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Embassy Row

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Summer of discontent

A new book by a former diplomat at the Embassy of India deals a lot with climate change — politically speaking.

After India conducted nuclear-weapons tests in May 1998, the relationship between the Clinton administration and the government of then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee dropped into a deep freeze, T.P. Sreenivasan wrote in his book, "Words, Words, Words: Adventures in Diplomacy."

Like a weatherman with a severe case of poetic license, Mr. Sreenivasan describes "gloomy days" and a "nuclear winter" in U.S.-India relations, a "chilling winter in the middle of summer" with relief coming only from the "great warmth" of the Indian-American community.

President Clinton was so angry with India over the series of five nuclear tests between May 11 and May 13 that he promised " 'to come down on those guys like a ton of bricks,' " Mr. Sreenivasan wrote, quoting the former president and his "first flush of anger" in an Oval Office meeting with aides.

Mr. Sreenivasan, then deputy chief of mission at the embassy, said, "We forwarded to Clinton a letter from Vajpayee, explaining the reasons for the tests."

India faced hostile neighbors: China, "an overt nuclear weapons state," and Pakistan, "a covert nuclear weapons state," Mr. Vajpayee told Mr. Clinton.

Although India first tested its nuclear-weapons program in 1974, the United States feared that the new tests would lead to another war between the South Asian rivals or a nuclear arms race in the subcontinent. Two weeks after India, Pakistan conducted six nuclear weapons tests May 28 and 30.

Mr. Sreenivasan said the four weeks after India's tests in May "were the hardest in the relationship," as Mr. Clinton imposed "sweeping comprehensive sanctions" against India.

"High-handed action by overzealous bureaucrats shook the very foundations of civilized dealings between the two democracies," he wrote, adding that the embassy also began receiving reports of Indian scientists dismissed from U.S. research foundations.

Members of Congress, even some on the friendly India Caucus, "turned hostile overnight," Mr. Sreenivasan said. Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican and then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was among the harshest critics as he "spewed venom on the government of India in an unprecedented manner," Mr. Sreenivasanwrote.

Indian Ambassador Naresh Chandra realized the embassy needed to mount a public relations counter-offensive and asked Mr. Sreenivasan to lead the fight. He developed talking points that were "firm, analytical and unrepentant." The PR campaign resonated strongly with young Indian-Americans.

"The nuclear tests had an electrifying effect on the younger generation," Mr. Sreenivasan said.

Soon, however, Pakistan overplayed its advantage by supporting an incursion into the India-controlled portion of the disputed Kashmir region. India responded by attacking the Pakistani positions and forcing Pakistan to withdraw.

In Washington, the Clinton administration turned its anger on Pakistan, surprising officials both in Islamabad and New Delhi.

"At no time in the history of Kashmir had the U.S. administration been on the side of India," Mr. Sreenivasan said. "It marked the beginning of a spring in India-U.S. relations."

By March 2000, Mr. Clinton had visited India and, Mr. Sreenivasan noted, "literally took [the nation] by storm." Members of the Indian Parliament, he added, responded with a "spontaneous and indecent urge" to shake Mr. Clinton's hand and be photographed with him.

Mr. Sreenivasan later served as ambassador to Austria, Slovenia and the United Nations before retiring in 2004.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@ washingtontimes.com.