Friday, June 4, 2004

Last month’s change of government in New Delhi and the appointment of a straight-talking external affairs minister could portend the beginning of tense times in U.S.-Indian relations.

Two weeks ago, a Congress party-led coalition unexpectedly came to power, toppling the right-wing Hindu party-dominated government.

In its election manifesto, the Congress party noted that “a great country like India has been reduced to having a subordinate relationship with the USA, where the USA takes India for granted.”

It blamed former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s willingness to adjust to American priorities and policies “without giving due attention to India’s own vital foreign policy and national security interests.”

Analysts say what began as pre-election posturing could translate into changes in how bilateral relations are handled.

On May 23, Manmohan Singh, India’s first non-Hindu prime minister, announced portfolios for his Cabinet. Prominent on the list is K. Natwar Singh, who was put in charge of the coveted External Affairs Ministry.

Mr. Natwar Singh’s outlook on foreign affairs is founded largely on a Cold War-era suspicion of the United States and a yearning for a multipolar world. Writing in the Indian magazine Frontline in March last year, he noted: “The world is now faced with a situation without precedents. Let me put down the brutal facts.

“1) The U.S. believes in the doctrine of ‘regime change.’

“2) The U.S. believes in pre-emptive military action without approval of the U.N. Security Council.

“3) Articles 39, 40 and 41 of the U.N. Charter are of no value.

“4) Sovereignty of nations does not matter.

“5) International law could be flouted.”

“Natwar Singh has traditionally looked at the U.S. through a nonaligned lens and has been far more critical [of the United States] than any other person,” said Ashley J. Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Mr. Tellis, a former adviser to Ambassador Robert Blackwill at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, said Mr. Singh’s appointment means “a long learning curve, both for him and for us.” (Mr. Blackwill left the embassy in New Delhi late last year and was succeeded as U.S. ambassador by David C. Mulford in January.)

But, Mr. Tellis added, “You’re going to see quite a bit of a difference between Natwar the minister-in-waiting and Natwar the minister of external affairs. The first thing he will have to confront is the fact that India has certain interests with the U.S. that cannot be abridged, no matter what his own proclivities may be.”

Sumit Ganguly, professor of political science at Indiana University, voiced concern about the future of U.S.-Indian relations.

“There are some Congress party stalwarts who still hold a candle for the detritus of the Soviet Union and dream of a multipolar world with India being one of the key poles,” he said.

In a May 2003 speech in Bangalore, India, Mr. Natwar Singh suggested that it was in India’s interest to engage the United States “in friendly discussions and try to strengthen the forces of multilateralism and to reduce the influence of unilaterialism.”

Advocating “Pax Planetica” and not “Pax Americana,” he said, “It is essential that the United Nations be strengthened.”

Philip Oldenburg, senior lecturer in the government department at the University of Texas at Austin, predicts a “return to Indira Gandhi’s policy of making India as European as possible.”

“It means being more like the French,” he elaborated. “Being distant from the U.S., being outspoken about U.S. policies, being jealous about one’s perceived prerogatives.”

In a section devoted to foreign policy, the Congress party manifesto said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s elevation of Pakistan to “a major non-NATO ally” — a day after he visited top leaders in New Delhi — “exposed the [Bharatiya Janata Party’s] claim of a ‘paradigm shift’ in Indo-U.S. relations.”

Despite this skepticism, Mr. Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment said U.S.-Indian relations would, through a period of trial and error, “come closer to where [Mr. Vajpayee’s] Bharatiya Janata Party left them.”

The fall of the BJP-led government came as a surprise to the United States and Pakistan.

Husain Haqqani, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment and a former adviser to Pakistani Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, makes the point that both the Bush administration and the Pakistani military leadership will need to “build the kind of personal relationships that were built [with the Vajpayee administration] in the last several years.”

Francine Frankel, director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, offered a different opinion. She said the U.S.-Indian relationship “is now more institutionalized and based on mutual interests,” regardless of which party is in power in either country.

Analysts agree, however, that apart from the ongoing cooperation on counterterrorism and military exchanges, any new initiatives are not likely to move decisively until after the U.S. presidential election in November. The Bush administration’s preoccupation with Iraq and the Middle East also makes the Indian subcontinent less of a priority for now.

Anupam Srivastava, executive director of the India Initiative at the University of Georgia at Athens, said discussions relating to the next steps in strategic partnership, the Proliferation Security Initiative, missile defense, export controls and counterterrorism are likely to continue.

Since India’s partition in 1947, rival claims over the Himalayan state of Kashmir have led to two wars between India and Pakistan and several tense moments on the subcontinent.

Successive governments in New Delhi have treated Kashmir as an internal matter of India’s, and U.S. offers to mediate in the dispute have been publicly rebuffed. The Congress party document accused Mr. Vajpayee’s government of having failed to dispel concerns that India had accepted a mediator role for the United States.

In his Bangalore speech, Mr. Natwar Singh said: “The complexity of Indo-Pak[istani] relations needs an intuitive understanding, which in my judgment, the United States lacks.”

The Congress document outlines the party’s intention to fashion a “stable, working, cooperative relationship” with Pakistan, while remaining alert about India’s defense requirements, and being firm in responding to any threats emanating from across the border.

Mr. Haqqani predicted that the peace process between the neighbors “will last longer, and the peace will come much later.”

Mr. Vajpayee, he said, wanted to make peace with Pakistan his personal success.

“For him there was a payoff — a rise in his stature, the ability to go beyond thorny issues and probably a domestic payoff — the Congress does not have any such” incentive.

More significant, Mr. Tellis added, the Congress party doesn’t have much more to put on the table. “Indian bottom lines do not change with respect to who is in power in Delhi.”

But, he added, “at the end of the day, this discussion on India-Pakistan relations will be conducted under the ground rules of realpolitik … and the freedom for maneuver is considerably limited.”

As for a future role for the United States in bringing about a rapprochement on the subcontinent, Mr. Tellis predicted the Congress government would be averse to “facilitation,” with one caveat — “if they could be assured that U.S. mediation and/or facilitation is ultimately directed toward bringing Pakistan to accepting the status quo at the end of the peace process.”

“It’s all driven by what they perceive to be U.S. objectives in the game,” he said.

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