The Clinton-Vajpayee menu card

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s US visit to Washington comes close on the heels of the President Bill Clinton’s visit to New Delhi, and is likely to further cement ties between the two countries. Akrita Reyar analyses issues that are likely to come up in the tete-a-tete between the two heads of states, and the outcome of the PM’s US sojourn.

By Akrita Reyar | Updated: Sep 24, 2014, 15:16 PM IST

Despite the initial hiccup in the take-off of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s trip to the United States, there is an air of optimism as he leaves for Washington, on September 7. The mood can be attributed, not so much to what the visit is likely to achieve, as much to the new era of upbeat relations between the two countries. A new dawn “The 50 years of hiatus is over”, declares Dinesh Patnaik of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). Bygone is the age of “India’s lingering suspicion of US intentions in world affairs and America’s inability to understand India’s compulsions and aspirations”, summed up US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In this new era of goodwill, US expert Prof Amitabh Mattoo feels, “India will want to institutionalise relations between the two countries.” The sentiment is echoed by MEA officials. To take forward the process of building better ties, set in motion by President Bill Clinton’s India visit, would be priority. Other than this vital objective, India is likely to bring up the issue of cross-border terrorism. India would want the US to take some measures to help curb the menace, including putting pressure on Pakistan to stop aiding and abetting militants. ‘Economics, economics and more economics’ More importantly, however, Mattoo feels, “The PM will go all out to woo the Indian diaspora.” The effort would be to glue together an Indian caucus of rich NRIs, who could be used as a pressure group later. The architects of the PM’s programme say,“The idea is economics, economics and more economics. This is what matters and this is where we will concentrate.” Statistics back this thinking. In 1999, total trade between India and the US increased by 8.67%. Forty percent of the total foreign direct investment in India comes from the US. There is already a clamour for India’s large pool of Information Technology (IT) professionals, and US would not want to miss the bus. This is evident from the fact that of the 11 business agreements signed during Clinton’s India visit, 4 were in the field of IT. The US has also seen India’s economy grow, amidst the Asian financial crisis and despite sanctions. It also views India as a huge market and would like to make buck here. India – A newfound partner As far as the US is concerned, it too would like to capitalize on the gains made during the Clinton visit. The groundwork for better US understanding had been done during the several rounds of Jaswant-Talbott talks, when the cobwebs of long-held misunderstanding were removed. US feels, it has found a new partner in India. And its geographical position can be put to use. Reflecting on this rational, senior American journalist Dexter Filkins says, “ We both are wary of China, we both are wary of Islamic extremist groups. So if the two can stand together on certain issues or countries when the time comes, it’ll be a lot easier. “ Defusing the South Asia bomb It’s primary and more current concern, however, is to defuse tensions in South Asia. Filkins says, “The US genuinely views the region as a nuclear flashpoint.” In fact, according to an Aug 8 report in the New York Times, Clinton was handed over the National Intelligence Estimate of the CIA and other intelligence organisations before his South Asia visit. The Intelligence report said, there was a likelihood of war between India and Pakistan in year 2000 and that it could erupt into a nuclear conflict. The assessment, which began after Pakistan withdrew from Kargil, is fearful of the conflict also because of “both states relatively poor intelligence about each other’s intentions and movements and their lack of direct communication.” The US is, therefore, likely to press India to continue its policy of restrain and make case for the non-deployment of its missiles. It is also likely to nudge India to open dialogue with Pakistan. CTBT may also come up, but after the Senate’s rejection of the treaty, the US is not in a position to put pressure on India. The US has also, more or less, reconciled with India’s stand of minimum credible nuclear deterrent. It is also satisfied by India’s declaration of unilateral moratorium and no first-use policy. The final analysis So what will the PM’s US visit likely to achieve? “Very little”, is the unanimous response. Prof Sumit Ganguly of University of Texas feels, “India still remains of small significance in the overall scheme of things.” What the US really wants, is to keep tensions in South Asia at bay. For that, US efforts need to be more concerted in Islamabad compared to New Delhi. The US may, as a token of amity, waive sanctions imposed after India carried out nuclear tests in May 1998, but India is not asking for their removal as they have had very little impact on the Indian economy. On the more positive side, there will be lot of goodwill generated. Mattoo says, “The visit will do less in terms of tangibles and more in terms of atmospherics.” Engagement will be more widespread at all levels. More linkages will be created, especially in the business community. The US wants to cultivate India as a strategic partner in the long run. The two countries have already decided to hold more frequent meetings at the highest political level, dialogues on Asian security, foreign policy, non-proliferation and terrorism. There is likely to be a concretisation of these intentions. Clinton may be on his way out, but Ganguly feels, “careful and deft Indian diplomacy could lay the foundations for improved relations with the next administration.”