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Our man in Washington: Robert D blackwill

In the wide world of diplomacy, there’s little doubt that Blackwill is a character: tenacious and determined. Whatever be one’s opinion about some of his views, he’s possibly the best lobbyist India could have, writes Amit Baruah.

india Updated: Dec 21, 2007 22:53 IST
Amit Baruah

Indians understand “fixing” (very much an atoot ang of our political culture), but not “lobbying”. In the US, lobbying and lobbyists are very much part and parcel of political culture: a mechanism that opens closed doors.

“Lobbying” was again in the news following the re-appointment of former US ambassador to New Delhi Robert D. Blackwill and his firm,Barbour Griffith & Rogers International, as lobbyists for India in 2008.

The lobbyist is not just there to open closed doors, but to have regular access to people you have restricted access to. The idea is that the lobbyist can “sell your line” to the intended interlocutor — acting as part spokesman, part advocate.

Blackwill is a familiar personality in New Delhi’s diplomatic setting.

A pugnacious character, Blackwill, close to many in the Bush administration, is known to speak his mind. He’s a regular visitor to India, and you may just bump into him in a hotel lobby.

As India’s lobbyist in the portals of American power, Blackwill, who taught at Harvard University for 14 years and was special assistant to President George H.W. Bush for European and Soviet Affairs from 1989 to 1990, has been one of those pushing the civilian nuclear deal with the US.

Days in Delhi

In New Delhi, the ambassador was famous for his “roundtable dinners” at the US embassy, Roosevelt House, when the capital’s leading lights were subjected to a Blackwill earful on issues ranging from trade between India and the US being “flat as a chapati” to the Shia-Sunni equation in Iraq.

Back in 2002, when India was threatening to teach Pakistan a lesson, Blackwill was unabashedly and openly pro-India. At a time when Pakistan was riding a high after its 9/11 U-turn on backing Islamist terrorists, Blackwill was quite comfortable with taking on Islamabad.

As Jammu & Kashmir went to the polls, Blackwill announced on September 19, 2002, even as the first ballots were being cast, “We think India is committed to holding free, fair and inclusive elections in J&K without violence. This is exactly right…I would like to salute the individual voters in J&K who came out to exercise their democratic rights despite threat from terrorists.”

“It is outrageous that India has to suffer from terrorism from outside,” Blackwill said loud and clear to the press corps in New Delhi. Just what Indian ears, long used to Western scepticism on the issue of terrorism, wanted to hear.

Hard seller

There’s little doubt that Blackwill-the-lobbyist is riding high on the capital he created as Blackwill-the-ambassador during his stint in India from 2001-03, before he moved on to President George W. Bush’s core team dealing with issues like Iraq and Iran.

A senior Indian official, who has dealt with Blackwill, said that the former ambassador had been “pretty effective” as India’s lobbyist. “He loves us, whether we love him or not.”

“Blackwill has argued India’s brief well. He’s an advocate who believes in our cause and puts his heart and soul into the job. His standing in the Bush administration is obviously critical,” the official added.

Lalit Mansingh, former Indian ambassador to Washington, pointed out that Blackwill was in Bush’s “inner circle”. According to Mansingh, Blackwill had done well in pushing the civil nuclear deal. “It’s good he has been retained to push the nuclear deal further.”

According to Mansingh, Blackwill knew how to deal with the Republicans, but India might have to hire other lobbyists to deal with a Democrat President should she or he make it to the White House next year.

More than one-sided

Indian officials are cool about an “incident” that led to Blackwill’s resignation as Bush’s top Iraq official in 2004. “Robert D. Blackwill, who resigned last week as the White House’s top official on Iraq policy, was recently scolded by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told her that Blackwill appeared to have verbally abused and physically hurt a female embassy staffer during a visit to Kuwait in September, administration officials said,” The Washington Post reported on November 12, 2004.

“Frankly, it never crossed my mind to ask him about the issue,” one Indian official admitted.

Blackwill works for a diverse range of interests. His lobbying firm also represents the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq; Citigroup India; Reliance Industries; NASSCOM (India’s National Association of Software and Service Companies); AT&T India; Oracle India; Amway India; Citigroup Russia; Alfa Bank (Russia’s largest private bank); Lockheed Martin (F-16 manufacturers); and former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, among others.

Blackwill is also a Cold War veteran and “containment” ideas come easily to him. In a recent article, he pointed to the “unmentioned strategic glue” that holds India and the US together — dealing with an emerging China.

In private, both Indian and American strategic planners worry what would happen if China became more aggressive and believe that a strong US-India partnership could be useful for both countries against “problematic Chinese behaviour” in Asia and beyond, Blackwill wrote.

In the wide world of diplomacy, there’s little doubt that Blackwill is a character: tenacious and determined. Whatever be one’s opinion about some of his views, he’s possibly the best lobbyist India could have persisted with given the current Republican administration in the US.