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Hillary sets up camp right on track

July 22, 2009 15:03 IST

Hillary Clinton, who was named after Sir Edmund Hillary whom her parents admired, set out on her own hazardous expedition to India well equipped and well prepared.

She could not have reached the summit in a hurry, given the treacherous glaciers on every step of the way, but she has covered some ground, set the course and is poised to climb further.

Two unrelated developments blinded the way as the journey began. The India-Pak Joint Statement from the venue of the NAM Summit completely spoiled the political climate in New Delhi.

The polarisation was so acute that the whole thing, nothing more than a diplomatic fiasco, was seen as manipulation by the United States. If she is so effective in absentia in Egypt, what havoc would she cause in person in Delhi? That was the question.

Kasab wiped Hillary Clinton off the television screens on the day she arrived in Delhi after her successful visit to Mumbai, which set the tone for combating terrorism, boosting trade and enhancing economic cooperation.

The so-called confession by the terrorist should have been a non-event, which revealed no new facts, but he was given attributes of political judgement and a sense of timing. Analysts linked his confession to the India-Pakistan Joint Statement and the filing of charges in a Pakistani court and made it into the news of the decade. Hillary Clinton's visit looked like a side show beside the exploits of Kasab.

Strobe Talbott's FT op-ed suggesting that Hillary Clinton should deliver tough messages on climate change and non-proliferation made our knights put on their shining armour to take on the windmills.

There was nothing in the environment minister's speech which was new or earth-shaking. That is the language Indian climate change negotiators, including this writer, have been using ever since Rio in every forum. Ours are survival emissions and not luxury ones like those of the developed world and we would not sacrifice our development for the sake of environmental protection.

Indira Gandhi had declared in 1972 in Stockholm that poverty is the worst polluter and that the polluters must pay. It did not take any great courage to make these arguments, but to pre-empt a constructive discussion by posturing did not help matters.

Hillary had taken her climate change negotiator with her to India to look for solutions, not to repeat well known positions. He has been working diligently with the Chinese and eventually we will end up accepting a deal, which the Chinese will work out with the US and take credit for.

The achievements of the visit were modest. The agreement reached, but not signed, on defence matters, is a necessary formality if the defence contracts should fructify. No Administration in the US can go against a Congressional requirement, but the terms have to be such that our sovereign right to use the equipment in our best interests should not be compromised.

This must have been in the works since the 2005 signing of the Defence Agreement. It should not be beyond our officials to work out a formula, which would meet the requirement without hurting our interests.

Defence Minister Antony is not someone who is dazzled by US weapons technology. He will buy equipment after due deliberation and full consultations and he will sign nothing that will surrender our sovereignty. This is not the first time that assurances of end use have been given to secure supplies.

The progress on the nuclear deal is impressive. India's emphasis on commencing the reprocessing dialogue has been respected and the two sides will meet on neutral ground to work out the details.

The prophets of doom on the basis of moves within G-8 on enrichment and reprocessing technologies were surprised by Hillary's clarification that the contemplated prohibition would not apply to India. Now they are predicting that the truth will come out when the negotiations begin.

For the present at least, there is no reason to cry wolf. The US points are also being met by the allocation of two sites and the near completion of acceding to the Convention on Nuclear Damage.

Just after the Clinton visit, I spoke to someone close to the Obama Administration about the nuclear agreement. He said that he had no great expectation that India will buy nuclear reactors from the US.

The internal procedures for selling such equipment are so stringent that it will take years before any deal would be concluded. He said that the defence purchases and collaboration in combating terror were more crucial in maintaining the momentum of the relationship.

He pointed out that Hillary's reference to the syndicate of terrorism in Pakistan was a signal to India that it was not just the fight against the Taliban that was important, but also the elimination of terrorist outfits like the LeT.

Hillary was not at all combative in her approach to the major issues that remain to be tackled. She took a slightly long term perspective and signalled certain directions for solutions. Climate change, non-proliferation and trade are the three issues that need to be addressed in the new strategic dialogue.

More than just establishing the architecture for such a dialogue, she has given broad indications for finding a way. She established that while President Obama is engaged in more pressing problems, he considers cooperation with India a major part of his foreign policy.

On the question of matching protestations of India's importance with action to meet Indian aspirations for full participation in global governance, it was obvious that the Obama Administration had not yet come to any clear position.

To state that dialogue should continue on this issue is going behind square one. Earlier, there was at least an affirmation that India should have its place in bodies like the Security Council and G-8.

Nothing that Hillary Clinton did or said, at least publicly, has attracted criticism. This in itself is a sign of success. Further engagement is necessary to climb the heights and the two sides have at least set up a base camp to continue the climb in fair weather.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador to Vienna and the United Nations. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, working on a book on India-US nuclear cooperation.

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T P Sreenivasan