It is a surprise that several policymakers in Delhi believe that Hillary Clinton would be the best choice for India-US ties in the November 2016 Presidential elections. They look back with nostalgia at Bill Clinton, forgetting the reality. Which is that President Clinton worked obsessively at denuding the people of India of the security earned through the nuclear and missile programme. Not satisfied with this, Clinton ceaselessly worked at delinking Kashmir from the rest of India, going so far as to make a self-confessed votary of the Pakistan army the first ever Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia. In between, he nourished the Taliban, ensuring that these gentlemen were welcomed warmly during their frequent visits to Pakistan.
Even after Osama bin Laden organised terror attacks during 1998 on US missions in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Bill Clinton did not give up his partiality towards the Taliban.
It is another matter that after 9/11, both books as well as magazine accounts and interviews by US policymakers trod the make-believe track that it was the Northern Alliance that was the recipient of largesse from Washington, when in fact it was the Pakistan army and its Taliban associates that were being coddled and energised to try and destroy Ahmad Shah Massoud’s men in northwest Afghanistan.
In a display of proof that harmful policies are bipartisan in their application, President George W. Bush adopted the same approach towards the Taliban, whose representatives were welcomed in Washington even a few weeks before 11 September 2001.
Later, obviously learning nothing from the campaign against the USSR in Afghanistan, President Bush handed over the sheriff’s badge to the very culprit who had provided a safe haven for Al Qaeda, the Pakistan army. Clinton and Bush made the error of ignoring Moscow’s interests while going about assisting in regime change in the Ukraine, expanding both the functions as well as the membership of NATO to unviable levels, and dissipating the pro-US mood of public opinion in Russia by battering Serbia into surrendering Kosovo. Although not as much as Yeltsin, who was in his own way as much of a pushover for the key member-states of NATO as Mikhail Gorbachev was while General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, for a time Vladimir Putin dallied with the idea of crafting an alliance with the US. That collapsed after it became obvious that it would not be a partnership of equals, but a relationship of master to vassal.
It was around 2007 that Putin accepted that Russia was potentially too powerful a country to ever get accepted as friend and ally by the NATO alliance. To ensure good relations, it would have been needed for Putin to make Moscow as dependent on Washington as Seoul or Riyadh, something that the hyper-patriot from St Petersburg would not countenance, just as he refused to let pass repeated sermons from Washington on democracy and human rights, preachings that were avoided in the case of close US allies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both of which are transparent about being an autocracy.
Is US envoy to India Richard Verma going the way of his predecessor, Nancy Powell? Both have been known by interlocutors to make sounds which may be construed as directed against the incumbent government.
Verma is now repeatedly touting the virtues of “freedom of speech” in a context where opposition parties are daily alleging the snuffing out of that essentiality of democracy in India. Free speech is a right that is supported wholly by this columnist, who has not been reticent in pointing out the occasional lapses on the part of several members of Team Modi where it comes to civil liberties, including on matters of diet. But in a context where US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is visiting the country in a few weeks’ time and is expected (together with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar) to lift the India-US relationship to an entirely new orbit, one far higher than any experienced between Delhi and Moscow during the Cold War years, to play a tune similar to the cacophony against Team Modi seems a trifle undiplomatic. The Obama administration needs to avoid a repeat in India of the Clinton administration’s 1990s mistakes in dealing with Russia, when a very feasible Moscow-Washington alliance got subverted into what subsequently became a 21st century version of the US-USSR Cold War.
In a world where the US administration is not universally seen as comprising wholly of saints, it may actually do damage to Narendra Modi detractors with the public rather than good to get—albeit in diplomatic language—the endorsement of the personable and persuasive US ambassador to India.
The matrix of evolving India-US relations in the time of PM Modi is sensitive, complex and likely to be historic, and given the high chance of such an outcome and its desirability in the global geopolitical context, perhaps the temptation needs to be resisted of converting the US embassy in Delhi into an advocacy NGO for opposition groups in full cry against Narendra Modi, who, incidentally, was elected in May 2014 as the Prime Minister of India by the voters of this democracy.