June 15, 2012

In 'an affair of the heart' with US, India has an independent mind

Chidanand Rajghatta, TNN | Jun 14, 2012, 10.24PM IST

External Affairs Minister S M Krishna and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a joint news conference after India-US Strategic Dialogue in Washington on Wednesday.(PTI Photo)

WASHINGTON: Any questions whether New Delhi would serve as a US stooge and become a patsy following the American strategic embrace disappeared in vapor trails as India's foreign minister flew out of Washington DC on Thursday after what officials from both sides agreed was a successful engagement. The route he took itself was illustrative of the complexity international relations. To go south to Havana, S M Krishna had to first fly north to Toronto, Canada, because the United States forbids direct flights to its bete noir Cuba. 

Heading out to Cuba on an official trip soon after a visit to the US is just one example of New Delhi refusing to be a pushover, an illustration of it remaining true to its independent foreign policy DNA. A few weeks from now, India will again irk Washington pundits by consorting with the usual suspects from the Non-Aligned Movement in what US regards as enemy territory: Teheran. 

Not that the US is unused to such in-your-face moves. In fact, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who once described ties between US and India as "an affair of the heart," acknowledged herself at a presser that there are bound to be differences. "Well, with respect to affairs of the heart, they usually have ups and downs," she chuckled amid knowing laughter, with Krishna by her side. "But that does not make them any less heartfelt - (laughter) - or any less of a commitment." 

Indeed, the differences between the two sides were many and they were expressed quite candidly by both sides during the strategic dialogue. For all the talk of strategic convergence, India did not refrain from raising several contentious issues, from demanding access to terror suspects David Headley and Tawahur Rana, to pressuring Washington to examine humanely the issue of Kairi Abha Shepherd, an India-born orphan whom the U.S is seeking to deport after 30 years following a cock-up over her citizenship. 

There were also differences over US market access for Indian products and personnel, not to speak of Washington blindly robbing Indian workers of $ 1 billion annually in social security payments. 

On its part, the US too had its laundry list of complaints - from the same market access issue to roadblocks in foreign retail investment to unstated but unfulfilled promises in arms procurement. 

But several issues that were resolved partly demonstrated the ability of the two sides to work through contentious matters: The Iran oil sanctions issue, the civilian nuclear deal gridlock, and the arms purchase question. 

New Delhi met the U.S benchmarks for scaling down Iranian oil imports while retaining its right to engage Tehran (demonstrably so when it attends the NAM meet); both sides persuaded the American nuclear power company Westinghouse to commit to negotiate an Early Works Agreement with India's Nuclear Power Corporation, without New Delhi budging from its nuclear liability law which U.S firms are leery of; and India is buying enough U.S weapons to offset the slight Washington felt at the rejection of its multi-role combat aircraft. 

These were small, incremental steps in resolving differences but officials said they were illustrative of the desire on both sides to overcome wrinkles. 

As for Clinton, she took as swipe at what Washington famously refers to as the nattering nabobs of negativity. "I think that it's always a temptation to zero in on what the differences are. That is understandable and it certainly is to be expected by the press. That's part of your job," she scolded the media. "But...I always look at the totality of the relationship. And I would be never in a position to say we don't have differences." 

"How could two great nations with our histories and our political systems - these raucous, incredibly pluralistic democracies - not have differences? That would be quite odd if that were the case," she added.


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