During a recent trip back home to India, I managed to catch up with Siddharth Varadarajan, Associate Editor of The Hindu - a national newspaper in India – at his office located at the Indian Newspaper Society, in Rafi Marg, New Delhi.
The date is July 6, 2007 and outside it’s a hot late afternoon in Delhi…
A small portion of the transcript has been slightly modified (particularly the questions) for greater clarity when reading and accuracy of historical quotes.
Karthik Ramanathan: At the Bandung Summit in 1955 in Indonesia, our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, asked of some of the SEATO (South East Asian Treaty Organisation – a security pact in South East Asia promoted by the US in the mid 20th century) countries which attended the conference the following question: Why are Britain and the United States part of the “defensive area” of Southeast Asia?
That was in the Bandung Summit in 1955. Today, our Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singh has no problems signing security pacts with the United States! Can you roughly trace the background to the radical change in India‘s stance.
Siddharth Varadarajan: I think first of all, we should clarify the kind of pact that SEATO was or the kind of pact that CENTO was — these were mutual security pacts. These are quite different from the defence agreements that India has signed with the US. I just want to clarify that. This is not to say that what India has signed is not unusual or objectionable, but it differs from those kinds of pacts – because it doesn’t envision collective security that way. What India has signed with the US is also quite different from what India had signed with the Soviet Union in 1971, and not in a better way. But nevertheless I think it is important to understand the actual nature of the defence relationship which is going on between India and the US. Essentially, on June 28 2005, India and the US signed what is called the ‘New Framework for Defence Cooperation’. This envisages a significant upgrading of the defence relationship which has been on the upswing since the early 1990s. Essentially, when this agreement was signed in 2005, a lot of joint exercises had been going on, lots of mutual training, defence exchanges… And the United States was very keen on pushing and systemising what is called ‘interoperability’ – in other words create a situation where the Indian Armed Forces and the US Armed Forces can work together. We have done a lot of exercising but somehow this element of interoperability was missing….
Karthik Ramanathan: Basically they are obviously not going to use Indian equipment, they are going to demand that we use US equipment..
Siddharth Varadarajan: Correct. Now a significant aspect of interoperatbility is we have to use similar equipment. And I think in 2004/2005, the US took a decision – in tandem with a number of changes in its policy, for example the nuclear question – that we are going to try to cultivate India as a market for military hardware, across the board: whether its Multi-Role Combat Aircraft, whether its advanced naval craft, whether its AWACS, or other kinds of surveillance aircraft, the Hercules heavy lift… the US probably decided that if we want to work with the Indian military, use Indian facilites, and eventually use the Indian Armed Forces to outsource our ‘low-end’ activities in the wider Asian region then clearly India has to be familiar with our equipment. So, the thrust of the 2005 agreement is on equipment, its on developing this interoperability, but it also envisages or creates a basis for India taking part in so-called ‘multi-national operations’ with the United States, “if both countries feel its in their mutual interest”. Now this formulation was… its been bit of a departure from earlier Indian positions because India has never agreed to take part in multi-national operations unless they are sanctioned by and led by the United Nations. So this is seen widely as a new element in India‘s policy, which clearly what the United States has been aiming to bring about through a sustained period of defence interactions. In other words, to create ground, to lay the ground for the Indian military to take part in outsourced activities. I don’t think the US realistically expects that we would ever be part of an invading coalition. That simply won’t happen. The Indian political reality is such that no government can do that. But for activities less that that – less than invading countries – they would like to use Indian facilities, Indian personnel, etc. And that’s essentially what the defence agreement of 2005 is all about.
Karthik Ramanathan: The thing is while we may never be centrally part of a invading US force, playing a supporting role nevertheless frees US forces to perform the dirty work..
Siddharth Varadarajan: In a way we can already see this. For example, the recent visit of the USS Nimitz to India…
Karthik Ramanathan:Yes, I was going to ask you about that…
Siddharth Varadarajan: The USS Nimitz came on a five-day visit to India. Many people protested, Many Indians are unhappy about it. The reason is because the Nimitz is part of America‘s intimidation diplomacy in the Persian Gulf against Iran. So you have this weapon, this warship which is there as part of a significant escalation of American deployment in the Persian Gulf – basically saber rattling – trying to threaten Iran, taking part in all kinds of offensive maneuvers.And then coming to India for an unknown reason…
Karthik Ramanathan: [laughs...]
