OK, the Bush Administration can be accused of doing some things right. It sent a strong signal to India last week with a spanking new package of tantalizing new possibilities. With one broad stroke, it tried to remove decades of doubt and eons of suspicion, offering India F-16s, F-18s, joint production, space cooperation and even the possibility of civilian nuclear technology. It was bold thinking and came from a president who doesn’t mess with the gray, only black and white. George Bush is willing to put content into all the "nice" talk of India and the United States being fellow democracies. To be sure the vision is coming top down because boldness doesn’t burgeon in a bureaucracy.
But clear as the vision is, it must have political wings to fly to convince the people and cynics in both countries that it’s for real. A big sale, a tangible symbol of the new friendship or a gesture of mutual trust -- something that people can feel in their gut -- will give the partnership momentum which no dialogue, initiative, joint working group or declaration can lend. Whether it is India buying Boeing airplanes or Indian space vehicles launching US payloads or Washington taking a leap and supporting India’s candidacy for UN Security Council membership -- an early political move will add propellers to the engine.
True, the India package is an act of "transformational diplomacy" -- a term used by Condoleezza Rice, the woman in charge of the American worldview. Simply put, the Americans have made some clear calculations and they find India a near-perfect fit. Consider the words a senior administration official used while outlining the package: The "goal is to help India become a major world power in the 21st century." He went on to add, "We understand fully the implications, including military implications, of that statement." Bush and Rice have developed the outline for a "decisively broader strategic relationship" with India and put a lot on the table. India will now have to decide whether or what it can digest.
It is clear a new boss is in charge of US diplomacy. Rice sees American interests in India that Colin Powell was perhaps unable to see. The tone and language both have changed and the contrast is breathtaking. Last year after the agreement on Indo-US strategic partnership was initially announced by Bush and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a senior US diplomat went out of his way to paint it as negative. Wearing his lack of interest in India as a badge of honour, he went the extra mile to undermine the announcement, piled up the price Washington expected from New Delhi and then rubbed salt in the wounds by "balancing" the announcement with a similar one for Pakistan. He was following his master, I suppose, because Powell had portrayed the agreement as a price to get the "Indians" off his back and bring "closure" to their demands in an interview to The Washington Post. The message: the Americans were going kicking and screaming.
No longer. They are going singing and skipping. Key officials in key places -- the Pentagon, the State Department and White House -- in the second Bush round are looking at Indo-US relations in a different light. The top layer is clearly enthusiastic, the second rung will follow and the working level bureaucrats will hopefully feel the winds of change and adapt. Philip Zelikow, "counsellor" to the State Department, is a key appointment. As the director of one of the most prestigious Indo-US track II dialogues, he knows the issues and can see the political buttons. And as a long-time friend and co-author with Rice, he has a hotline to the secretary.
But the love story with India has a definite twist. The Americans need a strong India as a counterweight to the unmentioned gorilla in the equation -- China. Bush’s brain trust of neo-cons is not convinced the dragon will be entirely friendly when it truly begins to breathe fire with its economic and military muscle. Watching China carefully, they are positioning themselves for the future. For them China is the last remaining democracy project, having "done" the East Bloc, the Soviet Union and started the process in the Middle East.
Even Pakistan fits in as a bridge to China in the future and a few F-16s to keep them happy is a small price for a big project. Bush has reversed a 15-year ban on those coveted toys for the military boys, to keep them quiet and cooperating. The jets are supposed to make the Pakistani military feel more macho and "secure". India will wait and see whether Gen. Pervez Musharraf acts more difficult or more reasonable with a new fleet of F-16s in his arsenal. But the jets are not flying to Islamabad tomorrow -- it will be at least three years before the first one is delivered. If he indulges in fantasy adventurism, the gravy train can stop. The US Congress will hold hearings, ask tough questions since F-16s is a major weapon system and hopefully put tough benchmarks for Musharraf’s cooperation in the decidedly cold trail of Osama bin Laden, the vast network of nuclear retail king A.Q. Khan and stopping cross border terrorism into India.
But there is more than enough on the table for India to ponder. Well-informed sources tell me that the F-16 the Americans will offer India will leave the Mirage 2000 way behind. "It is simply a much superior plane," said someone closely involved with the details of the India package. It will have better sensors, better weapon systems and even better aero dynamics. "We want to show India we are reliable partners and are not shying away from offering the best." Indian officials have reservations about US weapons because of the American tendency to slap sanctions and stop supplies, a complication the French and the Russians rarely suffer from.
Will the US Congress go along with all these transformational offerings? "Show me one Democrat who will stand up and say: ‘We don’t want to give India this or that," said this adviser. The US Congress clearly understands that the relationship with India is an insurance for a future filled with China. Besides, the Republicans are in majority in both houses and along with a Republican White House, it makes for a rare confluence of stars. A good forecast is expected.