Washington, June 28: Pranab Mukherjee arrived in Washington yesterday, his initials travelling ahead of him in the expectation that the only senior minister who has handled foreign policy, defence, economic and commercial relations with America may halt a spiralling downslide in Indo-US relations three weeks before Hillary Clinton travels to New Delhi.
On the face of it, the finance minister is in Washington for talks with his US counterpart Timothy Geithner under the rubric of an India-US Financial and Economic Partnership launched last year, but his hosts here are looking at Mukherjee's stay here as if it is a prime ministerial visit.
For the Americans, the initials in Pranab Mukherjee’s name, PM, stand for the Prime Minister, judging by the expectations raised by his arrival here. They also know that Mukherjee is the pivot on whom the government in New Delhi functions and that he is as much of a PM as the PM himself as far as statecraft is concerned.
Therefore, at the time of writing, it is expected that Mukherjee will have a meeting with Barack Obama, unless there is a last minute conflict in the President’s schedule.
That meeting is expected to be a “drop-in” by the President when Mukherjee has a structured discussion with national security adviser Thomas Donilon, scheduled, as of now, for this afternoon.
The latest in a series of hiccups which have brought Indo-US relations to its lowest point since the Pokhran II nuclear tests in 1998 is a strongly worded reprimand by the ministry of external affairs to the US for its treatment of Prabhu Dayal, the consul general in New York.
After Dayal’s former housemaid, Santosh Bhardwaj, filed a civil suit in a US court against her alleged treatment by the consul general, South Block said: “We are disappointed and deeply concerned that Indian diplomats and their family members should be targeted in such a manner in a friendly country like USA.”
The allegation that Indian diplomats and members of their family are being “targeted” by the host government was reminiscent of similarly strong reactions to such behaviour towards Indian diplomats by Pakistan or diplomatic fisticuffs between Britain and the Soviet Union during some of the worst phases of the Cold War, marked by reciprocal expulsions of embassy staff.
“Such actions impede the ability of the individuals in question to discharge their official responsibilities, as well as, cause untold mental harassment and anguish. They cannot be dismissed lightly,” India warned. There is no recollection of consular relations between India and the US touching such a low point even during the years when the two countries were barely friends.
The Dayal episode followed a war of words that lasted weeks between India and the US over the treatment of Kritika Biswas, the teenaged daughter of India’s vice-consul in New York who was arrested under false charges in violation of her diplomatic immunity.
She is suing the New York city government for damages amounting to $1.5 million for wrongful arrest.
Although no Indian official would say it on record, India believes that the Americans are harassing Indian officials, Cold War style, for challenging the US administration’s interpretation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations by which all states are bound in the treatment of diplomats.
The Biswas case has the potential of going to the US Supreme Court and could unravel the way America treats its client states opening a Pandora’s box here.
Indian suspicions of harassment are based on the fact that Dayal’s maid left his service some 18 months ago without any complaint in the intervening period. New Delhi believes she has been prompted by the powers-that-be here now to file a civil suit to hit back at India.
Now, the Americans have told India that it cannot open a new consulate in Seattle to serve the burgeoning population of Indian origin in Washington state, home to information technology giants such as Microsoft.
The opening of the consulate was agreed upon during a summit meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President George W. Bush in 2008. The US has already opened a new consulate in Hyderabad under the agreement.
American defence personnel and others with connections in the US military industrial complex complain bitterly about difficulties in getting visas to travel to India. “I would not say the situation is as bad as what we have with Pakistan in the war between the CIA and the ISI, but it could get there unless the problems are redressed,” one senior US military officer told this correspondent last week.
Home minister P Chidambaram’s draconian restrictions on Indian visas have, meanwhile, come in the way of academic exchanges, with the Americans reciprocally tightening the screws at their end.
Although such differences have been simmering even as both sides were publicly celebrating their bilateral strategic partnership, India’s decision to eliminate American firms from the competition for the 126 multi-role combat aircraft deal appears to have been a catalyst in triggering the downslide in relations.
A French company and a European consortium have been shortlisted for the next stage of the procurement, which will be the biggest military aviation contract in history.
Outgoing commerce secretary Gary Locke’s visit to India in February also did not go as well as expected with the two sides remaining far apart on contentious issues of trade.
All in all, it is only the financial partnership with the US, steered by Mukherjee and Geithner, which is relatively free of problems in the entire gamut of Indo-US relations.
But Washington is keen to use Mukherjee’s visit to go beyond the confines of his ministerial mandate. For one thing, they recognise that almost everything substantive in Indo-US relations was achieved directly under Mukherjee’s charge. He was the defence minister when a “New Framework in the India-US Defence Relationship” was signed in June 2005, altering the pace of bilateral defence co-operation.
Mukherjee as external affairs minister steered the Indo-US nuclear deal to conclusion both by overseeing the negotiations with the Americans and simultaneously attempting to manage the political dynamics of the deal back home.
During his three-day stay here, Mukherjee now faces the challenge of fixing what he put together in the first place. Recognising the opportunity offered by Mukherjee’s presence to repair strains in the relationship, secretary of state Hillary Clinton had a very early morning start today and discussed the matter with Vice-President Joe Biden, one of the strongest supporters of India in the present administration.
Soon afterwards, she went to brief Obama in the White House in anticipation of the President’s “drop in” on Mukherjee.
At the time of writing, Clinton was scheduled to have a hastily arranged meeting with the finance minister in the state department. As a result, Mukherjee’s schedule has become as crowded as that of a prime ministerial visit. Clinton has a big stake in the bilateral relationship as she travels to India in three weeks for another round of the Indo-US strategic partnership.
US pins hope on Pranab to repair ties