Siddharth Varadarajan: And when asked, nobody on the Indian side was willing to say where this ship was going to sail after Chennai.
Karthik Ramanathan: They were also not willing to clarify if the ship had nuclear weapons.
Siddharth Varadarajan: Correct, but that was not the main point. See, the impression was created that this ship had finished its tour of duty in the Persian Gulf and is now on its way to wherever. But the ship went right back to the Persian gulf. So, the point is clearly this Indian port call – the call that they claim is purely a good-will visit – also enables the deployment of longer-term American offensive formations. So you can see how access to India allows the easier deployment of American offensive force, eventhough India may not be a direct participant…
Karthik Ramanathan: And like you were pointing out [in an article in The Hindu on July 5, 2007] it’s a way to anaesthetize the Indian public to what they would do in the future.
Siddharth Varadarajan: Exactly.. to cultivate… I mean ..you have the same sailors – in 2003, the Nimitz was part of the attack on Iraq — the same sailors who are complicit in the destruction of Iraq are trying [to] hoodwink people in India by cleaning up some villages as part of a PR exercise after the USS Nimitz docked at the Chennai port…[laughs.]
Karthik Ramanathan: Yes.. yes.. I wanted to ask you about that. Actually I just came to Delhi from Chennai where I’m returning from the US to see my family. I’m a temporary worker in the US, and much to my grave horror and disgust when I landed in Chennai, I discovered that the Americans (as part of the USS Nimitz crew) were there to receive me. But the point is this act of public benevolence that the USS Nimitz crew put on, with this blonde coming on-shore to kiss an Indian child at an orphanage and so on, was disgusting. I wanted your personal opinion on a hypothetical but analogous situation: Let’s assume for discussion some extremist state, say North Korea, were to send it’s forces to say some base in Pakistan and then put on masks of benevolence of the kind that the USS Nimitz crew seem adept at – I doubt the western press would even buy into it?
Siddharth Varadarajan: Absolutely. This is complete nonsense. I mean, people coming on-shore… visiting villages.. so-called cleaning up a beach… it’s really to hoodwink people in India.. My sense is that at the end of the day, despite this heavy PR exercise, people in India remain deeply uncomfortable with the idea of India playing the role of a staging post for intimidation or attacks against countries in the region. This point remains.
Karthik Ramanathan: You had an article in ‘The Hindu’ where you talk about the notion of ‘world power’ which is being presented to India. Many US policy documents, particularly from the top military documents specify that their main goal is to prevent people from acquiring even “poor man’s weapons”, that they demand “full-spectrum dominance” – which is the actual term used in the USAF documents- to prevent the emergence of even any potential rival. Given this, what does one make of the Indian governments attempts to buy into the US pledge to make India a world power? I mean, one can understand if a government doesn’t have peoples interests in mind, but this government [of Manmohan Singh] does not even seem to be having elite interests in mind. Can you have a few words on this?
Siddharth Varadarajan: Its very clear since the nuclear tests of 1998 or perhaps even earlier since the 1991 reforms began, the Indian elite, the Indian business class has global ambitions. And sees itself as a player on the world scale. Eventhough there are sections of Indian capital that feel more comfortable taking part in global developments as a junior partner to the United States, you have significant sections of Indian capital that see themselves as players by themselves and do not want to be a junior partner to anybody. Now, this US offer of ‘world power’ is an interesting one. It’s important to realize that this is an attempt by the United States to get in on the ground floor, as it were. I think the United States is very good at recognizing long-term trends. And they know and they see that in a horizon of 10-15 years, the footprint of India in economic-corporate-strategic terms is going to be much bigger than it is today and I think the US took a decision some point after the Iraq invasion and the disaster that it caused, that if we want.. if we were to cement our hegemonic role in Asia and satisfy our long-term goal of preventing rivals from coming up here and there, an alliance with India is really useful to push for. Useful in two respects: one, that you can leverage an alliance with India to check any ambitions that China may have for global dominance and two, by getting in on the ground floor you can also ensure that India does not bandwagon with other countries like China or Russia and through that process of bandwagoning creating a situation where American hegemony might either be challenged or certainly resisted in many parts of the world. So, I think this is really the sum and substance of this offer. This is not really a serious offer. It’s really a declaration of intent.
