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Dubya?s ?l?affaire India?

What Bush sees in India baffles his countrymen. The US mainstream has editorialised against his India policy.

india Updated: Feb 26, 2006 02:50 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

In early 1999, George W. Bush met with eight foreign policy advisors, collectively known as the Vulcans, in his ranch at Crawford, Texas. He was preparing for his White House bid. They were there to tell him about the world.

Well into the briefing, Bush interrupted: “Wait a minute. Why aren’t we talking about India?” The Vulcans — who included Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz — looked at each other. India didn’t matter, they explained.

Bush’s response: “You’re wrong.” He gave three reasons.

One, India was a democracy of one billion people and that was “just incredible.” It is a mantra he still chants with near reverence at the mention of India. Two, Indians were geniuses with software. No Vulcan knew what he was talking about. Three, “You all are going on about the need to balance China. You can’t do that without India.”

Bush later took aside two Vulcans, the present National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and Bush’s first ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill. “If I am elected, I want a paper on how to transform the US-India relationship on my table before inauguration.”

In December 2000 Bush became US president-elect. He called in Hadley and Blackwill and demanded, “Where’s my paper on India?” They had forgotten. They spent Christmas in the White House reading up on this faraway country that the most powerful man in the world was so fixated on.

Bush’s first term was tumultuous for much of the world but advantageous to India. Funnily, these apposite experiences were for the same reason: Dubya was, as Rice once put it, “convinced that he hadn’t come here to leave the world the same way he found it.”

Echoing the Vulcans, Bush saw the world unprepared for new threats like rogue states and rogue nukes. So he worked to change the international order. Europe feared the loss of privilege. But an aspiring India saw an opportunity to move up the ladder. The sole superpower was rewriting the global rules; India worked hard to influence the writing in its favour.

It helped that large chunks of Bush’s worldview fitted neatly with Indian objectives: missile defence, use of force against terrorism and, finally, reworking the nuclear regime. In each case, India manoeuvred to be inside the tent rather than out.

Nukes were the Big Shift . Ashley Tellis, an author of the US policy, explained that Bush “chose to turn Washington’s long-standing approach to New Delhi on its head.” His administration “embarked on a course of action that would permit India more — not less — access to controlled technologies”. Bill Clinton had offered the same — but only if India gave up its nukes.

The new approach was labelled Next Steps in Strategic Partnership. Hadley later admitted the state department couldn’t have come up with a duller name. It was a symptom of what bedeviled the India policy of Bush’s first term.

NSSP was designed to liberate US technology policy in every sphere that did not require actual US legislation. But there was stiff resistance from mid-level bureaucrats in almost every US agency involved. As one US official said, “Every time the various departments would meet, the question everyone would ask is ‘Why should we do this for India?’” Bush may have had a vision. But for most US officials, India was an ex-Soviet ally, prone to “whining and moralising”.

The personification of all this was US Secretary of State Colin Powell. A hero in Europe, he was a villain in India. Powell rarely questioned the conclusions of his subordinates about South Asia. When he was told to trust Pakistan, not India, on the Taliban, he believed it. When he was told India was a proliferation threat, he believed it. “He was an example of how the obstacle to Indo-US relations is not anti-Indianism, but bureaucrats without imagination,” says an Indian official.

Reelection in 2004 allowed Bush to put a more personal stamp on his foreign policy. Rice took over from Powell. Her number three, Nicholas Burns, was put in charge of the India file. The second Bush administration basically asked New Delhi: What should we do to make you believe in us? India asked for a nuclear deal. New Delhi was torn: Should it ask for just a supply of nuclear fuel or should it go the whole hog and ask for de facto nuclear power status? It was the Americans who said, “Ask for more, our president really wants to do something for you.”’

From this was born the July 18th statement and the present negotiations on separating India’s civilian and nuclear programme, a necessary first step to entering the nuclear club.

What Bush sees in India baffles his countrymen. Almost the entire US mainstream has editorialised against his India policy. Even those who implement his policy seem puzzled.

Ambassador David Mulford, during a speech last year underlining how Bush was personally driving the India policy, paused, and in obvious puzzlement added, “And he’s never even been to this country.” Indian Embassy officials in Washington fret the scales will fall from Bush’s eyes when he actually arrives here. After all, his only real experience of Indians is the 8,000-strong — and wholly unrepresentative — community that runs the hi-tech corridor outside Austin, Texas.

Here are two guesses as to why an ex-alcoholic Texan oilman should be toiling so hard for India.

First, Bush’s opinions are driven by instinct rather than intellect. Once his opinion forms, it is impervious to even political calculation. Bush once said he “loathed” Kim Jong-Il. Ditto for Saddam Hussein. When political advisor Karl Rove urged him against invading Iraq until his second term, Bush responded, “I am prepared to be a one-term president.”

Bush seems to have a gut feeling about India -- a good one. Bush’s desire for India to succeed is close to religious; geopolitical explanations are post facto and come from others. During the 2003 campaign Rove urged Bush to bash outsourcing. Bush knew outsourcing meant India and refused.

Second, for Bush India’s democracy means it can never be hostile to the US; it is a “natural partner”. To believe otherwise is to deny his instinct about his own country. These days Bush lectures Arab leaders to look at India as a model. When he introduced Manmohan Singh to Laura, he couldn’t help but gush, “Not one Indian Muslim has joined al Qaeda.” What better evidence for Dubya that the axiom of the Bush Doctrine — democracy cures militancy — is true?

Future historians will probably argue Washington was ready for a new policy on India. India’s sun was so clearly rising. Too many Americans had soured on Europe. China’s mix of dictatorship and capitalism was worrisome. Wonks like Walter Russell Mead have already cubbyholed Bush as a president of the “Wilsonian” school — idealistic world-changers that don’t shirk from the use of arms. But right here and now it is about one man, a plan and a faith in two democracies.

First Published: Feb 26, 2006 02:50 IST