U.S. - India Relations into the 21st Century Post Presidential Visit - Summer meeting of Indian American Forum of Political Education in Washington, DC - July 11, 2000
I congratulate the IAFPE, particularly President Swadesh Chatterjee, on organising the Summer Meeting of the IAFPE in Washington. I do so on behalf of Ambassador Naresh Chandra who happens to be in Boston to attend important ceremonies associated with the visit of an Indian Naval Ship.
Much has been said and written about President Clinton's visit to India. In fact, it is difficult to say anything new about the impact of the visit on Indo-US relations. Adjectives such as historic, path breaking, crucial, fruitful, successful etc have been used by commentators. True, no other visit of a head of state has left a deeper impression in the minds of the Indian people in recent times. In my view, the significance of the visit lay in the transformation it brought about in the image of the United States in India. Virtually overnight, the US became a sympathetic, reasonable and sensitive friend in the eyes of the Indian people. The end of the cold war had removed the vestiges of mutual suspicion, but it took another ten years for the two nations to see each other for what they are and not for their past inclinations and proclivities. Policies did not change dramatically on either side. Nor was there new agreement on crucial issues. But the sensitivity to Indian public opinion that President Clinton showed in his articulation of US policies captured the hearts of his audiences in India. India has begun to believe that the US will understand Indian policies better and that it will respect India's legitimate aspirations and claims. The US today has a glittering image in India, thanks to President Clinton.
Speaking of the American image abroad, an interesting story comes to mind. There was this young American soldier who boarded a train in England on his way back from a grueling training session somewhere in Europe. Our friend was exhausted and was anxious to sit. He walked from one end of the train to the other. There was no empty seat. But he noticed a row of three seats occupied by an elderly English lady, her dog and an Englishman. The American soldier approached the lady and asked whether she would move the dog to the floor and give him that seat. The lady was furious. She said that she always knew how rude the Americans were, but this was indeed the limit. The soldier took another round of the train and came back. He suggested even more politely this time that the lady could easily accommodate the dog in her lap. This provoked her to say even more uncomplimentary things about Americans.
The soldier walked away and tried to find some place to rest his tired frame. Having failed to find a place, he came back and made what he thought was a most reasonable offer. He said that he would keep the dog in his own lap if he could sit on the seat. The lady said that even among Americans she had not seen such arrogance and stupidity. The young man could not take it anymore. He grabbed the dog, threw it out of the train and sat down. The lady was too shocked to say a word. But the Englishman, who was watching the entire episode, spoke for the first time. "You Americans are indeed strange people", he said, " you drive on the wrong side of the road, you use the wrong spelling for English words, and look at what you have done. You have thrown the wrong bitch out of the train!"
Well, our perception of America may have been equally unjustified. But I believe that the change in perception has come about because the US has recently rediscovered India. Geopolitical changes, liberalization of the Indian economy, the extraordinary talents of the Indian people in areas such as medicine, engineering, information technology etc have been cited as reasons for this rediscovery. But the point to remember is that India has always looked upon the US with admiration and friendship. India was inspired by the cardinal elements of the US constitution, India had significant trade with the US even during the cold war, US technology and equipment were used in the most sensitive areas of Indian science and technology and Indian agriculture, Indian students and professionals came to these shores to seek knowledge and new opportunities. In other words, there was no ideological barrier to inhibit Indo-US co-operation at any time. If anything, our common colonial heritage, our linguistic affinity and cultural links should have been the catalysts for a flourishing relationship. It was, therefore, not surprising that there was immediate resonance in India to the new Indian orientation that the second Clinton administration gave to US foreign policy.
Even while basking in the sunshine of President Clinton's visit, we should remember that, ironically, the biggest crisis in Indo-US relations also came during the second Clinton administration. India was taken by surprise by the intensity of the reaction that the nuclear tests elicited from the US. We were surprised because India had maintained its nuclear option for many years, India's tests were meant only to create a minimum credible deterrent and India had already declared a no-first use doctrine. The fact that a successful Presidential visit took place within a short period of two years after that crisis is sufficient testimony to the maturity and wisdom of the two countries. A relationship that has emerged from the crucible of that crisis can be neither ephemeral nor transient. It has the strength provided by the expectation of mutual and global benefits.
In specific terms, President Clinton's visit charted out a vision for India -US relations and built an architecture to encompass that vision. What remains to be done by the two nations is to make that vision a reality by utilizing the institutional structures that are already in place. The forthcoming visit of the Indian Prime Minister and many less spectacular visits and conversations will contribute to the realization of that vision. The rationale of the new relationship has been so well delineated that successive governments in both countries will find it compelling and attractive to follow the path that President Clinton and Prime Minister Vajpayee have opened.
The Indian American Forum for Political Education and the Indian American community in general have not been mere spectators of the growth of the new relationship between India and the US. They have been active players in this evolving friendship and they need to remain engaged to sustain the present momentum. India has learnt to rely on the Indian communities abroad to foster relationships with the countries of their adoption. Nowhere has this resource been more valuable than in the US. The increasing prestige of the Indian community in the US has contributed immensely to the image of India as a nation. A country that has been a mother to such a community cannot but deserve the respect of those who have benefited from their wealth of skills. Moreover, many of you have taken upon yourself the responsibility of actually working for Indo-US friendship because you realize that just as your name and prestige add luster to India, good Indo-US relations contribute to your own standing in the US. The investments you make in beneficial co-operation between India and the US are investments in your own future.
I have heard it articulated in this forum that it is legitimate for Indian Americans to have a point of view different from that of India and America. No one will dispute this assertion. But a deeper analysis will show that there is no reason for different perspectives when it comes to the imperatives of Indo-US relations. The objectives of the Embassy of India and the people of Indian origin are not different when it comes to dealing with our host country. We both seek goodwill for India; we both seek understanding of India. We both try to interpret our country and its policies to the American people. The fact is that all our efforts in this country are directed towards better understanding and better relations, not towards gaining unilateral advantages for ourselves.
For instance, we shall need to work together when amendments are moved in the House this week or next week to curtail US aid to India. Clearly, what is at stake is not the quantum of assistance sought to be curtailed, but the record of India as a champion of democracy and human rights. We shall bank on those who understand both India and the US to put matters relating to human rights in India in perspective and not allow complications to arise in our relationship. We welcome moves to curtail economic sanctions like the initiative of Senator Brownback more for the reason that they reflect adversely on our policies than because they deprive us of economic benefits. Indian American efforts to help in these cases are in support of both India and the US.
In fact, India and the Indian Americans worked together before, during and after President Clinton's visit and we have a joint responsibility to carry the torch forward. This event that brings together the opinion makers in the US to ponder over the visit and the steps that need to be taken in the future is a commendable step taken by the Indian American Forum for Political Education.