The Vajpayee visit was a major symbolic success. It was not directly about new policies and new agreements on matters of substance. Those will come later. It was about the recognition by the U.S. that India is a substantial member of the international community. Vajpayee’s speech to the Congress and Clinton’s dinner extravaganza were the high points of the drama. “Together, we can change the world,” President Clinton predicted, summing up the new American sensibility. This sensibility has emerged only in the administration, Congress, the high-tech and other parts of the business community, and of course the Indian-American community. It has not spread to the news media, the intellectual establishment, or the public at large. Pockets of resistance are already present and will remain. But the American recognition of India will continue to deepen.
The new sensibility has come at the end of Clinton’s term. The race between Bush and Gore is close at this writing. But support for the new approach to India is present in both parties. Gore met Vajpayee, and Bush has probably learned his name by now. Either of them will face the same imperatives to which Clinton is responding. It was the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, who invited Prime Minister Vajpayee to speak to Congress. The new sensibility has spread far enough in the American political establishment to survive the election.
In the long term, President Clinton’s statement about changing the world may well be prophetic. Over the next few months, if the new sensibility is to be meaningful it will have to impact the triangle between the U.S., India, and Pakistan. The significance for the triangle of the new U.S. sensibility can be understood in comparison to the old sensibility. The old one held India as unimportant and unfit to have international norms equally applied to it. India constantly complained that Western countries railed against international terrorism but remained silent spectators when India was the victim. The old sensibility was apprehended by Pakistan, Kashmiri militants, and earlier Khalistani militants, and encouraged them to persevere against overwhelming numbers of Indian security forces.
The new sensibility has already shown results. Abdul Majid Dar of the Hizbul Mujaheddin cited President Clinton’s visit when he announced a cease-fire in Kashmir in July. Pakistanis, including General Musharraf, have acknowledged the new situation in U.S.-India relations. Separatists and ethnic nationalists within Pakistan have begun responding to the altered global equation just as separatists in India did is earlier decades. Recently, Altaf Hussain, the most popular leader of Mohajirs, and other Pakistani ethnic nationalists got together in London, declared the partition of India a blunder, and sang
Saare jahan se achcha.
For India, the next practical step within the new relationship with the U.S. can be to raise the pressure on Pakistan to alter its course fundamentally. The U.S. is resisting designating Pakistan a rogue state (or in the less colorful new parlance of the State Department, “state of concern”). But the U.S. may be open to incremental steps to put pressure on Pakistan to scale back its violent campaign and its broader militarism. The U.S. has accepted that India need not open negotiations with Pakistan until the latter scales back its armed campaign. India can press the claim that international concessionary financing, such as IMF loans and debt rescheduling, should not be given to Pakistan while it spends more than five per cent of its GNP on the military and promotes international terrorism. Through recent debt rescheduling, Pakistan has been relieved of pressure to divert funds from the military and terrorist outfits to pay for its other needs. A resolute campaign by India toward developed countries has a chance of delivering at least incremental results in Pakistani moderation.
Vajpayee used his visit to America to promulgate new domestic goals. Speaking to the U.S. Congress, he proclaimed the goal of accelerating India’s economic growth rate to 9%. Returning home, Vajpayee has called on the Planning Commission to outline “difficult steps” to achieve that rate. These steps would include switching funds from subsidies to agricultural investment and making it easier to fire industrial workers. Greater investment would do much more to spur agricultural growth than do subsidies. Opposition to cutting subsidies and reducing worker rights in the organized sector will be strong.
For all Vajpayee’s oratorical skills, he has not articulated a good argument for the public as to why the sacrifices of reform should be made. There is a strong global correlation between the growth of agriculture and the decline of poverty. In India, faster agricultural growth in the eighties accompanied faster poverty reduction than occurred in the nineties. Although peasants and workers in the unorganized sector would benefit swiftly from reforms, advocates of reforms have not addressed them. They have sought to sneak reforms through. The imbalance between lofty rhetoric abroad and silence at home is glaring.
A major development that surfaced during the Vajpayee visit was the commitment by a group of NRIs, led by venture capitalist Purnendu Chatterjee and Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, to contribute half a billion dollars to build a new university for science and technology in India. This is the largest philanthropic initiative yet by successful Indian-Americans. This community was at center stage during the Vajpayee visit and is starting to take altruistic actions commensurate with its visibility. The philanthropy of Indian-American information technology entrepreneurs has been largely focused on generating more information technologists. This is a necessary process. With the current global demand, the 120,000 graduates in the field that India produces annually is far from adequate. It is much better that new universities should come from philanthropy than from government funds. At the same time, for both ethical and pragmatic reasons, large-scale philanthropy focused on basic education, health, and literacy is also imperative.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches International Relations at San Francisco State University. He writes about India, America, and the world.