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Namaste Obamaji – India firmly where it belongs

November 25, 2009

Indians are cynical by nature – that is the conclusion that I have drawn from the reaction to the ongoing Manmohan Singh visit to the White House. There are exceptions, though, but by and large the inferences drawn from the Indian prime minister’s visit by various self-styled ‘experts’ is that it is high on hyperbole and low in substance. It does not help at all when our present prime minister does not have the charm of a Rajiv Gandhi or the oratorical skills of a Vajpayee. His starchy gait and fumbling, halting speech belies a man who has a razor sharp mind and knows what he wants and how to get it. Those who know Manmohan Singh swear by his competitiveness and strong will power. The Sardar from Gah, in Jhelum (now in Pakistan) is not only a good economist but also a very pragmatic visionary who understands the needs of his country and his people.

The first interaction between President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was when they read out the opening speeches welcoming and thanking each other. One could see a bemused smile on the face of President Obama when Manmohan Singh in his inimitable halting style read out his thank you note to the president in front of the media. The Sardar, a man of few words is almost tongue tied as he is just unable to make small talk with dignitaries. It was no different when Obama and Singh walked down the red carpet to give the initial comments. On the way back into the White House too, Singh walked silently.  Later the two were to address a joint statement along with a brief press conference. The two sides were engaged in dialogue way past the scheduled time. It took the two leaders almost twenty minutes to emerge from their talks from the scheduled time while the international media waited impatiently. This time too, the Sardar did not make any small talk as he and Obama came forward to issue their statements and answer the questions. But Obama’s gait had changed and far from the bemused look on his face, he had his jaws tight and one could see that there was an element of respect for the economist turned politician. The American press and the world media failed to notice the change in the demeanor of the president. Both the Indian and the American press corps were allowed just one question each (when the British prime minister is there it is five questions each, generally. We are getting there, slowly but surely). The American journalist jumped at the chance of ‘cornering’ Obama and shot a question as regards the increase in troop levels in Afghanistan. The President gave an elaborate answer and hoped that that would be enough till Thanksgiving. The Indian journalist asked the usual customary question which is to get an assurance whether America was for India and the works. It was a run of the mill question and the two leaders mouthed the usual niceties and that was it. That Singh had struck a chord with Obama, most failed to notice. It is still unclear as to whether the two leaders talked one to one or was it a delegation level meeting only. What is clear is that something substantial transpired between the two leaders and that there was a change in the attitude of President Obama.

By evening, during the salutation at the State dinner, (Indian PM was the first guest of honour during Obama presidency) President  Obama said a Namaste and then welcomed the prime minister and the people there in Hindi (aap ka swagat hai)!! Apart from the pomp and the pageantry there was bonhomie and there was warmth between the two leaders and the two delegations. Contrast this with Obama’s China visit and the difference is as clear as day and night. Obama tried hard to come across as a pleasant leader, which he is but the Chinese stiff upper lip was firmly in place. It is true that the US needs China as China needs US but there was still frostiness in the air. Obama almost looked glad he was out of China when he reached Singapore for the next leg of his East Asia tour.

The state dinner at the White House in honor of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was an elaborate affair. Obama was at his charming, confident best and Singh his usual professorial, starchy self. It was a contrast, yet there was so much in common. The two toasted each other and their nations. The warmth was perceptible in the air. It is clear that what was started by President Bush is being carried forward by President Obama. And that is much more than Civil Nuclear Deal which both have endorsed. Here in India, most experts were hung up on whether the Civil Nuclear Deal will be honored by Obama or will it be sidelined and hang in the air. People are naïve and do not understand the semantics of the ties between India and the US. Such ‘experts’ perhaps were hoping against hope that the Nuclear Deal will be set aside. They underestimate the common sense of the Americans and they most certainly are fooled by the demeanor of our prime minister. Such ‘experts’ have still not understood what the Sharm-el-Sheikh Indo-Pak accord has achieved for India. The fact is that Pakistan has been cornered and the Pakistan army is busy fighting the Taliban on the western front. There has been a displacement of more than a million people within Pakistan and the terrorist attacks have subsided on our side. Both Zardari and Gilani have been sidelined and the army is calling the shots. The Pakistan army has been targeted by the Taliban more than once and even the ISI headquarters in Rawalpindi and their offices in Peshawar have been bombed. Peshawar has become a ghost town and Pakistan is trying to come to terms with its own contradictions. Apart from a few skirmishes in Kashmir, India has remained peaceful. Sharm-el Sheikh accord was at the back of this all. Manmohan Singh showed the courage to go out and do what he had to do. Baluchistan is a non-issue and will remain so. Singh wondered aloud recently, before embarking on his trip to the US that he does not know who to talk to in Pakistan. This is what has become of our envious neighbors. While the people of India would like to see a prosperous and peaceful Pakistan it is also true that our first priority is peace within our borders and that is non-negotiable. Terrorism within India must stop and that includes the violence by the Maoists.  The situation in Pakistan is so precarious that their top political leadership has gone incognito. The Sardar is flying high toasting with President Obama while both Beijing and Islamabad are trying to gather the pieces.

