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'Hillary dispelled India's doubts on Obama administration'

July 24, 2009 13:06 IST

The apparent consensus among South Asia watchers and experts in United States is that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's three-day visit to Mumbai and New Delhi was a slam dunk in effectively quashing the contention of naysayers, both in India and the US, that the Barack Obama administration was less committed to the India-US strategic partnership than its predecessor George W Bush administration.

Former longtime diplomat Walter Andersen, who headed the State Department's South Asia division of the Intelligence and Research Bureau for decades, said there is no denying that "Clinton came to an India questioning the Obama administration's commitment to stronger ties with India."

Andersen, who is currently serving as the associate director of the Johns Hopkins University's South Asia Studies Center at its School of Advanced International Studies, noted, "The focus of US policy, as defined by charismatic special envoy Richard Holbrooke, seemed to be on Afghanistan and Pakistan. When India came up, the focus of US concern seemed to be on troubling bilateral issues like emissions, World Trade Organisation trade issues and nuclear proliferation."

He recalled that "the US efforts the week before her visit, to get the G-8 states to back the denial of nuclear enrichment technology to countries that did not sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, was interpreted by Indian op-ed writers as the opening wedge of an effort to impose new conditions on India's right to import nuclear fuel and technology."

"Hillary did an admirable job dispelling these doubts and in a way which was in line with the significant achievements of the Bush presidency, which treated India as a rising global power and doing something about it -- for example the nuclear deal," he said.

Andersen spoke of how Clinton had achieved this in two parts -- careful attention to public relations combined "with solid achievements."

"On the public relations side, she displayed her remarkable political skills. Impeccably dressed, she was articulate, friendly and focused on the various groups she met. In short, she worked the crowd like the consummate politician that she is," he pointed out.

Andersen added, "Her choice of visits made a point. She stayed at the Mumbai Taj to signal that the US is with India in the fight against the common terrorist threat, she visited non-governmental organisation SEWA to signal that an important part of the relationship will be through women's activities, she visited students at the Delhi University to signal that educational exchanges will be a major part of the relationship."

She effectively "made herself a very visible presence by television interviews, meeting the leading corporate executives and visiting rural India," he said.

Andersen also noted that "on the nagging G-8 resolution, she largely put the issue to rest by stating that there was no going back on the nuclear deal and that the US was not opposed to enrichment transfers as such, but was opposed to what she referred as 'inappropriate' transfers of such technology."

"On the substantive side, there were solid achievements that left no doubt that the Obama administration intends to build on the foundation of both the Bush and Clinton administrations," he added, and argued that "perhaps the most significant achievement was the signing of an end-user verification agreement required for the purchase of sophisticated US military equipment."

Andersen said, "Obviously, both sides almost certainly made compromises in the particulars of the agreement, although the precise wording has still not been released."

He predicted that despite the controversy over this, particularly among the Opposition parties in India, "As trade picks up, it will tie the US and India more closely to each other strategically, which is what really bothers the Indian left and right."

Andersen, author of the seminal book on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh titled, The Brotherhood of Saffron nearly three decades ago, said it was unfortunate that the Left Front and the right-wing parties, "and many in the ruling Congress itself still lack confidence in India's ability to protect its interests in the larger international arena, but Indian foreign policy will not become subservient to the US, as they fear."

While acknowledging that "major bilateral disagreements and some, such as the climate issues, came up during Clinton's visit, the fact is that the US and India are largely together on big international issues."

Andersen also said the agreement on a Technology Safeguards Agreement that permits US components on satellites launched from India, was particularly significant since "that is the start of what could be discussions on a full-fledged commercial space launch agreement."

And, of course, there was the agreement on a strategic dialogue, to bring together senior officials periodically to "discuss the five principal pillars and this document is part of a US effort to nudge India to take a more assertive role on the world stage, one that is compatible with its growing international importance," he added.

Lisa Curtis, who heads up the South Asia programme at the conservative Heritage Foundation -- a Washington think tank -- also, believes that the Clinton visit was a grand success in that the Secretary "clearly conveyed the Obama administration's interest in building India-US strategic ties."

Curtis, an erstwhile analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency and former senior staffer on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, "She (Clinton) did not mince any words in declaring that Washington views India as a global player and she demonstrated that the new administration is developing a vision for India-US relations that reaches far beyond South Asia."

According to Curtis, Clinton's answer to a question, over India's concern about US' ties with Pakistan and China, was profound in that "she pointed to the US and India sharing a commitment to the principles of democracy as one of the underpinnings of the Indo-US relationship."

