Saying Namaste to President Bush

On January 30, 2006, the results of an expansion and reshuffle of the Union Cabinet sent waves of shock through some sections of the Indian public.  The Cabinet reshuffle in the nation’s capital came in the wake of a week that had been rendered turbulent by reactions to a statement in which David Mulford, U.S. Ambassador to India, warned the Government of India of serious consequences if it failed to vote with the U.S when the issue of Iran’s nuclear program came before the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on February 2.   Soon thereafter, the left-liberal newspaper The Hindu reported that the United States had taken strong exception to India’s recent decision to buy a Syrian oilfield in partnership with China and had issued a demarche asking the Indian Government to "reconsider" its proposed investment.  The same week the U.S. Ambassador chose to air public criticism of the Left Parties’ opposition to opening  India’s retail sector to foreign investment.  David Mulford’s statements were condemned as insolent meddling with India’s domestic and foreign affairs.  Spokespersons for the Left parties denounced the U.S. ambassador as a serial offender against India’s sovereignty and called for his recall.    

This charged atmosphere of public anger and outrage formed the backdrop for the reshuffle of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet of Ministers.  The Prime Minister, head of the Congress led ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), maintained a conspicuous distance from the ongoing recrimination.  The reshuffle of the Union Cabinet, the body that has collective responsibility for the policies of the Government of India, was by no means an exceptional or uncalled for procedure.  The event was necessitated by a number of vacancies in the Cabinet.  What was extraordinary was the shifting of the dynamic Mani Shankar Aiyar, the Cabinet’s best-performing Minister, from the crucial Petroleum and Natural Gas portfolio to a lightweight Ministry.  This unexpected demotion gave rise to a flood of speculation regarding motives for such an overtly self-defeating action on the part of the power wielders in the Congress-led UPA.  The Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas had been deprived overnight of outstanding leadership at a time when it faced the challenge of meeting the energy needs of an economy for which recent and credible predictions of an annual growth rate of  8-10 percent had been made.  The inexplicable ouster of Mani Shankar Aiyar was greeted with a storm of protest in editorial articles and letters to the editor.  Among those who responded to the news, there were some who called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to explain his decision to the nation.

Asked for his reaction, Mani Shankar Aiyar, a steadfast Congress loyalist, gamely said that the change of portfolio was overdue as his charge at the Oil Ministry had continued long beyond the temporary assignment made when the Congress-led government was elected to power in May 2004.  But it was not long before news commentaries started making a link between U.S. demands, the upcoming India visit of President Bush in the first week of March, and the all too startling demotion of Mani Shankar Aiyar.  The Hindu editorial on the Cabinet reshuffle suggested that the Petroleum Minister had been dropped to avoid embarrassment to the U.S. ahead of President Bush’s March visit.  In a column that appeared at the time of the build up to the invasion of Iraq, Mani Shankar Aiyar, at that time a Member of the Opposition in India’s Lok Sabha or lower House of Parliament, had drawn an extended analogy between Adolf Hitler’s regime change policies and those proposed by the Bush Administration.  He had appended the following note to an essay that was entitled "Hi Bush to Heil Boche:" Incidentally, “Boche’ is the French pejorative for German soldier, in use since the First World War. However, the resemblance between Bush and Boche is not merely onomatopoeic.  Perhaps the more uptight among Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s coterie feared that the Union Minister of the Government of India would greet the President of the richest and most powerful country in the world with an adaptation of the Nazi salute.

Mani Shankar Aiyar’s distinguished tenure in the Oil Ministry had been marked by disregard of the strategic interests of the U.S. in Asia.  A natural gas pipeline connecting Iran, Pakistan and India (the IPI project) had been talked of for longer than a decade.  In the last year or so, talks on the pipeline had reached an advanced stage, and the undertaking seemed to be nearing realization largely due to painstaking and unremitting diplomacy on the part of the Oil Minister.  During a trip to South Asia in mid-March 2005, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice had issued a strident call for the abandonment of the IPI project by India as well as Pakistan.  In preparation for her visit, David Mulford, U.S. Ambassador to India, had met Mani Shankar Aiyar to express his concern over the IPI project.  The Petroleum Minister had the temerity to remain undeterred by American opposition to a project that held the potential of undermining U.S. objectives of isolating Iran regionally.  The feasibility of extending the gas pipeline to China was also under consideration.  Mani Shankar Aiyar made headlines in financial dailies when he concluded key energy cooperation agreements in a January 2006 visit to China.  The Minister’s vision of energy based ties was one that went beyond the IPI project to encompass a trans-Asia energy grid that would link the far-flung countries of the region in relations of economic interdependence and turn Asia into an industrial powerhouse.  No wonder alarm bells had been ringing in Washington D.C.  Although the IPI project had been the sole explicit target of U.S. opposition, there can be no doubt that the emergence of a strong, resurgent Asia would endanger U.S. hegemony. 