Of course, sections of the elite are flattered by this: oh wow! the Americans are going to help us and this is really great… but I think by and large, the Indian elite is quite sensible about what the offer is. The Indian government also knows what this is all about. They think they can play this very difficult game, of accommodating American interests
Upto a certain point, making use of it to get bigger and more powerful on the world stage and then at some point telling the Americans: thus far and no further. But this is a complex game. Things don’t work that way. And calibrating the degree to which you go along with a certain agenda becomes more and more difficult. The more you get enmeshed with the American military, the more you get enmeshed with the American foreign policy in the region, the harder it becomes for you to extricate yourself. Each extra-mile you travel with US foreign policy in the region limits the options that become available for any future change of policy. I think this is something the Indian government is not able to appreciate. So they know the American offer is a motivated offer, the Americans are out for themselves, but they feel well, can I make use of this offer to get a bit ahead — without realizing that the pitfalls of this strategy are really quite enormous.
Karthik Ramanathan: I wanted to ask you this question a little later. But since you mentioned that the Indian government is not able to understand the strategic game being played: Can we learn lessons from Latin America, not just as a government but as a people? Latin Americans have gone through what we are going through a couple of decades ago – in terms of training of US military officers, in terms of US supporting military regimes. Are we looking at a situation where say a possible Communist regime in India can be toppled by US trained Indian military officers couple of years down the line. Can people learn from Latin America?
Siddharth Varadarajan: Well, I think there is a lot India can learn from Latin America. But the scenarios [mentioned] are not possible really…military officers taking over. I mean, that is not on the anvil, because a communist regime is not on the anvil! What India can learn from Latin America is two or three things, particularly if you look at the last 5 or 6 years. First, the need for a more inclusive economic policy. Even if you believe in the market, even if you believe in private enterprise, it is self-defeating to think that you can have a growth model based on social exclusion. Inclusion is something that enables you to broaden the size of your market, it’s something which is good for capitalism. Ofcourse the dynamic of capitalism, particularly the kind of capitalist development that we have in India, necessarily excludes millions and millions of people. But I think some attempt has to be made to include all those who have been excluded and you can see in the last 3 years, the Congress government agreeing to being in the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA) mainly because of pressure from the Left, which is one attempt at an inclusive model.
The second thing that India has to learn from Latin America is the importance of regionalism – the importance of regional cooperation, regional collaboration. Asia is one part of the world which has no strong regional institutions of its own. You have some regional institutions like SAARC, you have ASEAN. But you have nothing which unites Asia as a whole from east to west. Either in economic terms or strategic terms or political terms. And I think India really needs to pay attention to…towards working with other Asian countries with China, with Japan, Russia to push for the creation of these institutions. Because in the absence of these institutions which would have an economic and strategic dimension, outside powers — namely the US — are very adept at playing off the insecurities that countries here have with each other. So we are always looking to the outside to play a balancing game, rather than evolving a security architecture of our own where China, Japan, Korea can resolve security differences that they may have. So, I think that is really what needs to be learned from Latin America: the inclusive economic model and the importance of regionalism.
Ofcourse, the third lesson that we learn is a negative lesson, which is the heavy cost that you pay for getting too close to the United States. But my feeling is that that’s a peculiarity of Latin America’s physical proximity to the United States – you had one hundred years of the Monroe doctrine. I don’t think India is getting into that kind of a relationship. But you are entering a situation where options that were available to India otherwise could get shrunk because of this proximity to the US.
Karthik Ramanathan: I mean developing an Asian-security architecture also has a social benefit – because we are also resolving our political-military problems…
Siddharth Varadarajan: Absolutely. Because if India and China can worry less about each other as military threats… if India and Pakistan can worry less about each other as military threats. This clearly has a social and economic spin-off. You are right.
Karthik Ramanathan: Right. The measures that Washington is taking now [vis-Ã -vis India] are no foolproof guarantee to Washington that a future government cannot choose an independent path. As it happened in Venezuela, as is happening in Bolivia, the measures which Washington are taking are not necessarily going to achieve their ends.
