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VAPPALA BALACHANDRAN | 2 MAY, 2016

US-India: Hype Without Substance Leads to Wrong Interpretations


MUMBAI: After facing significant reverses in our immediate neighbourhood strategies, the mood of our foreign and national security establishments might have perked up with two recent developments. A deeper analysis would reveal that these hopes may be illusory.

First was the April 28 Indianapolis town hall meeting of Donald Trump, US Republican hopeful, where he had hinted at “seeking help from India and other nations to address the ‘problem’ of a ‘semi-unstable’ nuclear-armed Pakistan”. Second was US House Speaker Paul Ryan’s invitation to our Prime Minister to address a joint meeting of the US Congress when he visits Washington DC in June.

Some foreign policy greenhorns, especially from the US based “Hindus for Trump” have claimed that Trump, if elected, would be India’s “ally” to “deal” with Pakistan. Unfortunately their political maturity is such that they have landed themselves in a controversy of deifying Trump as a Hindu god in a lotus. They have forgotten that Trump who has been making discordant noises on US foreign policy had also told a Detroit debate on March 3 that US should keep its troops in Afghanistan to “protect Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal”. His whimsical campaign outbursts had provoked former CIA Director Michael Hayden to say that the American military would refuse to obey him if he gets elected and orders them to torture prisoners or kill the families of terrorists.

We should not forget that campaign rhetoric in any country including America is mere barnstorming which is soon forgotten after the polls. In 1992 Presidential candidate Bill Clinton assured a group of Pakistani students in USA that he would support “self determination” in Kashmir. Immediately thereafter Pakistan’s publicity machine went on an overdrive announcing that Clinton, if elected, would support Kashmir plebiscite. This did not happen during his presidency from 1993 to 2001.

Yet another interesting incident happened during Clinton presidency. In 1993 a Khalistan activist sought President’s endorsement for Indian Sikhs’ democratic self determination to form Khalistan. The applicant received a reply with President’s signature conveying that US always supported democracy and self determination. The Khalistan lobby advertised this as US support for a separate Sikh state although there was no such mention. Enquiries with the White House in which I was involved revealed that the White House “interns”, mostly students, were asked to send non committal replies to thousands of letters received every day at the White House. All such replies carried the President’s “auto-pen” signature with a signing machine, giving some psychological satisfaction to the sender.

Will a Congressional address speed up American endorsement of India as their “ally” and fast track our rise as a global superpower? This is a vain hope. US Congress has no power to direct foreign policy except by way of legislation and budgetary control. Sometimes even that power is not effective. In 1995, under pressure from the Jewish lobby, the 104th US Congress passed the “Jerusalem Embassy Act” asking the Executive Branch to shift their embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. No President has taken action on this law on security considerations. Sometimes events take a bizarre turn. In 1874 King Kalakaua of Hawaii was the first foreign dignitary to address a Joint Congressional meeting. However after his death in 1891 Hawaii was annexed by US in 1898. It took almost 100 years for the US to admit that it was illegal when they passed a “Joint Apology Resolution” in 1993.

Historically the US Congress had tried Joint Meetings, Joint Sessions, and separate House and Senate Reception speeches for receiving foreign leaders. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had the unique honour of addressing the House & Senate separately on October 13, 1949. Presently only Joint Meetings are arranged to hear foreign leaders. The expression used in our media that our PM would address a “Joint Session” is not correct. He will be addressing a “Joint Meeting”. Since 1945 Joint Sessions are exclusively used for the US President’s annual State of the Union Address and for other occasions under the rules.

The first Congressional “Reception” was on December 9, 1824 for Marquis de Lafayette of France to thank him for his help during the American independence struggle. As mentioned above, the first foreign leader’s address was in 1874 by the Hawaii King. The last “Joint Meeting” was on September 24, 2015 when His Holiness Pope Francis addressed them. So far 117 such joint meetings were addressed by foreign leaders and dignitaries. Indian leaders who addressed the US Congress Joint meetings were Dr.S.Radhakrishnan, Vice President( Nov 17, 1954), Rajiv Gandhi( June 13, 1985), Narasimha Rao( May 18, 1994) Atal Bihari Vajpayee( Sep 14, 2000) and Dr.Man Mohan Singh( July 19, 2005). Prime Minister Modi will be the sixth Indian leader to address a Joint meeting if we do not include Nehru.

The first Pakistan PM to address the Senate and House separately like Nehru was Liaquat Ali Khan on May 4, 1950. The last Pakistan Prime Minister to address a Joint Meeting was Benazir Bhutto in June 1989. Since then no Pakistan leader was chosen for this honour. Surprisingly Mrs.Indira Gandhi was not invited to address the US Congress.

Sometimes domestic lobby groups exert pressure on the Congress to invite certain leaders. An example is Israeli PM Netanyahu’s highly controversial address on March 3, 2015 which was unilaterally arranged by House Speaker John Bohner without consulting President Obama. This “highly divisive speech” was boycotted by nearly 60 Democrat congressmen. President Obama had refused to meet him quoting a convention that the US President would not meet foreign leaders “so near their elections”. In Netanyahu’s case there was one more reason. CBS had said: “It's a tactic he's employed before: the last time Netanyahu ran for reelection, he used clips from his May 2011 address to Congress to bolster his argument that, ‘when Netanyahu speaks the world listens’."

The long list of foreign leaders or other dignitaries chosen for addressing US Congress would indicate that this is a normal courtesy extended to them. It has no other significance.

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