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The Desirable Face Of India

Seema Sirohi

Wednesday 29 September 2004, by SIROHI*Seema

To use Manmohan Singh’s own phrase, perhaps no power can stop a prime minister whose idea has come. In New York he showed sparkles of steel but whether the steel can bear Delhi’s political heat is another matter.

New York

A thinking prime minister is a rarity but one who can think and act on his feet, tackling difficult questions with professorial sophistication is rarer still. To use Manmohan Singh’s own phrase, perhaps no power can stop a prime minister whose idea has come.

India needs a leader who can translate the aspirations of millions of young into a workable reality, provide a plan and ensure its execution. Manmohan Singh tried to take a step in that direction last week in New York, making India’s case with a firmness that few associate with him. He didn’t need much minding from the minders or tutoring from the tutors. He knew his mandate and he spoke from an innate confidence easily evident to audiences.

From George Bush to Pervez Musharraf, from American CEOs to foreign policy wizards, he was able to establish an understanding and articulate a vision without colliding into predictable walls. And his message always looked to the future. To Bush, he said, as the two stood before the cameras prior to their breakfast meeting: "The best is yet to come." Of Musharraf, he asked, "Tell me what your preferred options are to resolve the Kashmir dispute." To the gods of American capitalism, he spoke with candour and sought their faith in India.

He was proactive, his six-day trip brimming with initiatives and ideas. His was a journey in "persuasion." He didn’t seem to be watching his back even though a few knives are out for him. Such was his confidence and mastery of facts, he sent his delegation out and sat with Musharraf for nearly an hour, recalling Urdu couplets and discussing Kashmir, Siachin, and the people’s desire for peace.

Controversies from back home dogged him throughout the trip, small scale rebellions threatened to usurp his authority and the constantly shifting power equations tried to cancel him out. But he was unshaken, going about his big business with relative calm. If the Leftists complained he was insulting India by asking for foreign investment inside the New York Stock Exchange, he said, "Yes, I am here to sell India." Just look at West Bengal and its chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya who has lustily gone after anyone from Ratan Tata to Bill Gates to revive the state’s sluggish economy.

To those determined to paint him as an old fashioned Nehruvian socialist simply because he quoted from the great leader, he calmly said he was in the United States to "promote India" because it was his duty and obligation. He wanted American money, American support and American partnership. He met Jewish leaders, and impressed them with his desire to work together. But he didn’t articulate the virtues of common interests by drawing the triangle of US-India-Israel as the previous government had done.

But Left Party leaders did manage to embarrass their prime minister while he was on foreign soil. Manmohan Singh finally said that he had met Jyoti Basu — the old comrade who still demands attention — before leaving New Delhi and told him precisely what he was going to say and do in New York. Ditto with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the original peace maker. For Left leaders and some misguided Congress Party leaders to start this campaign against him was dishonest. The controversy created by Leftist leaders over "foreign advisers" being involved in India’s planning process showed their ahistorical nature. Coming from a party that is yet to denounce the purges by Stalin is mind boggling.

But as they say in New York, the show must go on. Manmohan’s show went on with a degree of aplomb. "I do recognise that international relations in the final analysis are power relations. The United States is a global power. They have their interests and our interests will not converge all the time. But we can lay emphasis on areas where we can work together," he summed up.

It was pragmatism, not Nehruvian non-alignment.

The clear message of Manmohan’s visit — India and the United States have agreed to disagree on Iraq, on how to fight terrorism and perhaps even on approaches to international trade talks. Despite the three big areas of differences, Manmohan’s determination to thrust India forward was seen in an agreement he reached with Bush and the Iraqi leader Iyad Allawi to help in the elections next January. Indian officials will train Iraqis on this most precious exercise in human rights.

With the United States, he and his advisers are trying to craft a political partnership which goes beyond the bilateral and morphs into something bigger and better. Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, he proposed a Indo-US partnership which can serve a "larger global cause." "Our relations have reached a stage of maturity in which we can manage our differences in a rational and practical manner. In essence, my message is simple: We are on the same side." He recognizes that without US support India can neither gain the permanent seat in the UN Security Council, nor get beyond the discriminatory treaties on nuclear weapons which prevent India’s entry into many global councils. Therefore the careful pitch.

Much has happened since former prime minister AB Vajpayee first described India and the US as "natural allies" in 2000. The US launched a war against terrorism after 9/11, attacked Iraq despite UN objections and granted "major non-NATO ally" status to Pakistan. But these developments have not clouded India’s desire to be an American partner.

Whether the partnership blossoms quickly will depend on who wins the White House this November. If Bush is reelected, as half of India wants, the train will move faster. If John Kerry wins the presidential election, the transition to a new team itself will take six months. South Asia will not be an urgent priority. But whoever comes, Manmohan must secure India’s agenda. In New York he showed sparkles of steel but whether the steel can bear Delhi’s political heat is another matter. Those intent on undermining him must realise, he is the face of India many desire — honest, clean and forthright.


in "Outlook India", Wednesday, September 29, 2004.

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