The Albright Visit: Jinxed!

03 Dec, 1997    ·   36

P. R. Chari wonders, given the uncertainties of coalition politics, if the bureaucracy could be given the charge to steer the contents of the strategic dialogue with the US.

One word describes the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s visit to India . Jinxed. No doubt, the American Embassy in New Delhi and the CIA would have been consulted regarding the timing of her visit. But it is only fair to concede that it was not possible for them to predict the unpredictable and gauge that the political landscape in New Delhi could change in a matter of days.


Madeleine Albright, incidentally, was following up upon the earlier visits of her State Department officials, Assistant Secretary, Rick Inderfurth and Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Thomas Pickering. She was also hoping to pave the way for Clinton 's intended visit to India early next year. In the event, she came to New Delhi in the midst of an unprecedented political crisis. The milieu was hardly conducive for a serious "strategic dialogue" on Indo-US relations. Little is known publicly about what was achieved during her visit. Possibly, nothing was achieved beyond a general exchange of views. The political crisis culminated, incidentally, with the resignation of the Gujral government. No clarity is available at the time of this writing if any party or combination of parties will be able to form the government. Or whether another general election is unavoidable.


The mainstream national press, atypically The Times of India, had editorially noted (November 17) several reasons why India was of great interest to the United States . These included:


a.                 India is a big emerging market and is poised on a high growth trajectory. The United States is the largest destination for Indian exports and the biggest foreign investor in India .

b.                Both countries could cooperate to grapple with newer sources of threats to international security like terrorism, religious extremism, drugs, small arms proliferation and so on. Both are victims of their ravages.

c.                 India is important to the United States 's non-proliferation agenda. India has not joined the NPT or the CTBT and is unlikely to sign the FMCT. The US is reconciled to India ’s domestic polity not permitting it to join these non-proliferation regimes in future. All that could be expected is that India would continue with its present restraints on exports of nuclear materials, equipment and technology. And further, that India will not deploy its Prithvi missiles or further test its Agni missile or transfer missiles and its associated technology to third countries. Could this restraint be rewarded by providing access to high, including nuclear, technology?

What remains unstated on both sides is the most important reason for American interest in India . This is the growing power of China and its undisguised ambition to become the rival superpower that will challenge the United States in the next decade.


A new configuration of world forces with its fulcrum in Asia is likely to develop. Scenario- builders are already discerning the possible combinations of world powers that could arise in future. A virtual alliance is obtaining between the United States , Japan and the European Union. China could oppose this with Russia . India could either join one or other of these combines, or balance its "non-aligned" foreign policy between them. An exploration of India ’s perceptions in this regard would be of inestimable value to the United States in its effort to draw it within the American schema.


The more material question is what can or will be India ’s response to such overtures? This would be needed despite the absence of any institutional arrangements for making long-range foreign policy/national security assessments, apart from the lack of a political leadership that could provide any direction for its pursuit? A lasting disappointment with the Gujral government is that it had the capacity but failed to think through such issues, whilst concentrating all these wasted months on its week-to-week survival. India is destined to have another coalition government, whether before or after a general election. However, a fair consensus also exists regarding the broad directions of its foreign policy, in which improving Indo-US relations is an issue on which there is little real controversy.


Can the Indian bureaucracy play the role of the French bureaucracy during the Third Republic when governments came and went but the administration remained unaffected? Will politicians allow the Ministry of External Affairs to proceed in matters of foreign policy within the defined limits of a national consensus?


Serious Indians must address these large questions, if India 's national interest is to be safeguarded despite the political instability that has gripped it. In the absence of such institutionalised arrangements, future visits of high dignitaries from abroad will increasingly be reduced to meaningless rituals. It will be worth seeing, anyway, how many such high level visits will take place in the coming months. When, if ever, for instance, will President Clinton come?