Byline by M J Akbar: Dulcet smiles in public, straight talk in private
To get an Obama-Hillary promotion from “dormant superpower” to "active superpower” India needs to sign the NPT, which will force Pakistan to sign as well. [There is very little talk in Washington, incidentally, of getting Israel to sign the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty.]Mrs Hillary Clinton’s seamless public-posture-private-face skills, surely honed during the many domestic and national crises during Bill Clinton’s term as President, were put to admirable use during her visit to India. Her first visit to India, as Mrs President, was arguably her most important. It established the goodwill that her husband put to such excellent diplomatic use during his state visit. The ice that Bill Clinton broke became a tide during George Bush’s eight years. The jury is still out on whether the tide will recede, stagnate or become a flood.
A politician without public relations has to be terribly lucky to be popular. Mrs Clinton has outdistanced luck. She crafted her language with enough nuance to fool an advertising agency. Focused on the Indian need for appearances she de-hyphenated her visit from Pakistan and bracketed it with ASEAN. Delhi squirms at any equivalence with Islamabad, as an India-Pakistan itinerary would imply; its self-image, backed up by international recognition of its growing economic muscle, places India on a much higher status platform than Pakistan. Mrs Clinton surely recalled one reason why her husband was such a hit in India: because he gave Pakistan barely the time of the day on that subcontinental tour, stopping over only for a humiliating few hours after some rather desperate pleading by Islamabad. A hyphen with a neighbour like China is no problem for Delhi, as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia gauged so astutely during his breakthrough visit to India.
Mrs Clinton began by upgrading India from “emerging” superpower to “dormant” superpower, before slipping in the stiletto: if India wanted to be called grown-up it would have to behave like one. To get an Obama-Hillary promotion from “dormant superpower” to “active superpower” India needs to sign the NPT, which will force Pakistan to sign as well. [There is very little talk in Washington, incidentally, of getting Israel to sign the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty.] India would also have to stop being, to use an appropriate term, defensive about the end-users agreement, a necessary precondition for arms sales from the sole technology superpower. If other nations purchasing American arms could find pen and ink to sign, why should India be exempted? Otherwise, dear Indian friends, you are going to be stuck with Sukhois in the sky while the Pakistanis get boutique arsenals at Wal-Mart prices, the cash for which comes from Washington in any case. Make up your mind, sleepyhead! If you want to become a strategic partner of the United States, the deal is crystal clear: India gets the partnership while Pentagon decides the strategy. That’s the way with Nato, and near-Nato allies like Pakistan. If India wants to be a near-near-Nato ally, keep the ink wet.
Friendship can always take a tweak or two, if required. America’s nuclear industry would be delighted to fulfil the Indian order for two plants, indented in the Letter of Intent given in September 2008. There is merely the little matter of insurance liability. Everyone remembers Union Carbide’s grinder through the courts after Bhopal. Which sensible corporation would want to shut down as a consequence of one mistake? Lots of mature, flourishing and indisputably independent nations place a cap on insurance liability so that a brave company like Westinghouse knows exactly what it is getting into. Moreover, if an Indian company like Tata or Ambani operates a Westinghouse plant, the insurance liability should be a local, not American, headache, even if the damage is through a design flaw. If Americans had operated the plant they would have discovered the flaw before the accident, isn’t it?
Who could argue with Hillary Clinton’s dulcet public smile and private straight talk?
I cannot recall an equally impressive American Secretary of State since Henry Kissinger, and, take my word for it, Kissinger’s smile was not dulcet. Hillary’s forthcoming book on diplomacy should have a working title: How to make friends in India and influence people in Pakistan. All through her India trip she dropped little alibis for Pakistan, and no one either noticed or cared, even when she explained away Islamabad’s duplicity in the case against Hafeez Saeed. The legal process tends to be time-consuming everywhere: we all know that, don’t we?
Language, the right choice of phrase, the selection of proper nuance and moment: these were Hillary Clinton’s great weapons. How unobservant of her hosts, then, not to pick up a lesson in the fine art of shaping opinion. The joint statement in Egypt is a problem. The people have questions. But the justifications trotted by Delhi’s second-tier power line have only made the Government’s dilemma worse. To accept that the drafting was poor was to admit error; what is poor for India must be ipso facto rich for Pakistan. This was compounded by an atrocious claim that the joint statement was not “legally binding”. International relations are taped to the written and signed word. That is why we hold Pakistan down to Pervez Musharraf’s recognition of cross-border terrorism in a joint statement. Even in the wasteland of the Indo-Pak dialogue, joint statements are the landmarks by which we negotiate the journey. They must be laughing off their heads and giggling across their bellies in Islamabad.
The Congress Party, sensibly, imposed omertà. Silence can do no worse than evoke a snide aside from media. Since a thick skin is compulsory in public life, such nicks leave neither a mark nor a scar. A twist-and-weave misstatement, on the other hand, can stain a Government’s reputation without cleaning the mess. But who can tell the bold and the beautiful that it is sometimes better to be cool and quiet?