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“I don’t think the country is yet willing to recognise the U.S. is a benign power”

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National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the delegation level talk in Washington.
National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the delegation level talk in Washington.

Harish Khare and Siddharth Varadarajan

In the second part of his exclusive interview to The Hindu, National Security AdviserM.K. Narayanandiscusses the link between the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and the wider strategic relationship between the two countries. Excerpts:

If you step back and take a big picture view, why in your assessment is this nuclear deal so important for the United States? What is the larger strategic purpose behind it?

I don’t know, you’ll have to ask them. OK, there is always the question that everybody knows the answer to, that the U.S. wants India on its side. You know, all kinds of things. It’s a possibility. I am not denying it. But during the negotiations, in the ones I have been involved in, never was there any suggestion that we would like you to be in a strategic partnership with us to a degree higher than what we have at the moment. So the presumption would be, and perhaps there is some weight to it, that the U.S. would like a country like India, a fellow democracy and so on, to be in step with what they are up to and all that. [Pauses] I think this was primarily driven by President Bush’s regard for Dr. Manmohan Singh and his point that we need energy; that the energy deficit is our biggest problem. For whatever reason — I know President Bush is not the most popular man in the world — but in every discussion I have been privy to, he has always shown a great deal of regard for what India has achieved, a billion people, a million problems, and a democracy. He repeats this all that time. So a lot of it has been achieved by him…

Clearly we have not conceded anything up front other than what we have always stood by. Now, whether they expect us to be grateful to them, I suppose they’ll have to wait and see, but then it’s a post-dated cheque as far as they are concerned.

I find, certainly this administration — at least the three or four people I am privy to — is looking forward to the possibility of India emerging. I know that Dick Cheney is painted in the darkest of dark colours, but my impression is that they’ll be happy if India made the kind of progress that, so I look upon it in a benign way, not overlooking the fact that there may be another strategic purpose. But right through the discussions, no one has tried to say India and the U.S. should be partners vis-À-vis country A or B or China.

Speaking of Cheney, what did you discuss with him?

I found him very positive as far as India is concerned. For us, that is the most important thing. But he didn’t bring up any issues of contention, he didn’t raise things like Iraq or Iran. It was a broadbrush. But he was positive on the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal.

How much of the 123 logjam did he clear up?

There had been a lot of prior consultation. Each one knew what the other was up to. And I think they have a far better seamless [system of] information moving up and down. So by the time we met Cheney, we had cleared most of the … But there is nothing like clearing until the text is frozen, and that happened after that meeting. You can’t really say everything was done because of him, or that it had all been done before him. Some of the reports have been a bit too much. Of course, each one played their role.

Is there a possibility that the deal may give rise to unreasonable expectations on Washington’s part, expectations India may be unable or unwilling to fulfil? That we should be willing in the future to play in Asia the role of a Britain? Have we ever given them cause to have such expectations?

We have certainly never given them that … Thanks to our many friends within the government and outside, even if you wanted to say a half-truth on this, we are afraid lest it travels back! There are several issues on which all of us have strong views but we are afraid to express that lest someone on the U.S. side uses that as an index or indication that we want to do much, much more. We are conscious that if the USS Nimitz can’t come to Indian waters without us having to write letters, speak, what not; so to go beyond that is, we have never said anything.

But unrealistic expectations? I don’t know. The American administration is sophisticated enough to realise that it is one thing to have realistic expectations, but unrealistic ones, I am not sure. I would presume that there is comfort with India. I find that across the board. It’s possible, though I have not looked at the issue closely, that with China, in many other parts of the world, everyone is full of admiration for the juggernaut that China is, but there is a certain amount of concern and discomfort as to how it is going. In that sense, even if we are not a very efficient democracy, there is a great deal of comfort. People are comfortable.

One of the next steps on which the Americans are very keen is for India to sign the Access and Cross-Servicing Agreement to allow the U.S. military easier access to Indian facilities. Where do things stand? Is it true that the Government has reservations about signing the ACSA?

Reservations in this sense, because we are unsure how far we can go and how far will we be compromised. We have not been able to reconcile in our minds on the question. It’s really a question of overcoming certain concerns, basically. So I think we are looking at it with a fine toothcomb over and over and over again to see that, is it beneficial, or are there some hidden disadvantages. So we will work on that.

Is one of our concerns the fact that we don’t want Indian facilities to be used in the event of military action by the U.S. somewhere in the region?

I think there are three or four issues there though I don’t want to explain all of that just now. See, finally the point is, we are extremely conscious of our sovereignty issue. Are we giving up our sovereign rights in this matter if we enter into an agreement of this kind, would we have the opportunity to sort of step back if and when a situation arises? We need to, we haven’t focussed as much on this as we have focussed for instance on the 123 agreement … Also, the issue is one of timing. If you do that and then this, we don’t want to be seen as having sort of provided an opportunity for the critics to say ‘Oh, you have already conceded this much and therefore you are now doing this.’ We want to look at the civil nuclear cooperation agreement as a standalone. It has nothing to do with anything else… Now that this is out of the way, perhaps we might have a little more freedom to look at some of these issues. There is the Container Security Initiative pending, more for legal issues. That will also probably get done. But we also have to keep in mind that people should not see each of these as further slippage… We have, first and foremost, a coalition government, and second, I don’t think the country is yet willing to recognise that the U.S. is a benign power, which it certainly is not, and I think we have to be careful. I mean we have the whole G-77 and Nonaligned Movement. We can’t ignore this.

In spite of Condoleeza Rice’s advice to us…

Well, we were a little surprised that somebody like her should have made it in such a blunt way. This is the whole problem with the whole U.S. side. The same thing could have been said, ‘Now there are no two blocs, I suppose there are opportunities to look at things differently’… You don’t have to say, ‘Forget NAM, forget your friends.’

(Concluded)


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