Yes, there has been consternation in Islamabad and in Beijing. They are wary of US and India coming close. This recent visit has cemented the ties between the two natural allies. President Obama did not term the Indo-US relations as ‘indispensable’ for no reason. I am still wondering as to what Prime Minister Singh discussed with President Obama behind closed doors while the media waited. The reality will unfold in the months to come. Suffice to say that the Indo-US relations are very wide ranging covering the entire gamut of issues. India will benefit from this strategic partnership as will the US. In Prime Minister Manmohan Singh we have a silent achiever. In President Obama the American people have a visionary. It’s a heady cocktail. The world is watching. Lest we forget, it was all started by President George W. Bush. Obama is taking forward the good work of his Republican counterparts. The starchy Sardar can come back home safe in the knowledge that it was a job well done. India has firmly arrived on the world stage. Good day Mr. President!!

Addendum: The Pakistan army is finding itself between a rock and a hard place. They do not want to fight the Taliban and now they have started saying that they believe that India is planning a ‘short, swift war’, in other words a surgical strike. Nothing could be further from truth. They want to get out of a sticky situation and therefore are making up excuses to withdraw from South Waziristan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her recent trip to Islamabad had said that purging Pakistan of the radical elements, most notably the Taliban was in Pakistan’s interest. Evidently,the Pakistan army thinks otherwise. This is not an impossible task, were they to get down to it. If they refuse to clean up the mess, they may be able to needle India in the short run, but with the passage of time they will realize that this was not the best choice. Pakistan may have to pay with its very existence  were they to play ball with the jihadists as a matter of policy.

Prime Minister Singh’s initiative in Washington has already shown some results. Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the 26/11 master mind has been charge-sheeted as have six others. India is very clear that the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks must be brought to book. The US understands India’s stand and has decided to back India on this.

Update 26.11.2009: The fact that a socialite couple from Virginia gate crashed into the state dinner hosted by the Obamas is bigger news. That the state dinner was in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a footnote. Many newspapers have carried the state dinner either for the golden dress worn by First Lady Michelle Obama or for the fact that there was a couple that managed to gate crash into the dinner party. The photos of the gate crashing couple is hot property. The Los Angeles Times has reported it thus:

The Secret Service is looking into its security procedures after determining that a Virginia couple, Michaele and Tareq Salahi, slipped into Tuesday night’s event even though they were not on the guest list, agency spokesman Ed Donovan said.

What transpired between the two leaders has global implications but that does not concern most people around the world. It is the trivia that makes news. Suits leaders like Manmohan Singh fine, as he does not enjoy the spot light anyway.

Update 28.11.2009: India has voted against Iran at the IAEA. One of the correspondent reported this as follows:

India has voted along with the US, China and other major powers in favour of a German-sponsored resolution at the IAEA on referring the Iran nuclear programme yet again to the UN Security Council.

However, it clarified in its explanation of vote that this decision “cannot be the basis of a renewed punitive approach or new sanctions.”

Three countries, Venezuela, Malaysia and Cuba, voted against the resolution and six abstained: Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Brazil, South Africa and Turkey.

There was a discussion on this on one of the innumerable news channels and there was this ‘most distinguished’ former diplomat Mr. Natwar Singh who not only ran down the prime minister’s visit to the US as low on substance but also criticized India’s decision to vote against Iran at the IAEA. Most of the other panelists were against this move, though some like Mr. Mattoo tried to pass this off as ‘realpolitik’ and ‘national interest over ideology’. This was neither realpolitik nor being pragmatic. This was a necessity. India does not want proliferation in the neighborhood. People do not realize that a nuclear Iran will be a threat to India. Today, we may be having good relations with Iran but sometime in future this relationship may change, especially if Pakistan implodes. They have missiles that have a range of more than 2000 kilometers. They can easily hit Delhi if they wanted to, and if their missiles are nuclear tipped that will compound our problems. This is not ‘realpolitik’ this is simple rationale. Our friend, Israel is the reason for this militarization of Iran and we need to heed the needs of our friends too. A nuclear Iran will be a disaster for the region, including South Asia.

