Talking to Kerry

Singh-Kerry talks were consequential in the past. They could be again

Written by Sanjaya Baru | Published: June 17, 2013 5:04 am

Singh-Kerry talks were consequential in the past. They could be again

Aides briefing United States Secretary of State John Kerry on his visit to India must show him a news report in this paper on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s extempore remarks to probationers of the Indian Foreign Service (‘China is a ‘phenomenon’,must study its rise,PM tells young IFS officers’,IE,June 13). Not only do the reported remarks offer a glimpse of the PM’s worldview today,they also reveal that he is once again thinking deeply about the world and may well want to focus on some unfinished international business in the months ahead. Singh’s recent meetings with China’s new leaders,with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and the outcome of the elections in Pakistan may have all played a role in shaping his thinking.

This is not the first time that Kerry will be engaging Singh in a conversation about the world. The two have had many conversations before. Singh will remember that it was Kerry’s wise counsel in late February 2008 that,in fact,motivated him to revive discussions with the Bush administration on the India-US civil nuclear energy cooperation agreement. It encouraged him to force the pace of events and get his own party and government to help him complete the negotiations.

Kerry,then chairman of the US Senate foreign relations committee,landed in New Delhi along with his US Congress colleagues,Joseph Biden,now vice president,and Chuck Hagel,now defence secretary. They were in India to discuss the situation in Afghanistan but the conversation quickly moved to the fate of the nuclear deal. Singh briefed them on the state of play and said he was still trying to evolve a domestic political consensus that would enable him to complete the negotiations with the US.

The three offered him some candid advice. They told him that India must “complete all necessary steps to conclude the nuclear deal by July-end” to ensure that the US Congress approved it before the presidential election. “Otherwise,” they warned him,“it will be very difficult for Congress to ratify it. If it is not ratified by Congress by July-end,there is no prospect.”

Kerry was outspoken. India should get the deal with a Republican president in office. The forthcoming US elections,he prophesied,would bring the Democratic Party to power. The Democrats,all three agreed,would find it very difficult to support the nuclear deal. Kerry and Biden were Democrats,Hagel was then a Republican.

It may be recalled that in late February 2008,it was still not clear whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton would get the Democratic Party nomination. They were still competing in the primaries. The US media had been reporting that if Obama won the candidacy,Biden would be his secretary of state,and if Clinton came out on top,then Kerry would be her secretary of state. However,one thing was clear. Neither Obama nor Clinton would challenge the anti-deal non-proliferation lobby in their party.

While all three focused on the requirements of the US legislative timetable,Kerry went a step further and drew Singh’s attention to the enormous influence within the Democratic Party of what the Indian strategic affairs guru,the late K. Subrahmanyam,famously dubbed “the Ayatollahs of nuclear non-proliferation”. Kerry warned Singh that a future Democratic president would not be able to do for India what President George Bush was willing and ready to do because of the influence of the non-proliferation lobby in his party and their rigid anti-India stance.

While neither Biden nor Hagel disagreed with this view,it was Kerry who readily accepted my suggestion to him,as we left the meeting with the PM,that they brief the media waiting outside and let them know what the PM had been told. He did just that.

While there has been some comment in the media about Kerry’s pro-Pakistan sympathies,on the strategic issue of the India-US nuclear deal,not only was he a vocal supporter of India,but he also went a step further and differentiated India from Pakistan. Asked if the US should offer a similar deal to Pakistan,Kerry reportedly told the media outside 7 Race Course Road on February 20,2008: “India is different,it is not a proliferator.”

That conversation between Singh and Kerry turned the tide for the nuclear deal. Between September 2007,when Congress party president Sonia Gandhi urged the PM to place the nuclear deal in cold storage rather than risk losing the support of the Left Front,and February 2008,the negotiations with the US were moving on a treadmill. All motion but no movement forward.

Kerry set the PM thinking. It was then decided that a public debate would be re-ignited to enable the PM to revive the project. The first shot was fired by Subrahmanyam. He wrote a column that India Abroad News Service (IANS) put out on March 16,2008,titled,“Will the n-deal finally go ahead?” This column revived the public debate and forced the pace of events within government,resulting finally in the completion of the deal and the approval of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG),literally days before the end of Bush’s term.

In 2008,the delegation of US Congressmen flew into India from Kabul and were expected to talk about Af-Pak. They ended up talking about more and changing the course of the bilateral relationship. This time too,the expectation is that Kerry is visiting New Delhi to talk about Af-Pak. However,his conversation with the PM may be more wide-ranging than that and may well set the stage for whatever Singh hopes to do in the realm of foreign policy for the remainder of his term.

For Singh to be able to accomplish anything meaningful in the few months left,he needs a foreign policy team that shares his vision,is competent and energetic and capable of delivering the goods.

The writer is director for geo-economics and strategy,International Institute for Strategic Studies,and honorary senior fellow,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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