There was further cause for U.S. disquiet.  The post September 2001 consolidation of U.S. military presence in Central Asia and the establishment of sprawling U.S. military bases had not gone unnoticed by Russia and China.  The recent engineering of velvet revolutions in former republics of the Soviet Union was of particular concern to Russia.  The long dormant regional security organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) consisting of China, Russia and the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, acquired new momentum in reaction to the U.S. military buildup in Central Asia.  At the SCO summit that met in Kazakhstan in July 2005, the leading members China and Russia called for a timetable for the departure of U.S. troops from Central Asia.  India and Iran were given observer status at the SCO summit.  Shortly thereafter, Uzbekistan repudiated its ties with the U.S. and evicted the superpower from a military base that had served as a hub for combat missions from the time of the U.S. attack on Afghanistan.  The re-assertion of the SCO and the expulsion from Uzbekistan were clearly alarming developments from the standpoint of their implications for U.S. domination of Central Asian energy resources.  Naturally, U.S. policymakers could be expected to take swift action to check and contain an Asian ascendance that could threaten U.S power in the region.   

Addressing a press conference on January 30, a spokesperson for the Congress party denied that Washington had pressured it to remove Mani Shankar Aiyar from his post of Union Minister of Petroleum.  On this question no doubts whatsoever could be found to exist in the minds of readers who wrote to the left-liberal daily The Hindu the following day.  Here are some sample opinions: "The Prime Minister and his coterie have left none in doubt that U.S. pressure works in portfolio allocation too," "The shifting of Mr. Aiyar seems to confirm the existence of a U.S. lobby and the Government’s desire to please it," "The view that the ministerial changes are nothing but an exercise to appease Uncle Sam is not without substance" and so on.  Many of these respondents also noted that the incoming energy minister had been handpicked for his corporate image and his closeness to American business interests.

It will be relevant–albeit for many Indians deeply saddening–to recall some key moments in a steady downward trajectory that has found a recent manifestation in the form of the ouster of an intelligent and far-sighted Cabinet Minister whose services to his country became an obstacle to U.S. geopolitical  designs in Asia.  In the Cold War period, India was one of the founding members of the Non Aligned Nations, a loose grouping of developing countries which desired to pursue a foreign policy free of great power coercion.  During this period India was regarded as leader and champion of the developing world and her representatives often spoke out against U.S. policies in international bodies like the U.N.  Subsequent to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Indian foreign policy underwent a period of uncertainty.  On the domestic front, the Congress, the party which had enjoyed almost uninterrupted domination of Indian politics since India’s attainment of independence in 1947, was going through a period of decline.  The nineties saw the meteoric rise of the fascist and right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which espoused an ideology of  militant nationalism that went hand in hand with hatred of India’s non-Hindu minorities: Muslims and Christians.  This party formed a government at the center in 1998 and also inaugurated the era of Indian deference to Washington through its strenuous pursuit of a so-called Indo-U.S. strategic partnership.  During the BJP’s tenure in power (March 1998- May 2004) Israel emerged as one of India’s principal arms suppliers. Closeness to Israel came to be viewed as a route to the corridors of power in Washington. Independent India’s traditional support for Palestinian rights became increasingly diluted as a result of the growth of military ties with the Jewish state. In 2003 India’s then National Security Advisor found many supporters in Washington when he called for a strategic Indo-U.S.-Israel axis for defeating terrorism that was projected as being exclusively Islamic in character.  

In the initial phase of engagement, the U.S. was positioned at the receiving end of courtship that emanated from India.  This situation started to change in mid 2003 when the tenacity of Iraqi resistance to U.S. occupation exposed the limits of U.S. military power.  Endowed with an active army that is the third largest in the world, India was perceived by the Bush Administration as potentially capable of contributing a sizeable body of troops to support the Occupation.  India was approached for military assistance.  National elections loomed on the horizon and Indian public opinion was strongly opposed to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.  Citing domestic constraints, the BJP-led government turned down the U.S. request for Indian troops. In retrospect this moment must be regarded as a turning point for the so-called strategic Indo-U.S. partnership.  U.S. policymakers must have started recognizing the need for playing a proactive role in cultivating a long-term, alliance for safeguarding U.S. hegemony by harnessing the strategic weight of India’s military strength.

