The Bush visit: devil lies in the detail

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Mar 4 2006, 05:30am hrs
Public figure, columnists and commentators can easily be taken in by hyperbole and undue exhilaration, but the India-US nuclear agreement perhaps truly rises to the label that has been used so often in the past few days: historic. This deal casts India as a responsible power, gives us both civilian and strategic leeway, and ends a 30-year isolation. Though the deal was guardedly praised by many world leaders, including Jacques Chirac of France and Mohamed ElBaradei of the IAEA, a quick reading of newspaper editorials and public reactions in the US suggests that passage of the deal in the US Congress is likely to be difficult and long-drawn. Already, there are uneasy signals that raise the possibility of some elements of the American Left and Right finding common ground on this issue; the former fear this deal will weaken US efforts to roll back Iranian intransigence, while the latter are incensed about what they see as an effective scrapping of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. In the last 2 days, the pro-Democratic liberal establishment in the US, including the New York Times, has given an inordinate amount of play and space to reactions from stubborn nuclear non-proliferation voices, like Michael Krepon, Edward Markey and George Perkovich. Similarly, the reaction in many European countries to the new India-US embrace is sceptical if not uptight.

Many European diplomats posted in Delhi are going around questioning the very existence of a significant milestone, asking where are details The reasons for European disquiet are many: the non-proliferation and anti-nuclear lobby is much stronger there than in US, their experience of India as a rising power is much more limited, and Europe is too used to either preaching to India or pretending to be its arbiter in global fora.

However, even if the deal were to somehow run into serious trouble in the US Congress, the growing momentum, trust and partnership between India and the US is no longer a speculative or tenuous thing, and the relationship has gone well beyond those clumsy and self-conscious days of early courtship during the Clinton era. As successful as the Bush visit has been, the mutual dynamic is now determined far less by what either government says or signs, and far more by soft points of contacts. The relationship is driven much less by State Department or Pentagon, as is the case between the US and Pakistan, and far more by people, markets, technology and ideas. The term natural allies in relation to the India-US partnership is both essentially correct but also overused. It provides a useful label for a wide spectrum of genuinely common interests, instincts and attitudes, but it also runs the danger of becoming a cliche or making us complacent.

The fact is that the complete import of Indias steady rise and growing self-confidence is only now and rather slowly sweeping into the consciousness of the American establishment. Plus, there remain major differences between the two nations on specific issues, such as Iraq or United Nations. And of course, American pronouncements and intent on Kashmir or Pakistans pathological drift are still ambiguous and opaque. Clearly, American officials have not lost their inclination for games or their tendency for being too clever by half.

These differences notwithstanding, both sides have steadily discovered a number of vital common interests that have increasingly coalesced in a post 9/11 world: security, shipping, energy, democracy, pluralism, moderation and education. In fact, when US officials do an honest scan of this part of the world they can hardly escape the fact that there are very few countries in the sweeping arc from Manila to Marrakech that have so much in common with US society as India does. This is despite the raucous nature of our politics that allow firebrand zealots, full of their self-importance and righteousness, to shout the vilest epithets from rooftops.

That is one large swathe of territory without friends, and the US knows it. Meanwhile, most of us realize that America at home and abroad are two different countries, and we tend to forgive them their schizophrenia because American society is open, giving, decent, charitable and, very importantly, fun. Despite all its mistakes or machinations in foreign policy, America still provides the largest reference point and inspiration for Indian intellectuals, scholars, academics, technocrats and entrepreneurs. The center of our diasporic gravity shifted from the UK to the US sometime in the 1980s, and the multiple ways in which Indian-Americans have made a positive mark or impression since then is rather remarkable. In what is perhaps the most honest American comment, David Ignatius in his column in The Washington Post yesterday supported the nuclear deal even though it goes against US and international rules. Why, because the real lesson may be that rules are sometimes less important than behaviour.

When President Bush warmly embraced Manmohan Singh, both physically and metaphorically, it was a reflection of a much belated realization in US policy circles of that simple reality.

The writer is editor, India Focus