A Wake-up Call in Beijing for DelhiNovember 22, 2009
Hu knows what Obama’s up to these days, goes the self-deprecating line of humour in Delhi, hours after the US and Chinese presidents angered the Indian establishment with their totally gratuitous comments on India and Pakistan in the closing hours of Obama’s three-day visit to China.
“The two sides welcomed all efforts conducive to peace, stability and development in South Asia. They support the efforts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight terrorism, maintain domestic stability and achieve sustainable economic and social development, and support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan. The two sides are ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region,” read the joint statement between the US and China.
It took a full day for Delhi to react…Guess that’s how much time it takes to put several heads together and wonder if a slam-dunk against Obama is necessary, that too on the eve of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the US, or would that just have been too much overkill. On the other hand, India couldn’t just have let the statement go unnoticed, smugly squatting into the dust-heap of history, allowing the stink to spread around cyber-space. Or worse, allowing the rest of the world to make their mind up about the balance of power in Asia and the strengths and weaknesses about its two largest nations.
For Delhi, the joint statement was confirmation — if confirmation was needed — that Obama had fallen victim to his own soaring rhetoric. It’s the cruel irony of the Indian liberal in middle-class India : support the Democrats in the White House, feel the warm glow of their crusading spirit enter your living room and believe that you can jointly change the world together.
Then this Democrat chap goes to China — and overnight, the colour of money is transformed. There are a few weak moments when he protests the power of the state in the denial of unfettered access to the Internet or even of the rights of minorities. Guess what, he names Tibet as an example!
You may as well wrap up and go home. George Bush was oh-so-much better for India — and so what he started the Iraq war! Bush understood the nature of power, understood it was not enough to say that the US didn’t want to contain China — as Obama did in Shanghai — but imperative to help equip India with the weapons of power. The Indo-US nuclear deal was not about a few hundred tonnes of uranium for civilian reactors nor about some esoteric treaty on non-proliferation — it was about power and the instruments of power and how to use them to achieve national glory. So, on the eve of the Manmohan Singh visit to the US — touted as the Obama administration’s first “state visit”, the symbolism enough to send Delhi into raptures of delight — the Foreign Office issued that most dull of reactions.
“Government of India is committed to resolving all outstanding issues with Pakistan through a peaceful bilateral dialogue in accordance with the Simla Agreement. A third country role cannot be envisaged nor is it necessary. We also believe that a meaningful dialogue with Pakistan can take place only in an environment free from terror or the threat of terror,” it said.
All three thoughts — that the bilateral dispute with Pakistan must remain bilateral and there was no place for anyone else in it, that the Simla agreement was paramount and that after Mumbai, Pakistan must stop terrorism if it wants to go back to a real dialogue — were tied together in the most listless fashion, as if suddenly weary, Delhi wasn’t going to allow itself to be too bothered with the self-righteous commentary of the woolly Democratic administration.
Only until yesterday, a certain desperate gaiety had hung in the air in Washington, by all accounts, as the Obama state dinner for Manmohan and Gursharan became the ultimate snob invite. It was clear, already, that unlike the nuclear deal that had gripped the imagination of both India and America under the Bush administration, the Obamas would rather focus their energies on galvanising American business into seeking the last of the virginal markets: India. There would be talk on counter-terrorism, of course, and deliverables on education, space and perhaps two more Indian consulates in America. Pundits on both sides claiming intimate knowledge insisted that Obama was nervous about China and wanted to continue its indirect circumscribing that Bush had begun.
And now this. Not since Bill Clinton paid Delhi that ultimate insult in Beijing in June 1998, when he and Jiang Zemin criticised India over its nuclear tests, has an American president been so insensitive to what Delhi thinks.Manmohan Singh will bravely sail forth, nevertheless, and hope to conjure up a miracle on the night of November 23, the night before he meets the US president. There’s much to talk about, with Afghanistan-Pakistan on top of the agenda. But after the perceived slight in Beijing — this, when Delhi is in the middle of its own complicated relationship with China — the joy seems to have gone out of the trans-Atlantic journey. Perhaps, this will teach India another important lesson: It’s important, in foreign policy as in life, to have several relationships at the same time.
India forgot this very valuable lesson when it pursued the US in recent years to the exclusion of everyone else, leaving several slighted friends and partners in its wake. But Beijing has been a good wake-up call. Delhi needed reminding that America was only one friend, albeit a very influential one, in its gamut of friendships. The rest of the world waits.