‘Don’t get back to the hyphenation business’

He has presided over a transformed relationship. In conversation with <B>Indian Express Editor-in-Chief</B> <B><font color="#cc000">Shekhar Gupta</font></B> on NDTV’s 24x7,<B>departing American ambassador</B> <B><font color="#cc000">David Mulford</font></B> speaks on security cooperation,the the nuclear deal,and how America and India have finally found each other

Published:January 10, 2009 1:05 pm

&#149;Hello and welcome to Walk the Talk. I’m at the US embassy in Delhi and my guest is Ambassador David Mulford,completing what should be the diplomatic equivalent of a home run,isn’t it?

Five years

&#149;And what kind of five years,incredible five years?

It’s been an incredible five years. Quite beyond any expectations I had when I arrived,although it has been a very,very satisfying period of time

&#149;You know,when you came in,a lot of us said that India and US and their relationship had had forty lost years…..these five years have made up for some of that.

Well,I think it has,and I think a lot of the credit goes to George Bush who,early in his first administration had identified the US-India strategic relationship as a key objective,and he has followed through on that. That was the direction under which I came,and that has been the priority during these past five years.

&#149;It’s very interesting,it’s also been 50 years of this building I believe,that’s why you had this exhibition,and you can see the difference in mood and time…from Nehru to Mrs. Gandhi and then on to Dr Manmohan Singh. But,Ambassador,many things have been achieved,some have not been achieved,during these five years — the nuclear deal for example,a remarkable thing that happened. But would you agree that the biggest achievement (is) the complete de-hyphenating of US’s relationships in South Asia?

Well I think that’s a very big accomplishment,as much for India as for the United States because I think the automatic hyphenation was holding India back,and when I got here I made the point that we have a freestanding bilateral relationship with India with its own vision,it’s a world vision,and that is what the future holds.

&#149;You know because of the kind of tenure you’ve had,you would have had a state farewell while concluding your term — but for this 26th November business. Does it disappoint you?

Not at all,no. It disappoints me that they had the event,it’s very tragic. But the one area where I think we had not developed as much cooperation as we should,is counter-terrorism. And I think that’s happening now,partly as a result of the post-Mumbai developments,where there’s been a focus in this country on internal security,and on the business of preventing and interdicting terrorist attacks. We have been successful in that field since 9/11,and I think we can work together very effectively,and this has already begun.

&#149;There’s been some time lost there.

Well,I suppose you could say time lost but when things come right,they come right quickly and I think that is happening because I think there is clear understanding that India faces an internal security problem that’s very much within its power to ultimately solve,improve and solve,and I think that we’ve done a lot there by virtue of our own investment in people,technology,reorganising government,breaking down the cultural divisions between different units of government and security,and getting to the point where we are focused now,on counterterrorism activity,and this is really an area where we’ve made huge progress.

&#149;And you’re happy to share your expertise with India

Very happy.

&#149;The old hesitations are now gone

I think that’s right,yes

&#149;Because we’ve had the Indian home minister on this show saying that the way India has opened up everything to FBI,in this particular case,is almost unprecedented in the history of Indo-US relations.

It’s not only,I mean there’s been remarkable cooperation,a very gracious access given,but the FBI has also performed extremely well,proved to be very useful. And I think the relationship has amazed people. First of all that there wasn’t more adverse comment in the media,and now there’s a sort of acceptance that this is the way to go in the future,that will help us both.

&#149;There also wasn’t so much adverse comment because this incident has been such a shock that it has immediately settled the debate on internal security in India,at least for now,you know,that laws which had been debated and politicised for five years,got passed like this (finger-click)

Terrorism is a global problem,and it is by definition a cross-border issue,so it cries out for cooperative approaches on the part of major nations,to come together

&#149;Global problem,but with one nuance — you know,to quote Gordon Brown,85 per cent of these problems or attacks get traced back to one geographical or political entity.

Well,that’s true for the British but I’m not sure we’d make the same judgment,obviously it’s an important centre,but there is a broad global problem and we see,in the Middle-East,evidence of the nature of the problem there,in a different context. So working together to apprehend,prevent,is a different game than fighting any kind of conventional war. It’s utterly different.

&#149;You know,I’m very interested in your saying that FBI is now coming and operating,and FBI and Indian counterparts are now working together,and there’s no adverse comment in the media,right? Or in the political system,which is very sceptical and suspicious of America,large parts of it. At the same time,you don’t find the same warmth in Pakistan any longer.

Well I can’t comment on that because I’m not there,so.

&#149;Well you know a complete reversal … of FBI people not being able to go to Pakistan yet,or not getting access to….

