in the back-channel communications which preceded the summit, and even more serious, a glaring absence of conceptual tools for identifying the nation’s interests and bargaining position.

Three points are worth noting: first, that having for too long pursued an autarkic economic strategy which obstructed India’s full participation in the world economy, we need a stable world trading system in which to realise our potential.  The myopic behaviour of any of the ‘rogue’ states cannot be a model for India. We have been a great trading civilisation in the past, and would do better to envisage our future along similar lines.

Second, our national security can be safeguarded only through coherent linkages with major world actors and not through the constrained strategic autonomy advocated by some official analysts.  We need a more flexible security strategy in which we engage with China without repeating the errors of the Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai period which has come to symbolise the acme of obfuscation in relation to challenges to our security.  New Delhi would do well to reflect on US Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin’s experience of meeting President Jiang Zamin on the eve of the latter’s visit to America.  China has handed the US a two-step process, of which the first makes clear that it will drop barriers to foreign trade only at its own pace.  With the second, the Chinese both confidentially and publicly focussed on securing a resumption of exports of nuclear energy technology, while specifically demanding a declaration from the US that they acknowledge that China is not guilty of contributing towards the spread of nuclear weapons technology to Pakistan or Iran.  This concrete achievement contrasts with the more nebulous ideas with which Indian diplomacy sought to build mutual confidence and a cooperative atmosphere.

Third, the emphasis on Indo-US bilateralism by certain commentators failed to comprehend the need for a comprehensive overhaul of India’s strategic conceptions and a rethinking of grand strategy.  Problems of routine security are still allowed to divert attention from India’s potential as the other big power in Asia with substantial human and material resources.  To contribute to both a peaceful world order and to regional stability the problem should have been defined not as a pursuit of Indo-US bilateralism, but preferably as the definition of India’s own economic, military and alliance strategies for the next century. (According to the logic of the post-cold war world, ‘alliance’ should cease to be a dirty word for Indian diplomacy!)

An inward-looking South Block has not shown any remarkable capacity for independent strategic and operational planning for a long-term diplomatic stance in world affairs.  Although there has been much rhetoric about a new Indo-US partnership, the shape it eventually takes remains to be seen.  The results of the Gujral-Clinton summit can be examined in terms of three scenarios for the future:  The first is a continuation of the status quo.  Although India and the USA have been talking of shared democratic values for decades, it should be obvious to anyone that the picture of India as a country trying to evolve a socialistic pattern of economics and society was not attractive to the United States.  As a result Pakistani designs on India were condoned or ignored in Washington, and New Delhi in turn perceived Washington as compromising its democratic values through its efforts to bolster up the militaristic regime in Pakistan.

Of pertinence is to what extent the summit can be relied upon to resolve the conflict of US and Indian interests which lurk below the surface and reassert themselves whenever antagonisms build up, as at the time of the gruesome happenings in East Pakistan before the emergence of an independent Bangladesh.  Although the old geopolitical world disappeared in 1991, this particular scenario will not create a strategic dialogue which draws New Delhi and Washington closer together.  It may even increase Washington’s crude pressure on India if the latter continues with a foreign policy of paralysis.  The Gujral doctrine is not a regional security cooperation regime.  At the most it suggests an effective restraint on India’s own ambitions.  As long as the Sino-Pak axis continues, the Gujral doctrine will seriously inhibit alternative ways of thinking about peace and security in South Asia.

The second scenario is one which would provide a new momentum, not so much to the Indian scene as to the dynamics of Pakistani and Chinese containment of India. The US as the most important international actor will follow up with more policy initiatives to build confidence and peace in South Asia in terms of ingrained paradigms, which will increasingly prejudice India’s security.  The Gujral doctrine may unwittingly lead Indian security planners to take Islamabad’s and Beijing’s threats less seriously, and instead of developing a cooperative security strategy, New Delhi may find itself in a Munich syndrome.  The Gujral-Clinton summit did not clarify whether or not there has been any change in perceptions or change of heart in the US about the consequences of Pakistan’s vigorous pursuit of a nuclear weapons programme (with Chinese assistance).

In the third scenario a revitalised Indo-American partnership is dedicated to an effort through which the global framework of US strategy towards India is radically altered.  This scenario would imply that in American eyes India gains enough importance to make her prominently figure not only in crisis management policy, but also in structural policies adjacent to an expansion of NATO or containment of China, or within the framework of US strategy towards north-east Asia.  There is, however, nothing to indicate so far that the summit was guided by any desire on the American part to strengthen Indo-US relations to the extent that they would be overwhelmingly guided by a grand strategic logic after the present euphoria has died down.

If anything, next month the Americans will be listening attentively to the supreme Chinese leader when he visits the US and Washington will develop options and fallback positions in which India may well figure in a variety of subsidiary roles.  It is premature for certain commentators to conclude that the Indo-US summit has opened gates to a totally new world.  Many assumptions about the significance of corporate America’s influence upon policy may prove to be flawed once the process of serious evaluation gets under way.

Mr. Gujral has certainly returned home without much loss of face, having been saved the embarrassment of being pressured to accept formal third-party mediation over Kashmir.  Though still bearing the political and economic cross of a ‘leftist’ legacy he has managed to make the right noises about continuing with economic reforms.  The circumstances for improving Indo-US relations are better than at any time in the past on account of a variety of factors: the collapse of the cold war system; a certain measure of strategic convergence on China; the internal economic reforms in India; the US need for multiple allies; India’s maintenance of democracy under challenging conditions, and the new opportunities for transfer of technology, trade and investment.

But did India get the best terms which might have been possible if the ground work for the summit had been undertaken from a longer term national perspective?  Short cuts and ad hocism, whether in the political or in the diplomatic process ultimately weaken legitimacy.  Evolving an adequate conceptual framework to express India’s national goals remains a prerequisite for developing leverage in our relations with Washington.

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