"This should provide reassurance to the Indians that the Obama administration will not take India for granted and is ready to explore ways to strengthen bilateral ties."

Curtis said that Clinton was shrewd in terms of the differences with India on the climate change issue "to avoid putting all of her eggs in the climate change basket since the US and Indian positions are still widely divergent. Instead, the highlights of the visit included completion of the end-user monitoring agreement and the space satellite agreement."

She also agreed with Andersen, that Clinton's assurances on the Obama administration's commitment to finalising the civil nuclear agreement, should alleviate concerns over the recent G-8 declaration on curbing the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to countries that have not signed the NPT.

Curtis said Clinton's clarifications "when she said flatly that the US did not intend to deny India any transfers," should put to rest doubts among some Indians about Obama's intentions toward civil nuclear trade with India.

"The Indian media maelstrom over the G-8 announcement overlooked the fact that the US has been pursuing a global effort to restrict transfers of ENR technologies for several years as part of a broader effort to stem nuclear proliferation, and the timing of the announcement just before Clinton's visit to India was likely purely coincidental," Curtis argued.

According to Curtis, perhaps "the most significant announcement was the invitation to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to come to Washington on the first State visit of this administration. During President Bush's term, he limited State-level visits to one per year."

The symbolism of staying at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai was also manifest, she agreed, going beyond simply paying respects to the victims of 26/11 and Clinton's assertion that she saw her stay at the Taj as a "rebuke to those who plan and plot and carry out these horrible attacks, and I feel strongly that we have to stand up against that."

Curtis said, "For years, India has perceived that the US does not take seriously terrorist attacks against India that originate in Pakistan, so Clinton's actions and strong statements will be remembered and appreciated by Indians for a long time to come."

"She did not make demands on India to return to the composite dialogue with Pakistan, but instead made a general appeal on Pakistan's behalf, that it was showing commitment to reining in terrorists and therefore should be supported by other countries," she noted.

Professor Sumit Ganguly, currently a visiting fellow at the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, also fells that Clinton's trip was clearly successful.

"Apart from the contretemps with my friend (Union Environment and Forest Minister) Jairam Ramesh (on the climate change issue), the trip went well, and the symbolism of her stay at the Taj Hotel was not trivial and her remarks made it clear that she had done it with considerable forethought," he said, and added, "Also, the length of her stay in India, the absence of visits to other states in the region and the start in Mumbai -- India's financial capital -- were all important and she handled herself with considerable aplomb."

Ganguly also agreed that "the end-user monitoring agreement is most significant because it required months of hard work both in New Delhi and Washington," and argued that although "the Indian government faced quite a bit of ill-informed domestic heat for it, it nevertheless managed to pull it of. Assuming that Boeing and Lockheed Martin can offer respectable terms to India, a good portion of the 126 multi-role combat aircraft purchase could go to one of them."

"The announcement of the two (nuclear) reactor sites also sends a welcome message but now the Indians have to show some dexterity in negotiating the liability agreement with the United States," he added.

Ganguly also said, "The two sides need to start discussions on Doha and bridge the gap that still confronts them."

With regard to the heavy hedging on Iran issue and the developing controversy over Indian firms like Reliance having major dealings with Tehran, which is causing major concerns in the Obama administration and Congressional circles, Ganguly said, "I think that she handled the Iran question quite deftly."

"Publicly debating the issue would ill-serve both sides," he argued. "This is a matter that the two countries can quietly resolve given the extraordinary patience and thought that the Obama administration has shown in dealing with Iran even as it is roiled by self-inflicted turmoil."

Andersen acknowledged that India's close relationship with Iran would undeniably be an irritant in the envisaged strategic partnership but also agreed with Ganguly's contention that Clinton had handled the question deftly, instead "noting that on Iranian possession of nuclear weapons, the US and India are together in opposing it getting such a capability."

"What she says is that it has always been India's stand that India's national interests are not served by any new countries getting such weapons."

But Andersen said there was an understanding in Washington that "from a strategic perspective, a relatively strong Iran might suit Indian purposes as it is a Shia country opposed to the radical Sunni ideology represented by the Lashkar-e-Tayiba, the Taliban and al-Qaeda."

He said it must not be forgotten that Iran "once worked closely with India and the US, in opposing Taliban hegemony in Afghanistan," and it's highly unlikely considering the relationship that is rooted in history, that New Delhi will forgo its ties with Teheran.

"India and Iran have worked together to build port, road and rail facilities that link India to Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republicans via the port of Chah Behar," which has been invaluable to India "as Pakistan prevents India transshipment rights to Afghanistan and beyond to the Central Asian Republics."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC