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Why India shouldn't worry about John Kerry's Pak tilt

By Rajeev Sharma

Ever since President Barack Obama announced on 21 December that John Kerry would succeed Hillary Clinton as the new US Secretary of State, much has been written in the Indian sub-continental press that the 69-year-old five-time Senator from Massachusetts has a tilt towards Pakistan and won’t be India’s friend. One reason given to “prove” this argument is that Pakistan was quick to hail Kerry’s appointment while India has been eloquent in its silence. The question is: why is there so much worry about whether Kerry is pro-Pakistan or anti-India?

Before we come to a nuanced analysis of the issue, let us first flag the points over which the Indian and Pakistani commentators have labelled Kerry as a friend of Pakistan rather than India’s.

First and foremost, Pakistan’s ambassador in the US, Sherry Rehman, wasted no time in congratulating him after the announcement was made. She promptly issued a statement saying "Senator Kerry is a man of towering stature and accomplishments, having served the US with great vigour and distinction. He has demonstrated through the years an extraordinary understanding of the complexities of South and Central Asia."

Some view Kerry as a pro-Pakistan senator. Reuters

Second, Kerry’s familiarity with Pakistan, and perhaps proximity as well, came to the fore when the Raymond Davis affair rocked US-Pakistan relations. Davis, a former US army soldier, shot and killed two Pakistanis in Lahore on 27 January 2011 while serving as a contractor with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Pakistan. As US-Pakistan relations touched a new low over the incident, Obama sent Kerry to Pakistan as his special envoy. Kerry successfully accomplished his mission as he not only got Davis freed from prison but also facilitated his return to the US. It was Kerry who virtually single-handedly brokered the release of Davis.

Third, Kerry has been hawkish with regard to India's nuclear disarmament record, especially on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). He lambasted India after India conducted the Pokharan II nuclear tests in May 1998. According to TP Sreenivisan, presently a member of the National Security Advisory Board and a former ambassador to several countries who also served as India’s Deputy Chief of Mission in the US at the time of Pokharan II, Kerry “discovered” India during and after the nuclear deal days. “In 1998, his attachment to the NPT was so strong that he did not hesitate to condemn India strongly when we tested. As a Senator, he received me for a briefing, but did not hear me out. He used the opportunity to lambast India in very strong words. There was no word of understanding or appreciation of India's predicament,” says Sreenivasan.

While all this is factual, it would be a grave error to characterise the designated top diplomat of the US who will be a friend of Pakistan at the expense of India. It will be a good idea to open this line of argument with the remarks of Sreenivasan about Kerry. “But I heard later that he was a changed man towards India subsequently. I am sure he will reflect Obama's thinking when it comes to India now as Secretary of State,” Sreenivasan says about Kerry.

Kerry, who is also the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, performed a major role for pushing the Indo-US nuclear deal during the committee stage in the Senate when he was a senior member of the Committee. His support for the Indo-US nuclear deal, which is now known as the Hyde Act, was of enormous importance. Joe Biden was the chairman of the committee in 2006 when the issue came up before the senate committee and Kerry often acted as the chairman in Biden’s absence.

For those who did not follow the senate committee’s proceedings very closely, it must be pointed out that Barack Obama, who then was Kerry’s junior colleague in the senate, proposed several amendments in the senate bill. It was Kerry who stoutly opposed these amendments, arguing that these would be unacceptable to India and pushing these amendments further would be a sure deal-breaker. Kerry was right. But for Kerry’s persistent batting on behalf of India, the bill would not have been passed.

Another argument relates to the much-misunderstood Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill which sought to increase the American financial assistance to Pakistan. It would be a mistake to ignore the punitive tools which were drafted into the bill at Kerry’s initiative. One such clause was revocation of US aid to Pakistan if the Pakistani conduct was seen to be contrary to American national interests. The clause was finally inserted into the legislation.

Now consider Kerry-speak in February 2012 at the confirmation hearings for Obama's nominee Nancy Powell to be the US Ambassador to India. He described India-US ties as "without doubt one of the most significant partnerships in US foreign policy" and went on to remark thus: "There are fewer relationships that will be as vital in the 21st century as our growing ties with India and its people…On all of the most critical global challenges that we face, India really has a central role to play. And that means that Washington is going to be looking to New Delhi not only for cooperation, but increasingly for innovation, for regional leadership… India's growing significance has been clear to many of us for some time now."

Kerry has also been a strong supporter of Obama's endorsement of India to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Finally, two larger points need to be appreciated in the context of this debate whether Kerry will be pro-Pakistan at the cost of India. First, in the American political hierarchy the Secretary of State is pegged at number three after President and Vice-President. Though powerful and the country’s number one diplomat, the Secretary of State cannot run amok and run the American foreign policy according to his/her whims and fancies. US foreign policy is micro-managed from the White House.

Second, India-US relations have come of age in past one decade and it would be difficult for whichever regime is in power in New Delhi or Washington to reverse this process. Much bigger geopolitical and strategic imperatives have brought the world’s most powerful democracy closer to the world’s most populous democracy.

The offices of the US President and Secretary of State and the Indian Prime Minister are important actors in global politics as it plays out. It would take utter stupidity on the part of American and Indian political leadership to harm the current Indo-US synergy. There is nothing to suggest that they are stupid.

The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist- author and a strategic analyst who can be reached at bhootnath004@yahoo.com.