It was a pretty public enunciation, made in front of 1,200 dinner guests of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), never mind the euphemisms from National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra and subsequent caveats from nervous Indian diplomats. Last week, India spoke out, leaving little ambiguity in positioning itself besides Israel and the US in terms of shared interests and common dangers. Short of using the term "alliance" for the triangular bonding, Mishra proposed, offered and expounded on just about everything to make the case—that the three countries must fight terrorism together.
It was the context that lent his words their full import. His only evening in Washington was spent addressing the annual dinner of the AJC, one of the most influential Jewish bodies. What's more, Mishra was the featured guest, with Spanish premier Jose Maria Aznar, for an evening that was themed 'A Tribute to US Allies'. And he came after a "substantive" 20-minute meeting with President Bush in the Oval Office centred around India's recent peace initiative.
But whether Mishra's trip to the US was thought up to accommodate the dinner or the confluence was mere serendipity would be splitting hair. The Indian embassy and AJC officials had been in touch since February to find a big Indian guest for the evening. Mishra obliged and in one splash painted a picture where India, Israel and the US walk into the sunset together. All three democracies.
The AJC dinner is a significant event in Washington's political and social calendar, the list of guests often extending to presidents and prime ministers. Bush addressed it in 2001, giving the group "special credit" for being a guiding light of foreign policy. Vaclav Havel, the Czech philosopher king, has praised the AJC for helping to create "an order of security and peace in Europe". Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright almost hung a halo on the group when she said, "Around the equator and from pole to pole you have done more than preach; you have taught. The benefits of your teaching have spread like manna upon the water." The edgy Indian representatives are in exalted company.
Israel and the American Jewish community reciprocate, to a degree, India's kindred aspirations. They see in India's predicament an echo of Israel's: the picture of a lonely, modern lighthouse in a sea of instability, Islamic radicalism, semi-democratic and fully autocratic regimes is what fills out this shared territory. Moreover, India has no history of anti-Semitism, nothing to hamper the "natural affinity" felt by a people who have been hounded by history.
All this bonding has an urgent, practical utility too. For India, influential Jewish groups can do some heavy-lifting with Washington's bureaucracy, which hasn't embraced the Indian gestalt quite yet. New Delhi has long envied the easy acceptance of Israeli interests as America's own. The intellectual, methodical work by Jewish groups to spread their wings across legislative and executive branches of the US government is being eagerly emulated by Indian Americans.
Indian strategists hope to harness the budding Jewish goodwill so as to penetrate the recesses of established thinking on South Asia from another direction. It will require some deft footwork to reconcile this proximity with New Delhi's historic support for the Palestinian cause. For instance, by not abjuring its old line, and saying it is only against US "double standards" on terrorism. But that is not much of a damper.
The Jewish side is beginning to cotton up to this partnership. Says Jason Isaacson, AJC's director of government and international affairs: "In time you'll see an evolution in US government thinking. The threat of terrorism is a strong point for the alliance.We have raised it at the highest levels. We are doing our part to emphasise the common thread." He feels there is now "an increased sensitivity from the time when talking about Kashmir or India-Pakistan issues meant everything was carefully balanced, spoonful by spoonful." In the public realm too, the debate on India is better informed and has gone beyond official Washington ambivalence.
The chumminess will grow when the AJC opens an office in New Delhi in the next few months, though no date has been set. An Indian figure who's been helping AJC liaise with key ministers in the NDA government will be formally named the representative, Issacson said. Established in 1906, the AJC today is an NGO with a $35 million annual budget, 33 regional offices, 1,25,000 registered members and four international offices in Jerusalem, Warsaw, Geneva and Berlin. It has consultative status with the UN. It is a 'policy guru' of sorts in the spectrum of Jewish groups that range from the hardcore political action committees to hardline anti-Muslim outfits. A common objective is to keep American policy squarely pro-Israel. Any deviation warrants swift retribution at the polls.
It is this network that the bjp covets and would like the 1.8 million-strong Indian American community to replicate. "The bjp has taken a special interest in cultivating us but it was the Congress that established full diplomatic relations with Israel. I have been to India seven times in the past eight years," Isaacson said. "This was the most public acknowledgment of the relationship between India and Israel," he added.
It seems India's coming-out party had been in the works for a year. Mishra took the plunge—softening the impact only by not naming or denouncing other countries. He recalled the prime minister had declared India and the US "natural allies," that Bush had asserted the two countries had common strategic interests. He noted that many Congressmen present at the dinner were friends of Israel and that "they are also friends of India". He announced to applause that India will "receive Prime Minister Ariel Sharon soon on an official visit".
"India, the US and Israel have some fundamental similarities. We are all democracies, sharing a vision of pluralism, tolerance and equal opportunity. Stronger India-US relations and India-Israel relations have a natural logic," Mishra offered, going on to say that as "the main targets of international terrorism, democratic countries should form a viable alliance against terrorism" that should have the "political will and moral authority" to take action. From the existing anti-terrorism coalition, "a core of democratic societies has to gradually emerge" which can take the problem head-on, he said.
Clearly, the subtext was: certain partners in the war on terrorism with dubious credentials may stay out. Hopefully his message was delivered to the White House by Andrew Card, the chief of staff, who sat on the dais listening carefully. The audience also had nearly 30 Congressmen, several former US ambassadors, the current Chinese ambassador, Jewish representatives from 46 countries, key lawyers and Wall Street deities.
Moving along new foreign policy avenues, Mishra covered considerable ground in a short, well-crafted speech. He pleased his Jewish audience when he said no distinction should be made between "freedom fighters" and terrorists. It was a fallacy, he added, that terrorism can only be eradicated by addressing its root causes. "This is nonsense. Terrorist attacks against innocents have no justification." It was a googly designed to please Israel and to remind the Bush administration to look the problem square in its face vis-a-vis Kashmir.