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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 43

Looking beyond the Summit

Friday 17 October 2008, by Nikhil Chakravartty


Summit meetings are not boxing rings which the public watch to cheer or boo at the players punching at each other. Most of the summits are meant for serious business either to thrash out differences or haggle over a coveted prize.

Judging by this criterion, the Prime Minister of India’s summit with the President of the USA at Washington (May 19, 1994) could be regarded as useful as they noted in clear terms the points of difference on some of the major issues not so much of concern strictly between the two countries but for the subcontinent and also at the global level, while at the same time, emphasised areas of close cooperation.

The contentious issues of the nuclear option, the human rights and Kashmir—over which the entire Opposition was worked up at the last session of Parliament having feared that Narasimha Rao might cave in to Washington’s pressures—did not lead to tension during the Prime Minister’s US visit. For this, the Opposition can certainly claim credit that their angry protests made it clear to the Clinton Administration that the Prime Minister would be in no position to concede any point without having to run the risk of losing popularity at home, which would have been suicidal for him so precariously perched in Parliament with a wafer-thin majority in the Lok Sabha and also about to face a spate of elections by the year-end. At the same time, Narasimha Rao can equality take credit for not only having remained firm on all the crucial points, but has placed India’s case effectively in his address before the joint session of the US Congress. The Washington Summit has thus fetched an honours-even position for both the Prime Minister and the Opposition at home.

By no means, however, does this imply that the points of difference with the US Administration have been sorted out. Rather, they have been articulated at the Presidential level with deference, which seems to declare: we have agreed to differ.

The key points of difference which emerged from the Indo-US Summit revolves round Pakistan and the approach to the nuclear bomb and missile technology. It was clear from President Clinton’s public remarks there could be no downgrading of Pakistan, that he was prepared to accept Islamabad’s version that officially the Benezir Government was no longer arming the militant secessionists in Kashmir. At the same time, he avoided going the whole hog with Pakistan’s claim that India had virtually lost the Valley because of the militant upsurge there. The support for bilateral dialogue as per the Shimla accord amounts to saying that the US would not like to take sides with either India or Pakistan on the Kashmir issue and would like it to be sorted out through negotiations.

As for the charge that India has been guilty of violation of human rights in Kashmir, which not only Islamabad but the US Under Secretary Robin Raphel had raised—in fact she had done one better by questioning the very accession of Kashmir to India—it is once more made clear that the issue of human rights is bandied about very selectively by Washington. After having backed the charge for months, Washington withheld it at the Summit.

On the question of nuclear disarmament, the gulf between New Delhi and Washington has remained wide as before: while the NPT itself had long been dismissed by India as discriminatory and, therefore, did not figure, if at all, during the Washington talks, the clear divergence of approach on the question was palpable: the US persists on trying to sell the idea of a regional NPT, particularly between India and Pakistan, while the Indian position has consistently been that nuclear proliferation can be prevented only when the threat is sought to be met at the global level; in other words, India considers that regional or bilateral abjuration of nuclear weapon by a few states by no means reduce the danger of proliferation. What has emerged out of the Indo-US confabulations on this issue is that the two governments would continue discussing it, despite the divergence in their views.

Yet, with all this divergence of views on such a major issue of global concern, President Clinton’s joint statement with the Prime Minister of India called for “a new partnership” between the two countries—a phrase which Washington has hardly used in reference to any power outside the Atlantic family. What this urge for a “new partnership” indicates is the ready interest of the American corporate sector to make a determined bid to enter India for investment and also to capture the market of a burgeoning middle class here.

It needs to be stated that the ruling establishment in Washington with all its impressive branches, the White House, the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon, is decisively under the aegis of the giant corporate sector. Not for nothing did President Calvin Coolidge make it plain that “the business of America is Business”.

That’s precisely the same motivation that explains the strange ambivalence of the US policy towards China against whom the most vitriolic attack was made by Washington after the Tiananmen shooting down of unarmed protesters in 1989, but that did not deter the US Administration from extending the MFN status to China with regard to foreign trade. Two reasons seem to have turned the giants of the US corporate sector towards India. While the US investments in China have come largely from the supporters of the Republican Party, it is possible that the corporate giants behind the Democratic Party might be eyeing the Indian market. Secondly, the prospect of fierce trade war with Japan and the EC in the post-Cold War period might be the compulsion that may impel them to come to India. The two visits of Prime Minister Rao to Germany and the growing Japanese interest in the Indian market might have altered the US corporate giants and has contributed to the ready response to Narasimha Rao’s sell-India roadshows at New York, Houston and Washington before he actually met Bill Clinton.

The question that arises is: will this be a one-way traffic? The leaders of Indian big business, who toured with the Prime Minister, have made a joint appeal to the US Administration to relax the iniquitous trade barriers as envisaged in Super 301 and Special 301. Would it not be rather naïve to expect any response when in the name of market economy, protectionism has emerged in full force in the US?

There is another aspect of the emerging scenario that needs to be noted. The American media has already begun to talk about India outstripping China in the economic race, a theme picked up by some of our distinguished American patriots like Professor Jagadish Bhagwati. While this may be treated by the Indian establishment as good salesmanship, those of us who are troubled by long memory can’t help recalling that in the late fifties, the think-tanks of the US establishment used to talk about India offering the democratic counterpoise to totalitarian China—a slogan which contributed significantly towards India-China rift leading to military conflict and a humiliating disaster too for India which fitted in beautifully with the US strategic interests—right upto the planting of the nuclear pack on top of the Nanda Devi. This time too, there is uneasiness in Washington at India and China making up. Obviously, the re-establishment of India-China normalcy the strategic thinkers in the USA would like to disrupt, and the new bid for economic salesmanship may offer that prospect.

At home, this open door for the giants from Enron to AT&T might touch off reactions totally unexpected for the government at the moment. Because, this “new partnership” seems to envisage the advent of new lords and masters who expect to dominate our economy. And through economic domination, access to political power is almost assured, particularly when corruption at high places has become endemic. If the process of Western corporate invasion of our economy is irreversible, then a swadeshi backlash may be inevitable.

What is sold as a golden opportunity today might turn out to be a formidable challenge tomorrow.

(Mainstream, May 28, 1994)

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