Harish Khare

Whatever may or may not be the Americans' motives, they have revived a four-decade tradition of anti-Americanism in Indian politics.

TWO WEEKS ago Uma Bharti decided to visit The Hindu office in New Delhi. With characteristic bluntness the Bharatiya Janata Party "rebel" stated the purpose of her visit: she wanted an assurance that The Hindu would not succumb to "pressure" from the BJP establishment to black her out of its news pages. The assurance was readily and sincerely given. This business out of the way, I asked for her take on one of the mysteries of our times: L.K. Advani's praise for Mohammed Ali Jinnah as a secular icon. Why?

With characteristic bluntness, Ms. Bharti explained: because Advaniji wants to become Prime Minister of India with American blessings. Elaborate, if you please. Because Manmohan Singh had refused the American plan of India making concessions to General Pervez Musharraf on converting the Line of Control into the international boundary, the Americans were looking for a pliable man and Advaniji was amenable to Washington's script. When it was pointed out to her that the next Lok Sabha election was more than three years away and that was really too long a time in politics, an untroubled Ms. Bharati argued that the American game plan was to so organise things as to make Advaniji Prime Minister in this Lok Sabha.

Fantasy of an over-active imagination? Or, just a reflection of a belief across the entire political class that somehow the Americans have the leverage and the Machiavellian capacity to re-arrange the chessboard of Indian politics? Or, a subconscious assumption that the other person would knowingly and willingly sell out the country just to enjoy an uncertain power stint with the help of this or that foreign power?

This is not a new phenomenon. Throughout the 1970s Indira Gandhi's critics suspected her of doing the Soviets' bidding in order to stay in power, while she accused her detractors of being in league with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), out to destabilise her regime just as they had in Chile and in other parts of the world. In the 1980s, Rajiv Gandhi's supporters regularly accused V.P. Singh of being guided by foreign agencies, mostly American. In the 1990s, the P.V. Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh team was charged with carrying out an agenda spelt out by outsiders. Later, it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee's turn to answer his own swadeshi sangh parivar that reviled him for selling out to the videshi. The foreigner has a habit of complicating our internal equations.

The foreigner the American, to be precise is once again at the core of the current turmoil in national politics. And the Americans have done enough to lend some credence to Uma Bharti's conspiracy theory. The Americans have made the mistake of positing a linkage between the Bush-Manmohan Singh Civilian Nuclear Agreement of 2005 and Iran's nuclear profile. If it was not enough that assorted Americans in Washington have butted in with their presumptuousness, the gentleman at Roosevelt House has come up with his own undiplomatic formulations and communications, each calculated to bring together all the latent anti-American forces and impulses. The American Ambassador has succeeded brilliantly. Almost everybody from the extreme Left to the Third Front wallahs to the extreme Right has reason to question the Manmohan Singh Government's stance towards the United States. Whatever may or may not be the Americans' motives, they have revived a four-decade tradition of anti-Americanism. Though the various voices have different calculations, a gang-up cannot be ruled out entirely given the desperation among certain unsavoury political entrepreneurs.

Much of the responsibility for this unhelpful situation rests with the Congress leadership and the Prime Minister and his aides. Of all the political forces in this country, the Congress Party has the least to apologise for when it comes to standing up to the Americans. In fact, the only time India defied the United States was when a Congress Prime Minister refused to be cowed down by the Nixon-Kissinger gunboat diplomacy of the USS Enterprise kind. Yet the Congress has allowed other voices to walk away with the nationalistic pretensions.

Part of the problem is the lack of appreciation among the Prime Minister and his aides of the need to speak out. Ever since Natwar Singh had to pack his bags at the Ministry of External Affairs, two eminently competent professionals National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran have shared the burden of conducting foreign policy. While the latter is a trained diplomat and hence not expected to pitch in in the task of selling at home a particular policy, the former being a lifelong (and distinguished) policeman remains unconvinced of the need to sell his foreign policy wares in the democratic marketplace. The Prime Minister, who holds charge of foreign policy, has not devised the format of going public with the arguments and rationales behind this or that policy initiative. He is content to do the institutionally correct thing: making a statement in Parliament, and waiting for a debate when the Lok Sabha meets for its Budget Session later this week.

Meanwhile the detractors, dissenters, and doubters have almost run away with the nuclear deal/Iran vote debate. In the public discourse over these two developments, most of the arguments for or against have been provided by "strategic" experts, who in turn are being internet-worked by not-so-uninterested friends across Chanakyapuri.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that except for three or four among our public officials (Brajesh Mishra, Jaswant Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, and Manmohan Singh), the political class is vastly under-equipped to debate the technical and technological issues involved in Iran's nuclear ambitions or in the Indo-U.S. nuclear agreement. Most of the political leaders have native wisdom and some education as well as varying and rich life experience of sorting out masses' deprivations and dreams. They are used to trafficking in slogans and shibboleths, rather than debating nuanced policy issues. In matters like nuclear issues, each leader and each party has to necessarily depend upon this or that strategic expert and his or her biases. The Manmohan Singh regime has failed to see this crucial gap; it could use all its resources and advantages to calibrate the debate on these two politically dicey issues. Instead, it has (mostly) opted for silence.

Unfamiliar situation

Now, the political system finds itself faced with a new and unfamiliar situation. All these years atomic energy was the plaything of a super-elite. Once in a while a political leader Indira Gandhi in 1974 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998 would seek to garner popular advantage out of a bomb; but most of the time, how and what to do in the nuclear field was left to the Atomic Energy Commission. Suddenly the political leaders and parties are keen to have their say. Complex issues such as "energy security" or "nuclear technology" mean very little to the vast majority of citizens.

How can the concept of energy security be relevant or explained to the Muslim underclasses in Sitapur or to the Dalits in Mirzapur when their mohallas and bastis do not get electricity for four hours in a day?

For expedient political reasons various political leaders are tapping emotions, from conventional anti Americanism to Muslim sensitivities, in the process even conceding an unhealthy veto power to the minorities over foreign policy. The Telugu Desam Party chief, Chandrababu Naidu, reportedly said: "India has a large Muslim population and we cannot allow their sentiments to be hurt on such issues." This is a dangerous reasoning and in the long run bound to beget reaction of the majoritarian kind. For good measure, Mr. Naidu also accuses the Government of succumbing to American pressure. This from a leader who till the other day showcased himself as the CEO of Andhra Pradesh for every visiting American delegation, from Bill Gates to Bill Clinton.

In the weeks to come, the maturity and wisdom of leadership in all political parties will be tested. The rest of the world will watch how we are able to sort out complex policy issues within the framework of a democratic polity as also whether the ruling establishment is able to use domestic dissent to pursue optimal policies with demonstrable competence, finesse, and fancy diplomatic foot-work. At home, we will need to ensure that unsavoury characters do not use anti-Americanism to pursue their limited agendas.