A change of guard took place in India in May 2004 when the unexpected downfall of the BJP in national elections brought the centrist Congress-led UPA to power.  The survival of the new coalition was dependent on the support of communist parties which had often taken issue with Washington’s policies.  Despite this dependency, the government seemed anxious to further ties with the U.S.  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paid a state visit to the U.S. in July 2005 and was received with much fanfare.  The visit to Washington was marked by the inking of a deal whereby President George Bush undertook to approach the U.S. Congress to ratify an adjustment of U.S. laws and treaties to extend full cooperation to India in the area of civilian nuclear energy.  The agreement was exceptional because U.S. law prohibits nuclear assistance to states that have not signed the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and have not accepted IAEA monitoring of their nuclear facilities.  In India, the agreement for nuclear cooperation was hailed as a breakthrough.  India carried out nuclear tests as early as 1974 and became a declared nuclear weapons state in 1998.  As a non-signatory to the NPT, India lacked access to the international atomic energy trade and was straitened for supplies for its nuclear energy plants.  The agreement with President Bush offered the prospect of an end to India’s nuclear isolation.  The euphoria in India went hand in hand with skepticism in certain quarters.  Some analysts wondered about the motives behind such apparent benevolence on the part of the U.S.

The leverage that the U.S. had gained over Indian foreign policy became quickly apparent when a U.S. backed, European Union resolution censoring Iran’s nuclear program passed with a majority vote at the meeting of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on September 24, 2005.  India cast a highly compromised vote that was ultimately adversarial to Iran.  The action was greeted with a chorus of protest in India and was widely regarded as craven surrender to U.S. pressure.  Power wielders in the UPA were called on to rescind the IAEA vote or at least abstain when the Iran issue came up before the IAEA a second time.  The connection between the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear energy agreement and India’s IAEA vote was exposed when The Hindu obtained and published excerpts from a transcript of House International Relations Committee hearings on the Indo-U.S. agreement.  It became apparent that a number of U.S. Congresspersons had voiced reservations over India’s engagement with Iran.  One of these Congresspersons Tom Lantos (D-CA) became notorious among India watchers because his call for compliance with Washington’s Iran policy was couched in language that was particularly arrogant and disdainful of India’s sovereignty.  The transcript showed that Tom Lantos had inveighed as follows: …I want to be damn sure that India is mindful of U.S. policies in critical areas such as U.S. policy towards Iran. India cannot pursue a policy vis-à-vis Iran which takes no account of U.S. foreign policy objectives. In the wake of the IAEA vote this Congressman spoke of India’s Iran vote as an abject lesson.

The end of January ouster of Mani Shankar Aiyar has brought out the fact that the Bush Administration’s reach extends to the Cabinet of the Prime Minister of India and determines the allocation of portfolios.  The Faustian dimension of the nuclear bargain with the U.S. has been doubly highlighted.  With the downgrading of the former Petroleum Minister, the implementation of the IPI gas pipeline project is in doubt.  His successor, Murli Deora, exhibited reticence when asked if the IPI project had a future.  It had been hoped on both sides of the border that the gas pipeline, also known as the peace pipe, would build the foundations of economic interdependence between India and Pakistan and thereby lay to rest the enmities that had bedeviled relations between the two countries from their inception in 1947.  On his Washington visit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chose to express previously unarticulated doubts as to the viability of the IPI project.  Those ill-omened doubts must now be regarded as the harbinger of the non-fulfillment that may await the IPI project and with it all hopes for regional and eventually pan-Asia energy-based cooperation.  The Bush administration’s success in making India its docile ally in the U.S. quest for regional hegemony has breached the emerging partnerships between Asian powers.

The selection of Cabinet Ministers and assignment of portfolios is the prerogative of the Prime Minister of India.  Currently, this happens to be the very person who in effect sang the praises of British colonialism in a controversial address given at Oxford University prior to his departure for the state visit to the U.S in July 2005.  The speech had sparked critical assessments and rebuttals at home among historians and analysts of imperialism.  It was noted for instance that the worthy Prime Minister had displayed an amicable unawareness of the fact that famines engineered by state policy had killed 12 to 29 million Indians in the British period (1757-1947).  The demotion of a Minister who refused to kowtow to U.S. geopolitical designs has sent a clear signal regarding the Manmohan Singh government’s relations with the imperial power of this hour. It is hard not to conclude that Mani Shankar Aiyar has been sacrificed at the altar of U.S. demands for his removal.  Thus has Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chosen to extend a cordial namaste to President George Bush.  "India is not for sale," declared the Prime Minister on the eve of his trip to the U.S.  The time has come to recall that disclaimer.

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