Statement to the Panel on 'Perspectives on the President's trip to South Asia' - The Henry S. Stimpson Center and the Brookings Institution, March 15, 2000.
Statement by Mr. T.P. Sreenivasan
Charge d'Affaires, the Embassy of India
1. An old admonition in my native tongue goes: “Do not describe the festival which you are just about to witness.” In less than a week, President Clinton will reach India and all of us will see with our own eyes directly or on television the chemistry of two democracies rediscovering each other. This is indeed, as the ‘Hindustan Times’ suggested, “a time for silence”. The preparations are nearly over, the commentators have spoken and now it is time to leave it to the leaders themselves to see whether they have the vision to go beyond the analysts and the soothsayers and chart out a new course for their two countries to work together for the common good.
2. If you will forgive me a bit of autobiography, my tenure in Washington can be characterized as “assignment Clinton visit”. My assignment began with a meeting with the then Prime Minister of India, Mr. I.K. Gujral on the very day in September, 1997 when he returned from New York after a cordial meeting with President Clinton. Mr. Gujral had a sense of urgency about arranging the President’s visit to India at short notice and he urged me to proceed to Washington to prepare for it. More than two eventful years have passed since then and recently when Mr. Gujral was in Washington, we shared a sense of fulfillment that the visit was taking place, even though neither of us had much to do with it. I do not know of another visit with a longer gestation period.
3. I am an optimist when it comes to high level visits because there is a certain inevitability of success about them. There may have been instances in which an open microphone in the wrong place may have soured a visit or an insensitive comment may have been played up in the media. But, by and large, the preparations beforehand ensure that the visits go off smoothly and there are no surprises. This visit is indeed well prepared. In a way, the many dramatic events that contributed to the delay of the visit actually contributed to its preparations.
4. Elections in India, two of them in two years, were a reason for the delay of the President’s visit. But these elections demonstrated, more than ever before, the resilience and the vibrancy of our democratic polity. The emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party as the dominant partner in the ruling coalition after these elections and the interaction the US had with it in the last two years have generated mutual confidence between the two Governments. The vigorous pursuit of economic reforms by the present Government reassured the business community here that there would be continuity in economic policies regardless of changes in the Government. The period was essential for the two Governments to feel confident about building structures for dialogue in various areas which will last for many years to come.
5. The other dramatic development that delayed the visit was testing by India of nuclear weapons in May 98. The initial recrimination was so intense that it appeared as though the visit would not take place at all. But the tests set in motion the most intensive and sustained dialogue in the history of Indo-US relations on disarmament and non-proliferation. India became confident enough to enter into such a dialogue after the tests. The contours of India’s nuclear policy emerged as the dialogue went on and, as of today, there is greater understanding between India and the US of each other’s security needs than at any time before. India has declared a moratorium on tests and a no-first-use doctrine. From a position of total rejection of the CTBT, India has moved to the stand that it will not stand in the way of the Treaty entering into force. On the US side, there is no more talk of roll back and elimination of India’s nuclear capability and there is a recognition of India’s need for a minimum credible nuclear deterrent. In other words, the atmosphere is now conducive for a discussion on these issues during and after the President’s visit.
6. Another development which made an impact on the preparatory phase of the President’s visit was the Kargil conflict. For the first time in 52 years, the US supported the Indian position, identified Pakistan as the aggressor and actively worked to end the conflict and to vacate aggression. India developed a new confidence in the US on account of the way US approached the Kargil conflict. Moreover, Kargil led to an evolution of the US position on Jammu and Kashmir as reflected in the most recent statement by the Secretary of State: “Tangible steps must be taken to respect the Line of Control. For so long as this simple principle is violated, the people of Kashmir have no real hope of peace”, she said.
7. The Christmas eve hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight, a most deplorable incident in itself, also contributed to the preparations for the visit. Throughout the hijacking, the two Governments remained in close touch, not just because there was a US citizen on board, but also because the incident was a most eloquent expression of the common danger faced by the two countries from the same terrorist source. The event heightened concerns about terrorism and highlighted the prospects for cooperation between India and the United States in combating terrorism. A Joint Working Group on Counter Terrorism announced in January, 2000 has opened up a new avenue of cooperation between the two countries, an avenue of cooperation bonded in blood.
8. The extended period of preparations also brought about intense interaction between the two countries at all levels. The administration, the Congress, the think tanks and the media in the US never had such an Indian bonanza. After every incident and at every stage, every forum came out in favor of a Presidential visit to India and outlined an agenda for it. The wealth of resolutions, speeches, letters and literature generated over this period examined every aspect of Indo-US relations and gave the President a solid background to work on.
9. I am indeed optimistic about the visit. My optimism is not that solutions will be found for all problems, but that the visit will create structures and mechanisms to continue the dialogue being set in motion by the two leaders. The President will see India and, through him, the United States will see India. Modern India will be symbolized by a three year old boy who can operate Microsoft Windows. The Indian civilization will be reflected by the Taj Mahal and the forts of Rajasthan. The Indian villages and wildlife sanctuaries will open new vistas for our visitors.
10. We firmly believe that any foreigner who visits India returns as a friend. President Clinton, who has described a visit to India as “a missing piece in his life”, is already a friend and we hope that he will return as an ally.