Natwar Singh very pompously said that when he is asked by diplomats as to why he thought that India cannot be a ‘natural ally’ of the US he replies that since India is not a part of the NATO therefore such natural alliance is not possible. This is as ridiculous as one can be. The man calls himself a former diplomat and then shoots off his mouth with such ridiculous statements, it is hard to believe. The fact is there are many countries outside of the NATO that are ‘natural allies’ of the west and the US in particular, Australia and New Zealand being two of them. India is firmly where it belongs, a part of the free, civilized world. India is an extension of the west in this part of the world. Socialists like our ‘intellectual elite’ cannot and do not want to understand this fact.

One little detail. Prime Minister Singh’s aircraft with his staff and entourage landed at the St. Andrews airport in the outskirts of Washington DC. This is a military base and the US president uses it from time to time. Not every one is allowed this facility. I hope our ‘intellectual elite’ get a reality check before they shoot their mouths off. It would not harm the national interest at all if we started behaving as a responsible nuclear weapons state, a fact that was endorsed by President Obama and earlier by President Bush.

Lastly, a Chinese “NGO” (when did this species evolve?) called Asia-Africa Department of Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with foreign countries, arrived in India recently and was making all the right noises including the fact that the Dalai Lama should not be an impediment to Sino-Indian relations. This was right during prime ministers visit to the US. The dragon has blinked, or so it seems.

Our national interest should be our top priority and people of all hues getting so much importance, throwing so much rubbish around is detrimental to our cause. We must look at what is beneficial for us as a nation. This hackneyed rhetoric should not be given media space at all.

Update 05.02.2010: India has again invited Pakistan for talks. This time it will be Secretary level talks. From the Sharmel-Sheikh which was a neutral venue, this time the talks will be held in Delhi. There is again speculation in the media as to what will be the agenda of the talks. There was a report of a Jihadi conclave in Muzzaffarabad, in Pakistan held Kashmir in which terrorists like Hafiz Saeed and others took part, as the proposal for talks were being carried forward. Pakistan dualism is at its best. Most observers, quite unimaginatively fail to look at the western angle to this development. Pakistan has again halted all military initiatives against the Taliban in the tribal agencies. The US wants them to push the Taliban from their side so that the western forces can take them on, on the Afghan side. This whole peace talk charade is basically to nullify all excuses thrown up by Islamabad for their supposed security concerns vis-a-vis India. Pakistan is under pressure to talk to India. The US has rightly linked the aid, both military and civilian on Pakistan’s action on the ground against the Taliban. India would do well to keep up the game from our end and do the needful. It will be good for the security concerns of the South Asian region and for world peace if the Taliban are marginalized. Pakistan must be encouraged to take action against the radical Taliban. However, the sentiment in India is so shrill and so vehemently against Pakistan, that any such overtures are ridiculed by all and sundry. This does mirror the exasperation of the common Indian, but one must understand the strategic thought behind any such bilateral moves. This does not harm India at all, and helps Pakistan realize that they have no option but to go after the jihadist Taliban.

Update 09.02.2010: While Pakistan first claimed that they pressurized India to come to the table for talks, the fact is now they are not too sure they want to do what they say they proposed in the first place. American diplomats like Richard Holbrooke and Robert Gates had called for a dialogue between India and Pakistan. The London conference on Afghanistan had echoed the same sentiments. Shah Mehmud Qureshi, the Pakistan foreign minister is now on a tour of Pakistan giving speeches as to how Pakistan will not bow down to Indian pressure. The Economic Times has reported his speeches as follows:

“Two days ago, India has approached and said they want to sit and talk to us and want to resume their relationship with us,” Mr Qureshi said, adding: “Pakistan hasn’t knelt… It didn’t kneel. Pakistan held its ground.”

Speaking in the affirmative over engaging India, the Pakistani foreign minister further added: “We will talk to them and present our case because our case is strong, it is not weak. Whether it be Kashmir or water or any other issue.”

It is clear that Pakistan is running away from dialogue as they know that this will mean that Pakistan army will have to open a front against the Taliban on their side of the border. It is also clear that the western forces are gearing up for a major offensive against the Taliban in the eastern Pashtun provinces. Leaflets have been air dropped urging the civilians to vacate the area. In such a scenario, Pakistan will have to undertake a major military operation on their side, if the NATO forces are serious about their chances. Whether, Pakistan talks to India or not, they will have to start a military operation shortly, if they are serious about their position vis-a-vis the west. Shah Mehmud Qureshi may think he can get out of the situation by mouthing rhetoric, but the ground realities are different. If the west fails to get Pakistan around and make sure they make a serious attempt at capping the Taliban from their side, the west is wasting its time in Afghanistan.

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