Analysts took notice as they dissected the significance of an impressive array of US leaders meeting Advani. Walter Andersen, deputy director of South Asia studies at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, told Outlook, "The very fact that you had the president dropping in for such an extensive period of time (30 minutes), and the fact that the defense secretary visited him at his hotel, all go to show that the administration takes Advani very seriously as a leader. Of course, he is also a possible future prime minister." Others thought this also shows the importance the US attaches to its relationship with India.
Ironically, the weather threatened to change as soon as Advani winged out of the city. The weatherman predicted weeks of thundershowers—and this could well turn out to be true for the future of Indo-US relations as well. For, just about everyone whom Advani met wanted to know: would India accept America's request to send troops to 'stabilise' Iraq?
The request has been pending for weeks now, and all Advani could offer was the hope that New Delhi would take a decision soon. Obviously, there were reservations in India and the US needed to allay these. Always quick on the draw, the Bush administration declared it was sending a Pentagon team to New Delhi to address the Indian government's concerns. Some of which are: why are Indian troops needed? Would they be required to employ force? And, more importantly, to whom would they report? Even as you read this report, perhaps the US team is already engaged in fielding such questions from its Indian counterparts.
The Cabinet Committee on Security Affairs in New Delhi has discussed the issue twice. Its perceived reluctance is not only because the request for Indian troops hasn't been routed through the United Nations; it is also because Iraq has plunged into bloody chaos—May witnessed 85 attacks on the US forces; an American soldier died every day of the month. Add to this the massive protests against their presence and it's easy to understand why the US is keen for others to share its burden.
India is preferred because its peacekeeping experience has been laudatory. There's also the hope its presence could diminish the popular impression in Iraq that it is under foreign occupation. All this could boomerang on India—its troops could take hits and it could be perceived in Iraq and the region to have supped with the imperialists. Weighing against these is the possibility of New Delhi forging closer ties with the US, of reaping dividends from assisting the US at a time when other major powers are not rushing to bail it out from the Iraqi quagmire, of countering Pakistan on the political chessboard that South Asia has become.
Analysts here feel India's response could indicate the distance New Delhi is willing to travel to cement Indo-US ties. Says Dana Dillon, senior policy analyst at the influential conservative thinktank, Heritage Foundation, "I wouldn't go so far as to say this is a test, but I would say it is an indicator of the extent to which rhetoric is translated into action." Dillon is referring to Indian leaders who have made it a habit of visiting Washington and singing paeans to the friendship between the two countries—what Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee described as two "natural allies". He adds, "We have now offered India an opportunity to help, and whatever decision they make will show us how India defines 'better relations' with the US."
Others see Washington's request as an echo of its feeling that India is an emerging power. Explains Andersen, "The request shows that the United States considers India a major player in the Indian Ocean's affairs. The US would like to have India involved in major issues of security management. If India does send troops, people will feel it is working with the US."
Ultimately, New Delhi has to decide what it wants, and what it expects in return from the US. Dillon spells it out, "If India sends troops to Iraq, then we will have to consider India as a coalition partner that is helping us fight our war on terrorism. Can we be any less forthcoming with India? If we want India to be a good ally, we will have to be a good ally towards India." For India, agree analysts, a "good ally" would mean Washington mounting pressure on Islamabad to curb cross-border terrorism.
Now thinking of Advani, you would think him to be obsessed with Pakistan and cross-border terrorism. Yet he chose to not unduly expend his energies on the issue, prompting Indian officials to explain that New Delhi is keen to delink Pakistan from its bilateral relations with Washington. Terrorism surfaced during his meeting with Bush and Rumsfeld, and Advani said he had been assured that India's security concerns would be raised during Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf's visit to the US later this month. To the press, Advani said, "Cross-border terrorism is a problem that is essentially India's own...and we will deal with it."
There was also a reference to the unseemly leadership struggle Advani was inadvertently caught in at the time he left India. He alluded to it in his address to the nris in Washington, cryptically remarking that Vajpayee would "continue to rule the country for years". Such a pithy and prosaic comment, though, disappointed his fans as well as those from the media.
And it's not as if everyone is enamoured of the DPM. A motley crew of people, including relatives of victims of the Gujarat riots and Indian Americans, gathered outside the Indian embassy on June 10, holding placards depicting Advani with a Hitler moustache. Professor Mohan Bhagat, one of the protesters, thought it was important to stage at least a token protest against Advani—to demonstrate that the BJP-led government's policies were not acceptable to all Indian Americans.
Letters of protest were also sent to senior Bush administration officials by the Coalition to Support Democracy and Pluralism in India, an assortment of Indian American organisations. Referring to a recent cbi chargesheet against Advani, the coalition said in its letter, "His actions have undermined the global war on terror by encouraging religious extremism in India." Meanwhile, there was the controversy over the presence of family members in his extended entourage. The DPM, when asked, joked it was a matter of piety.
Advani's America visit was also crafted as an opportunity to provide a fillip to the Sangh. Its leaders in the diaspora agree that his interactions in Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York were an attempt to bolster support for the saffron brigade amongst the deeply divided community. But it looked like Advani had not properly judged these differences when he used Hindi over English to address a community reception in Washington. Some second generation and non-Hindi speaking first generation Indian Americans were later heard complaining about a "wasted evening".Wasted is hardly an adjective Advani would use to describe the trip.