What Bush did for India; what he didn’t

I had no consternation that, as one of the many hosts and facilitators of the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, I would be attending to guests at a gala dinner where President George W. Bush would be the star attraction.

Here was a man who I think had wrecked much of the Muslim world.Yet, I was deeply aware of some of his administration’s encouraging policies towards India. And I think it was a good chance to hear him speak without the burden of his weighty presidency.

Would President Bush in flesh and blood be different from what he appeared on television screens? Well, he was. There was an air of informality as he walked in and headed straight into the crowd, shaking hands. He appeared warm and forthcoming. In one instance, he reached out to an old lady sipping wine in a corner, gesturing her to draw up close and said: “How are you ma’am, I am George Bush.”

I guess it is difficult to demonise somebody you have met. However, my views of President Bush have not changed after a brief unexpected handshake at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit.

I still feel he is singularly responsible for radicalizing much of the Muslim world. Even as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh kindled a love-fest with Bush, the latter’s policies have not solved some of India’s most pressing foreign-policy problems, despite the nuclear deal.

The nuclear deal has its critics. The technology could become dated even as we build up reactors. Is the 123 deal immune to regime changes? As a Senator, President Obama had offered a “killer amendment” to limit nuclear fuel to India, which the Bush administration and Indian lobbies in Congress had found difficult to stave off. See here. There are also questions on a possible back-handed grip on India’s right to conduct future tests. However, my view is that the nuclear deal has to be adored as more of a foreign policy success than just an energy deal. So, I support it as an appropriate instrument of foreign policy.

Bush’s single biggest favour to India was in allowing our country, while making us a strategic ally, to keep its military stockpile even as India gained access to nuclear technologies and fuel for its civilian reactors. That was an unparalleled exemption.

However, beyond the deal, I do not see much, even though we gloat in Bush’s favours to India. In evaluating the Bush administration’s support for India, I think the best yardstick is to compare it with the Bush administration’s simultaneous policies towards Pakistan. The truth is, Bush never really tightened the screws on Pakistan.

Bush engaged Pakistani president Musharaf as closely as he did Prime Minister Singh. And Bush’s interests in engaging Pakistan were limited to crushing that part of terror which affected only the US. So, while the Taliban were in US gun sight, the Jaishs and Lashkars were largely left unaffected. This was evident after the 26/11 Mumbai terror strike.

Bush had said thus of Musharaf to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in November 2007: “He has been an absolute reliable partner in dealing with extremists and radicals.” The Bush administration stood by Musharaf at all costs.

US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte had articulated Bush’s commitment towards Musharaf extensively.  “There is a common United States and Pakistani interest in Pakistan’s success in the robust and multifaceted fight against violent extremism, focused on democracy and economic development as well as on security cooperation. We plan to pursue that common interest vigorously with whatever government emerges from the election,” Negroponte said during February 28, 2008, hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Many senators — both Republicans and Democrats — had suggested a recalibration of US policy toward Pakistan.

Delaware Democrat Senator Joseph Biden in particular called on the US to triple its non-military assistance to Pakistan from $500 million a year to $1.5 billion, rather than focus on military assistance. He suggested a “democracy dividend” of an additional $1 billion a year. Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the topmost Republican on the committee, too supported Biden’s proposal.

However, much of US aid during the Bush administration came in the form of military aid. As Musharaf admitted publicly, such aid was diverted and grossly misused against India.

The Bush administration also never really managed to curb Pakistan’s clear intention to leverage its close relations with China to threaten India. It almost gave Pakistan a blank cheque in maintaining strategic ties with China, consequences of which we have seen recently, in China’s aggressive anti-India posturing.

Privately, India’s military generals cringe at the thought of having to counter enemies on two fronts simultaneously.

Lastly, the Bush administration neither had the power nor intention to grant India a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, which is far more crucial than the nuclear deal.

As he said at the HT Summit, any talk of India gaining the high seat just as yet is preposterous. First, the issue of opening up the Security Council has to be sorted out. Even if the Security Council were to be expanded, there is no guarantee that India’s claim would be the most significant. As always, there is a queue.

So, was Bush was good for India? Well, only to the extent that he let our nuclear weapons be.

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