Well,they’ve got visas,and they are going to go…So they’re finishing some things here and then they’re going to go.

&#149;They’ve got the visas,they will be going?

Yes,they will. And they’ll be going because the United States has a duty under its own law to follow these kinds of things to their source and get to the bottom of it and that’s really what we’re going to do.

&#149;And investigations that have come so far,I’m not just referring to the evidence that India has put forward,do they convince you that the root of this,the source of this,was in Pakistan?

Well,I think we’ve said that this was an attack that was managed from Pakistani soil. We’ve said that,the Secretary of State has said that when she was here,other senior officials have indicated that in the United States. And that’s one of our concerns,that that’s the way it seems to have happened.

&#149;You know what causes great disappointment in India is that after the first four or five days,the first Pakistani responses were not unhealthy,they were not unhelpful. There’s been a complete reversal there,you know,either the system is in denial,or it’s a tactical approach to deny everything,that’s caused great disappointment here.

Well,I think it’s something that has to be worked on,and I get the impression that the Indian government is effectively working on the issue,conducting successful diplomacy at the moment,because this is a global problem after all,and that’s where the focus has to come from. On the FBI,I’d like to make a point though,because what’s remarkable about this cooperation is,first of all,access was given,and it’s only for this (in India) for this event,this challenge,but the work that’s been done — it’s very much on the ground work with local police officials. It is not a sort of government-to-government high-level affair,like the kinds of things that are debated sometimes in the media. This is a very practical cooperation on a…

&#149;…nuts and bolts level?

Nuts and bolts,and it’s very effective because both sides are sort of working-level people who are finding it remarkably productive to work together and are producing results between them that are regarded as very credible.

&#149;So do we see this continuing as a long-term process or just limited to this one incident?

I think it’ll only continue if and when the government of India wants to repeat it,if it wants to. I don’t see it institutionalised.

&#149;Because the home minister of India did acknowledge,on Walk the Talk,that FBI has certain technologies that we didn’t have,and they’ve been happy to share it with us,and he seemed pleased about it.

Share them with you,work out problems with your people and immediately give you the material.

&#149;You know,no US ambassador completes a tenure in India without passing a test,which is a test of a warlike situation. I think our predecessor had about three,maybe,you’ve got one now…. were you worried?

I never came to the point where I thought there was going to be a war,nor do I think so now,I think India has been restrained. It’s rhetoric I think has been appropriately insistent and tough,on its comments about needing to get to the bottom of the thing with Pakistan,because it’s a terrorist issue. But war I think has not been something that’s been threatened by India in any sort of major way,you know..

&#149;But there’s been some ratcheting up from the Pakistani side.

Well,yes but that was a temporary phenomenon and it had apparently some benefit to them in the short term,but it hasn’t over the longer term had a benefit and I don’t think it’s there at the moment.

&#149;So it did look like a tactical ploy from that side

It did,to some extent,I have to admit.

&#149;It did seem to succeed for a while.

For a few days it seemed to get a lot of attention and stir people up,but I myself didn’t think that we were on the brink of a war there,no.

&#149;Were you woken up a few times at night?

Oh yeah,but not so much on that front. The reason is that there’s been very close work between the mission here and the White House and other entities that are involved in Washington. Because of the time changes involved a lot of backwards and forwards,not panic or emergency stuff but constructive work on how to approach different kinds of problems,and that’s been very very important.

&#149;There was one night of hoax calls,that kept everybody awake. First a call from some number to President Zardari,then a call from him to your secretary of state,which wasn’t a hoax,and then a call from your secretary of state to our foreign minister around 3 am. Did it seem at any point that there was something to it?

No it never did to me,because it seemed like a hoax call. But afterwards I think people reflected about those calls and said,well,those could have been serious problems. I think they raised questions in people’s minds about how easy they seemed to be to do.

&#149;Coming back to the nuclear deal in that marathon,was there any moment when you thought it wasn’t going to happen?

No. I thought that it was a deal that was meant to be. But it came very close a few times to meeting that test of failure but it never quite got there.

&#149;Because there were moments when anything you said hit the headlines,you almost became a rock star.

Yes,well,you may notice that for about ten months I said almost nothing except on maybe one or two occasions when I made a comment only about timetable matters. But I made no comment or interfered with the process.

&#149;And you found a new pen friend in Buddhadeb Bhattacharya…..exchanging letters.

(laughs) Yes,well,that too.

&#149;But what were the most worrying moments,when you thought things weren’t falling in place,we may run out of time?

I think the most worrying moment was in the spring of 2008 when it seemed as if we were finally going to run out of any time that would make it possible for the United States Congress to complete its work. And that became an urgent,urgent problem by the middle of June 2008,which we addressed,and the response was at that time,at that point,to move forward.

