Someone should remind India's strategists of the cliché -- when in Rome, do as the Romans -- before they plan their next trip abroad. Otherwise, once again they will come, they will see but will fail to conquer. They were in New York to participate in the great drama of international players staged annually at the UN General Assembly and make India’s case both as a long-suffering victim of terrorism and as a legitimate candidate for the high table of the UN Security Council.
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee spent eight long days in New York but you would never have known reading the US press. This when President George Bush is waging a global war on terrorism and furiously trying to enlist leaders to join hands to clean up the mess his war on Iraq has created. India is a "player" on both counts. The Americans really want to outsource this job to India.
But India was strangely absent from the scene. Nothing personified it more than Bush’s speech to the UN, the opening act to four days of sermons and counter-sermons. He began with a list of cities where terrorists had struck over the last year -- Bali, Mombassa, Casablanca, Riyadh, Jakarta and Jerusalem but he forgot Bombay where two bombs exploded close to the Gateway of India just a month ago. Bombay hadn’t found a spot on Colin Powell’s list either in his 9/11 anniversary speech when he named 12 cities, including Karachi, Bogota and Moscow, where bombs had blown up innocents.
But as they say, once can be a mistake, twice is strategy in Washington.
Were these omissions mere slips? Or does Bombay not fit the alliterative scheme of speech writers? Or is it that India just doesn’t register as a country battling the same scourge as the US, a partner and fellow victim? I think it is the latter. Official Washington hesitates to name Bombay in the same breath as Jerusalem, lest it shine the light on Pakistan. There is queasiness about calling a hatchet a hatchet in South Asia, given the delicate waltz in progress. After all, Bush is wooing both India and Pakistan for different reasons and for separate ends. He gives Vajpayee a fancy lunch in New York to make up for the Camp David treat for Gen. Pervez Musharraf in June.
But what of The New York Times or The Washington Post or other important pillars of the US media establishment? Why don‘t see they see India’s story? They have labelled Pakistan as a "dubious ally" and questioned Musharraf’s credentials, but they haven’t quite accepted India as a victim of Pakistani policies with the same fervour.
And this is where New Delhi has no one but itself to blame. It simply hasn’t told its story. The art of public relations is alien to the Indian establishment.
In this frenzied environment where plotting media exposure is an art, Indian politicians and diplomats seem out of synch with their determined refusal to do make their case. Even the relative novices on the scene, Hamid Karzai and Ahmad Chalabi did better. Chalabi, fast slipping out of American control, used the megaphone of the New York Times to say he doesn’t want "foreign troops" in his Iraq.
In the eight days that Vajpayee was in New York, he made many speeches, delivered them indifferently except when he was speaking extempore but he gave no interviews to US journalists, met no editorial boards of influential newspapers and generally stayed hidden. Yes, Indian strategists were shielding Vajpayee from the glare of western media lest his long pauses obfuscate India’s case even more.
At his sole press conference, meant only for the Indian media, there was a three-way eye contact set up among Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra, Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha and Spokesman Navtej Sarna to decide when the prime minister had finished answering a question. Many times, their combined skills failed and they made the wrong call. Yes, in this state Vajpayee can’t tackle the television sound bite brigade where a five-minute interview could become an eternity.
But the question remains: why couldn’t he meet American print journalists and senior editors? They are a patient breed specially if there is a good story to tell. And now India does -- it is a strategic ally of the US, it is a victim of another US ally’s machinations, it is a serious contender for an expanded UN Security Council and its trade with the US is growing despite a withering downturn in the American economy.
And if language was an issue, surely a young, skilled translator could be found to convey Vajpayee‘s charming sense of humour and political wisdom in English. But no, he remained obscured from the public eye and yet another visit went by as all have in the past -- unnoticed and unsung. He did meet his extended family and various BJP operatives abroad who will help in fund-raising for the election.
Even if Vajpayee couldn’t or wouldn‘t face the press, surely other senior members from India‘s teeming delegation -- Sinha or Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal -- could be fielded. Sibal proved he has a mean sound bite in him -- the "annual Kashmir itch" was his formulation. But there was no strategy to go public. It was as if the same old civilizational taboos, the same old Bramhinical hang-ups were at play.
Someone should tell the PMO to wake up and smell the coffee. The longer it takes for India to hammer home its story in public, the longer it will take to change US policy which tends to "forget" that Pakistan is involved in cross-border terrorism. The media exposure would create an important pressure point in favour of India.
Look at the contrast -- Musharraf grants interviews left, right, and center, appears almost manic in his attempt to sell his story. The voluble general started talking on his plane and never stopped, even daring to mock his hosts and patrons with "Let the CIA find Bin Laden if it can".
Even though The New York Times published a scathing editorial about Pakistan’s double games in the war on terrorism the day he landed, he still kept his appointment with the paper’s editorial board. So there he was on the front page the next day, arguing his case, denouncing India and painting himself as the best thing since Ataturk.
He attended every conference, every meeting where he could hammer the Kashmir issue and talk about the need for "enlightened moderation" in the Islamic world. He was on ABC television, at the UN addressing a full fledged press conference, not restricting himself to the safety of Pakistani journalists. Whether his message hit home is another matter. But he tried. His diplomats know how to exploit the moment.
India, on the other hand, was missing in action. Absent in print, silent on the airwaves, it just wasn’t on the scene. The big strategists decided to even opt out of a major international conference organized by the Norwegians just because Musharraf was attending and, of course, speaking.
This self-defeating gesture was justified thus: "We have to watch what company we keep." Adopting this superior attitude hardly helped India’s cause or the its projection as a victim of Musharraf’s dangerous game. Israelis and the Palestinians -- surely theirs is a bloodier dispute -- found it acceptable to address the conference but not New Delhi.
In a country like the United States, where only the loudest get heard, the superior Indian shrug just doesn’t work.