Siddharth Varadarajan: Absolutely. I think the US is not succeeding in turning the tide in Latin America, despite staging coups d’etat, despite doing all kinds of things. I think even in India, I remain optimistic about the future direction. I think we are at a cross roads regarding Indian foreign policy and also economic policy. Depending on pressure from below, depending on popular mobilizations, depending on popular sentiments, it is possible to limit the damaging degree of engagement that this government has begun with the US. And even to reverse it. And you reverse it not by…I don’t think anybody in this country least of all me, is looking for a inimical relationship with the US. I think one wants a relationship of equality which would benefit both. But a realistic relationship based on India recognizing that a lot of what the US is doing in this part of the world is actually negatively impacting on my security, is negatively impacting on the region. In other words, I have to then look for a policy which will constrain the US from doing some of the things it is doing in this region. And the way I do that is essentially by working with other Asian countries to push for democratic solutions to some of the problems that the US has created or says its interested in solving but which infact it is doing nothing to solve.Like Palestine for example.
Karthik Ramanathan: Right. Moving from big power to patriotism, Mr. Manmohan Singh demands patriotic Indians support the nuclear deal with the US – you know opening up the nuclear energy field to India. You know nuclear energy is something that might open in the long term, but in the medium term we are going to have to concentrate on fossil fuel reserves, etc. But there are two aspects to the nuclear deal: one that we are allowed to speak about relating to the narrow aspect of India‘s nuclear power generation and strategic deterrent. But there is another concern that is hardly spoken about: namely, they enable the conversion of Indian policy to support US acts of terrorism abroad – may not be directly, but by playing a supporting role. It sounds to me like what the British did with our jawans during the colonial domination of our people’s. Would you have any comments on that.
Siddharth Varadarajan: Well, its very clear to me that the US would like – to come back to this defence relationship which is how we began – they would like to use the Indian military for their overall power projection in this region. If you followed the debates within the United States, the Rumsfeld plan, which has survived despite Rumsfeld going, was to draw down the overall deployment of American forces – in other words deemphasize the large scale deployment of soldiers in forward bases — but have a number of smaller lily pads where they can hop from place to place.
And for that strategy to work, they need two things. First of all, access to facilities that are centrally located. And to be able to draw on friendly militaries wherever these enforcement tasks, these hegemonic tasks, cannot be handled efficiently by the small numbers of American soldiers. I will tell you concretely what I mean: see India comes in because a) It is bang in the middle of Asia. It offers excellent berthing/basing facilities. You would never see permanent American bases here. But they would like an Access [and Cross-Servicing] Agreement that would let them come and go as often and quickly as possible. Ofcourse, its not feasible for India to allow American bases. It won’t happen…
Karthik Ramanathan: You don’t think so..?
Siddharth Varadarajan: No, it’s not possible. Simply because the Indian public opinion will not put up with it. Even if a government has an inclination to allow American bases, it’s simply not going to happen. This is an issue on which a government can be toppled, will lose public support. It’s like, had Vajpayee agreed to send Indian troops to Iraq [in 2003], his government would have been in serious difficulty. That’s a classic example of where the Indian elite – the Indian so called strategic community, the political elite – was heavily leaning towards sending Indian troops to die in Iraq for Bush’s war. But at the end of the day, Vajpayee had to pull back.
We will see this again and again. I think the Americans will always try to push the envelope. And where in a sense they will succeed, is in these so-called multinational stabilizing operations/ peace-keeping operations which are not strictly UN led operations. I would like to give an example which is not all that far-fetched. If you imagine a few years down the road what’s happening in Somalia – where the Americans destabilized the so-called Islamic courts government. They pushed their new ally in the region, Ethiopia to invade. They have created a situation which they are trying to manage. Tomorrow the situation may blow up on their face. Somalia, which is teetering on the brink, may once again return to chaos. The Americans may launch airstrikes against so-called Al-Qaeda bases there. And having done the heavy fighting, they may then feel then, okay, now is the time to help with ‘humanitarian assistance’ and ‘building up of Somali institutions’. At that point, they may very well ask India to help us out here: we are not asking your soldiers to kill or die. But why don’t you go help us build schools… etc., etc. I think at that point, even though India would know that this is essentially a kind of a expeditionary suggestion, but the cost of saying ‘no’ when you have had five years of extremely close relationship would be high…
Karthik Ramanathan: By then many machines, many spare parts would have been required…
Siddharth Varadarajan: Many machines and spare parts that you need…. [saying 'no'] becomes that much more difficult. So, I think your apprehension of the US being able to draw on Indian assets or Indian military personnel is a valid one. I don’t think it will lead to a situation where we will see Indians go into fight an American war. As I said, Indian public opinion is very sensitive to these sorts of things. But you know, the ‘low-level’ outsourcing of military activities is quite possible.
