Flirting With Trouble

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The first United States President to visit India was Ulysses S. Grant. Or more precisely, ex-President: when Grant sailed to the subcontinent in 1878, he had been out of office for a year and could afford to let himself go a bit. An eyewitness recorded precisely what that entailed: Our distinguished guest, the double ex-President of the United States, who was as drunk as a fiddle ... fumbled Mrs. A., kissed the shrieking Miss B., pinched the plump Mrs. C. black and blue and ran at Miss D. with intent to ravish her. No one expects President Bill Clinton to display such boorishness when he visits India later this month--which will, no doubt, disappoint the scores of local cartoonists and columnists who have been trying to revive Monica Lewinsky jokes in the run-up to his tour. But even those sober-minded citizens who hope that Clinton's visit will lead to a breakthrough on, say, nuclear testing should realize that such high-level visits are remembered more for their snafus than their successes.
When Queen Elizabeth visited India in 1997, columnists seized upon Prince Philip's remark that the casualties of a 1919 massacre of Indians by British troops at Jallianwala Bagh had been vastly exaggerated. When Prince Charles toured the country nearly two decades ago, what created ripples was the ocean of liquor stocked by a dairy in Gujarat--a dry state--to entertain the royal entourage. Enterprising journalists calculated that, given the brief time the visitors spent at the dairy, they would have had to chug a bottle a minute to finish it all. When Pope John Paul II came to India last November, the foreign media made much of police instructions to parents not to bring young children to the Mass the pontiff was celebrating. The reason: due to security concerns, milk bottles and water containers were banned from the venue.

Partisans of both the extreme right and extreme left are already sharpening their knives in anticipation of Clinton's visit. Both sides view the economic reforms India has instituted over the past decade as a sellout to multinational corporations. True, left-leaning parties are no longer a major force in Indian politics. But even the Congress party, for want of a better platform, has begun to take up the populist cry. Although the Congress started the reform process in the early '90s, the party now opposes cuts in government subsidies and is against further opening of the economy, arguing that domestic industry and agriculture need to be protected.

As for the Hindu nationalist right, the front-burner issue is the U.S. President's belated decision to include Islamabad in this itinerary. Many pundits in Delhi (and Washington, for that matter) feel the stopover will legitimize the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf. Hawks in and out of the government had earlier warned of a public stink in India if Clinton made the swing to Pakistan. Now that this leg is confirmed, Delhi has begun the process of damage control. The latest Indian spin: a few hours' stopover in Pakistan (compared with the whole day Clinton is spending in Bangladesh) is actually an insult to Islamabad.

Beyond that, India's hawks argue that it is time America spelled out its new priorities in the subcontinent. Without the Soviet Union as a threat, U.S. interests surely lie more with democratic India than with Pakistan--Washington's former bulwark against communist expansion in the region. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the CIA worked hand in glove with its Pakistani counterpart, ISI, to set up weapons-supply lines to the mujahedin guerrillas. Now these cold war networks are helping to arm Kashmir and, in some cases, arm those elsewhere who oppose U.S. interests.

Clinton clearly wants to play peacemaker in Kashmir, an area he has already described as one of the most dangerous flashpoints in the world. From the Indian point of view, however, this is unacceptable. Delhi regards Kashmir as a bilateral concern. Any attempt to broker a peace or to twist arms on the nuclear-testing issue could meet with disaster. Clinton's visit, therefore, is unlikely to score any major diplomatic coup.

There is likely to be some good news on the investment front. Clinton will travel with a large business delegation, and several agreements--joint ventures, big private investments--will no doubt be announced. But the most lasting success within Clinton's grasp would be to leave behind a feel-good factor in the India-U.S. relationship. With its tradition of hospitality, India is rolling out the red carpet. The Bombay Stock Exchange, which Clinton is scheduled to visit, has been given a facelift. The approach to the Taj Mahal in Agra has been spruced up at a cost of nearly $1 million. The bottom line is that, while it is difficult to imagine anything substantial emerging from Clinton's visit, he will surely conquer more hearts--and in a more seemly fashion--than his 19th-century predecessor.

Parthasarathi Swami is a businessman and Internet journalist in Bombay