&#149;Were there times when you doubted whether the Indian political system or Dr. Manmohan Singh had the time,energy,momentum to carry it through?

Well,I didn’t doubt the prime minister but there is a political system here and there is a democracy functioning,there is a democratic process,there’s a party political process. And there were times when it seemed as if that process would ultimately make it impossible to meet the deadline. And my feeling was that if we didn’t meet the deadline and get this done in this administration,the chances of that particular deal,its content being maintained in the present format,were very minimal,and there would be a long delay. And I think that’s correct so the decision to go forward,and press unto the conclusion was very wise.

&#149;Because what this deal also does is,we always maintained,my paper and I in my writings — that this deal was not just about nuclear energy,that this deal was about redefining a worldview for India as well as the US,bringing in one thing that was missing in our relationship — faith.

Yes,I think you’re right. I think this deal was good for India because it returns India as a full player in the world and this moment in history where this particular technology is absolutely vital.

&#149;So what did the US see in it? What did President Bush see in it?

First of all,one-sixth of humanity,living in a democracy,is regarded by the president,and certainly by me,as a group that cannot be left outside the global nonproliferation system. Because bringing them in strengthens that system,and they have proven to be positive players,playing by the rules,often better than the people who signed the treaty. To leave them out would be a historic mistake.

&#149;That’s a significant point because the two countries that are now giving problems are signatories to the treaty.

That’s right. And secondly,it’s very important for the United States that India find alternative sources of energy so that it can grow. We’re partners,we want India to be successful .

&#149;Because one bunch of people who also invested capital and time in this were the NRIs.

In a big way

&#149;In a big way. And you opened out to the other end of the NRI population,which is Indians who want to travel to the US,want to work in the US,with the whole visa system… who used to come to your missions and go back cursing. It used to be a half-year project.

We had a major project here,in the middle of 2006. Indian citizens were being required to wait 187 days for an appointment for an interview for a visa to America. I took that view that is unacceptable to a friendly democracy; that we should make it so difficult to gain access. So we made a special campaign,we called it the visa blitz,at the backlog. And within a period of about three months,we reduced that waiting period for Indian citizens from 187 days to six days,anywhere in India and since then,the autumn of 2006,the waiting period has not been longer than 12 or 14 days. Everywhere in India,most of the time. So it’s a major accomplishment,and very popular with people in India.

&#149;Tell me something,before we conclude — one worry that democracies have about other democracies is: what will change when a government changes? We’re heading for a change in the US,I don’t know if we’ll have a change in India or not — do we worry about something changing in the US?

I personally don’t,for the simple reason that I believe India and America have found each other at last,and they have found each other at a time when we have not only our common values,which we’ve always had,but common interests — all kinds of common interests that are generating,driving us together and I think America has now awakened to the grand potential of India,to the importance of India to the United States. India has become very popular,the NRI effort on behalf of the civil nuclear deal was a sort of coming of age for that community and I think that this relationship is now well-established,it’s here to stay and I think it’ll move forward.

&#149;Have you been talking to the new team?

Well,I was,up until recently,but I will as soon as I get a chance to,again. They’ve been rather busy.

&#149;Well,you’ve been busy too,but tell me,when your successor meets you,over lunch or a drink,what will your advice be to him?

My advice will be first of all to tell him he has the best assignment in the world,and secondly,give him the benefit of my five years of experience here,as positively as I can.

&#149;And some do’s and don’t?

Don’t get back into the hyphenation business.

&#149;That’s a good one. And some do’s?

Some do’s would be to continue to press for better access on investment,for trade,for assistance to help India with its own transformation,it’s real agricultural transformation,this requires large-scale private investment,and we can help.

&#149;And can I add one more thing? Which has been your strength— don’t lecture Indians,because Indians can out-lecture anybody.

They don’t need it,they don’t need it. Sometimes they are very receptive to evidence about how to do something,which is different from lecturing them.

&#149;But they are not equally happy with advice on how to do something.

Well they’ll say you know,it’s a governance issue,how do you do this,and you can share notes and pretty soon you find that okay,some people are anxious to try something new.

&#149;And one more note of caution — don’t worry about the occasional midnight call: (laughs)…war’s about to break out..

I won’t do that. And I’ll be back,by the way,to see you.

&#149;Well,Ambassador,looking forward to seeing you,and this time at IPL — I believe you wanted to see a match but missed it. We all know that you’ve acquired reasonable expertise in cricket.

Thank you,Shekhar.

Transcript prepared by Amulya Gopalakrishnan

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