Karthik Ramanathan: I had written about… I was extremely upset about the idea that we would even be supporting imperial interests sixty years after we got our independence. You know, Mr. Manmohan Singh, in his presentation at NAM (in Havana Cuba) demanded that NAM be involved in fighting terror. Here is the case of a Prime Minister going to a NAM summit to demand that we fight terrorism. But interestingly he didn’t mention the agent of the terrorism that he demanded NAM be fighting. The NAM meeting was being held in Cuba. He could have easily pointed to many acts of terrorism – namely US terrorism against Cuba. But he chose to leave the agents unmentioned. Clearly, Mr. Manmohan has the agents not as Washington, but he is talking about the terrorism carried out by Washington‘s enemies. You know its sort of like reannouncing the irrelevance of non-alignment to official India. And at the same time, he was also indicating to Washington that he is willing to lick their boots even if it meant selling out the NAM summit to US imperial interests. So, how does this [strategic relationship] tie in with India‘s position on non-alignment.
Siddharth Varadarajan: I think there are two issues which would need to be looked at separately. India has had to deal with its own issues of terrorism. After 9-11, it felt very satisfied that the US will fight our fight – namely the US will realize that Pakistan is the vortex of all these activities and that they would take Pakistan out. Now, what happened is the opposite. Pakistan, which has a very close relationship with the American military – the Pakistan military has a very close relationship with the American military – very quickly that relationship kicked in once again. Pakistan is absolutely central to American military operations in Afghanistan. Further, I would argue that if you are looking at American interests in Central Asia, Pakistan is absolutely crucial. And there is no way that the Americans are going to let down the Pakistani military. The dream of the Indian establishment that ‘my alliance with America will help me deal with Pakistan‘, it was a figment of their imagination. A better way to deal with Pakistan is what the government has attempted to do now, which is actually through serious negotiations. Now, the problem remains, however, that you have a military regime in Pakistan which has shown some willingness to negotiate but its own stability is under attack inside the country. It is really hard to see what will happen. But I think the Indian side has to realize that there is no military solution to the problem of Kashmir or even to the problem of terrorism. Yes, if somebody is trying to kill innocent civilians – you have to investigate, punish them, oppose them, do what it takes… but to think that this problem can go away without engaging in serious negotiations with Kashmiris, with Pakistan, is to really live in a fool’s paradise. At the global level, I think the Indian establishment also realizes that the American approach to combating terrorism is in many ways counter-productive. What they have done in Iraq for example, has increased the number of suicide bombers many fold. I don’t think these many suicide bombers existed in the Arab world…
Karthik Ramanathan: If I remember, there were no suicide bombers in Iraq since the 13th century [until the US invasion].
Siddharth Varadarajan: Exactly. This is, you know, something the Indian establishment realizes. I think the Indian establishment realizes that if the US were to commit the same folly in Iran, this would have very very serious repercussions.
The other issue which you raise is one of NAM. Condoleeza Rice, in a statement at the US-India Business Council meeting in Washington, attacked the Non-Aligned Movement and said India should in a sense… She said Non-Alignment may have had a relevance in a world which was divided into blocks. Today there are no more blocks, what you have are values. And India should get together with the United States on the basis of democracy promotion and so on and so forth. Now, this upset a lot of people in India. For two reasons.
One, you know, what values are we talking about? I think people in India believe in democracy… the American people believe in democracy but the Bush administration doesn’t seem to do that. So you can have regimes, I mentioned Ethiopia earlier. Ethiopia is right now imprisoning opposition politicians. Does that worry the Bush administration. No. it doesn’t. Why? Because you want Ethiopia to go and attack Somalia. So, this attachment to ‘democratic values’ is purely instrumental… And to suggest that America has any attachment to these values is pure nonsense.
And secondly, you know, why should India abandon its own friends, its own alliances, its own groupings? If this is the price of an agreement with the US… I think India wants friendship with the US, but its not looking for such extremes of engagement. I think we want friendship with the US, but also with China, also with Russia, also with the Non-Aligned Movement. I think the challenge for Indian diplomacy is really to manage all of these relationships and essentially to manage these completely unrealistic expectations that the United States has with regards to its approach to India.
Karthik Ramanathan: Thank you Siddharth!
Siddharth Varadarajan: You are welcome.