India is always proud to be different—an ancient culture which was backed by the Soviet Union in the Cold War, it has only recently shaken off the trappings of international non-alignment and an introverted view of the world that stemmed mainly from its slow, poverty-ridden emergence from centuries of colonial rule.
Now India is different for a new reason—it has not joined in the world-wide rejoicing that has greeted George W. Bush’s replacement in the Oval Office by Barack Obama.
India is not against Obama. It recognizes that the world should be a better and safer place with him as president, but it has lost its best foreign friend. Bush brought it out of the cold and helped to make it an international player by instigating—with Condoleezza Rice—the U.S.-India nuclear pact that scraped through just before Bush took his fingers off the levers of power. The deal enables the U.S. and other countries such as France and Russie to sell nuclear plants and allied technology to India, which had been banned for many years since India developed nuclear weapons.
After a strenuous lobbying campaign in Washington, India has successfully persuaded Obama not to include India in the Pakistan-Afghanistan brief given to Richard Holbrooke, his new special envoy to the region. The lobbying, to put it mildly, was blunt.
So India is waiting anxiously to see how Obama’s Asia policy shapes up. A particular concern has been India’s hope that Obama will not link two distinct issues: the urgent international issue of the Taliban and al Qaeda on the Afghan-Pakistan border with far less critical India-Pakistan differences over Kashmir. For its part, Pakistan has been arguing that a settlement of the Kashmir question would allow it to move troops from the Indian border to tackle the insurgents and terrorists on the Afghan side.
After a strenuous lobbying campaign in Washington, India has successfully persuaded Obama not to include India in the Pakistan-Afghanistan brief given to Richard Holbrooke, his new special envoy to the region. The lobbying was blunt. At one meeting, India’s emissaries told Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state and a leading Obama adviser, that Holbrooke would not be welcome in Delhi if India was included in his brief. Albright apparently asked, presumably mischievously, if he would be given an Indian visa. Yes, came the reply, but not much else.
Also of concern is India’s sensitive mountainous border with China, where Beijing has become more belligerent about disputed boundaries since India became a close ally of Bush’s America. Less urgent, but equally important, is how vigorously the Obama administration is willing to promote the new nuclear deal, especially on fuel reprocessing.
These issues were discussed this morning at a seminar in Delhi organized by the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation and the Confederation of Indian Industry. Karl Inderfurth, the former Clinton-regime (1997-2001) assistant secretary of state for South Asia, presented a report that called for action on the regional borders along with other subjects such as climate change (where Obama might want tougher action than India would willingly undertake) and nuclear non-proliferation (another point of possible difference).
Inderfurth called for “a more regional focus” on the Afghan-Pakistan border, bringing in the neighboring powers of China and Iran. Other speakers stressed the need for the U.S. to try to force the Pakistan army to take a tougher line against Taliban in Afghanistan—something many of Pakistan’s top brass are loath to do because they see the Taliban as a vehicle for extending what they regard as Pakistan’s rightful “strategic depth” into that country.
“The closer we get to the U.S., the more problems will emerge—some we will have to leave and some will be solved,” said Brajesh Mishra, a former national security adviser who helped promote U.S.-India relations when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government was in power from 1998 to 2004. He noted sagely that the U.S. and India had different approaches internationally—the US had global interests, whereas India was “not yet a global power” and was preoccupied with regional affairs “from Aden to the Straits of Malacca [a key shipping lane] and perhaps a little beyond.”
Curiously, India’s successful lobbying of Obama seems not to have reached the ears of Britain’s foreign secretary, David Miliband, who upset senior Indian ministers with both the content and style of his behavior while he was in Delhi on an official visit two weeks ago.
Miliband picked up the Pakistan line linking Kashmir and Afghanistan and urged that the Kashmir border problem should be solved so as to reduce the incidence of terrorism internationally. He first wrote this in an article in The Guardian newspaper just before he arrived in Delhi, saying that “resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms, and allow Pakistani authorities to focus more effectively on tackling the threat on their western borders”.
That angered Indian ministers because it seemed to suggest that the world’s terrorist attacks were significantly the result of Islamic anger over the unsolved Kashmir border issue—which was clearly ridiculous.
I have been told that a very senior Indian government official was so outraged by Miliband’s lecturing on how India should handle Kashmir that he said, in a very quiet but stern voice, “We did not tell you how to handle Ulster and I do not expect you to tell me how to handle Kashmir.”
It was not just Miliband’s statements that infuriated Delhi and provoked the personal rebuke, but the arrogant and insensitive way in which this wet-behind-the-ears politician delivered his message—first by writing the Guardian article just as he was about to arrive, and then by his personal style in Delhi.
There is an odd story making the rounds about a letter that Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, is reported to have sent to Gordon Brown, complaining about Miliband’s “behavior and comments”. The prime minister’s office (PMO) denied that such a letter had been sent, but I understand that it was sources in the PMO who first alerted Indian journalists to the letter. Presumably, such a letter was sent, but not quite in the strident terms deployed by the over-eager PMO sources.
John Elliott is a former Financial Times journalist, now based in New Delhi. He has written for Fortune magazine, The Economist and the New Statesman, and also has a blog on South Asia events.