New Delhi: Brookings Institution senior fellow of foreign policy Stephen P. Cohen embarked upon a serious study of South Asia in 1963, much before it was fashionable to do so.
In the decades since, he has written on both India and Pakistan, nuclear non-proliferation issues and the changing social context in both countries, and is considered closer to the Democrats than the Republicans. Cohen’s Idea of Pakistan, published in 2005, was an intellectual tour de force on the Pakistan army, a state within the state.
In an interview in Delhi around the time the Indo-US nuclear deal finally cleared its last hurdles in the US Congress and was signed into law by US President George Bush last week, Cohen dwells on the Indo-US nuclear deal, the China context around the deal, and how precarious he thinks the Pakistani democracy is. Edited excerpts:
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I first came to Delhi in 1963. We’re sitting in the India International Centre and not too far from us there were wild leopards running around. So I’ve seen Delhi grow, India being transformed. Till about 1992-93, there wasn’t much change, everything seemed familiar. From 1992-93 onward, the change accelerated and India entered into a series of revolutions.
This coincided with the economic reform?
Yes, also social reform, social and economic transformation. The Congress party lost power. The way I characterize it, India was undergoing five or six revolutions at the same time. One was the economic revolution, another in foreign policy, no longer non-alignment, a class transformation, a caste revolution... Mayawati is the chief minister (of Uttar Pradesh), something I would have never expected or understood when I was here in 1963.
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I go back a little before that. In 1962-63, there was a US military aid programme to India and we were backing India against China. The Americans were very gung-ho about India, but the Indians were somewhat lukewarm about America and both of us were undecided about China. In a sense, history is repeating itself. Both of us are united strategically today, concerned about China’s rise, ambivalent about a growing China, but in both countries I think there’s a more mature understanding of the possibilities of cooperating as well as competing with China.
Two incidents that defined the Indo-US relationship in the 1960s: the first was the “ship-to-mouth” import of grain under PL 480 and the second, the infamous tilt against India and towards Pakistan. Can you tell us a little about that?
It was (president) Lyndon Johnson’s policy of coercing the Indians with food aid. What he was actually trying to do was promote agricultural reform, i.e., the Green Revolution and the White Revolution. And, of course, Kissinger saw India in terms of strategy and not in terms of India. That led to a decade when the Indians saw the US in collusion with China and Pakistan, a sort of an axis triangle against India. The irony was, the tragedy was that America hadn’t even thought of that. We regarded India so poorly we were not threatened by India, yet the Indians imagined American hostility. By the mid-80s that began to wear off…
Are you saying there was no tilt?
It was a temporary tilt, it wasn’t a strategic alignment against India. But the Indian leadership imagined a strategic alliance against India, but it was fantasy, there was no such thing.
Issues with Pakistan:Stephen P. Cohen said that the new US administration, whether Obama or McCain, will have a new set of rules to go by and future aid to Pakistan will be highly conditional. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
But when Kissinger went to China in 1971 and Pakistan paved the way for that visit, how did that happen?
Well, the consequences of that allowed the pro-Soviet groups in India to say that the Americans are our enemy and develop an alignment with the Soviets. But that was purely an expedient thing. Kissinger came to India right after that and tried to normalize relations, but the Indians saw us as a hostile power, so relations were frozen for about 15 years. During that period I was denied a visa, Americans were prohibited from doing research, eventually the Indians grew out of it. I think we understand India’s complexity now better than we ever did. Now of course relations are very good and I hate to be Pollyannaish, but I see this continuing on an upward curve.
You think both countries have kissed and made up and do you think the Indo-US nuclear deal epitomizes the relationship today?
I think it’s a major step in the right direction, it clears up the psychological baggage of both countries in the past, it may lead to some energy cooperation, but I think some expectations are overblown. And it does indicate US recognition of India as one of the major states in the world. But that was happening anyway because of India’s economic transformation. I think the ballast of the relationship now is Indo-US economic ties. Not only US investment in India, but I think $20 billion (Rs97,400 crore) worth of US companies are being bought up by Indians.
So you would say the nuclear deal was the icing on the cake?
It was the Bush administration and the Indian government conjuring up a new dish, not a cake, not a cupcake, not a pie, something we’ve never seen before and we both ate it.
Why did the Bush administration do this?
Well, they say this was an Indian idea. The Indians say this was an American idea. My guess is that it occurred to both sides while they were in the middle of negotiating a deeper, military and economic relationship.
Would you buy the line that it’s about China? We hear a lot of Americans saying that it’s about the containment of China.
I think that was the strategic backdrop, the closer Indo-US relationship now is an insurance against a potential hostile Chinese relationship in the future. I wouldn’t predict Chinese hostility or a China that threatened other countries. But if it does and if we have a better working relationship, it would serve us well in the future.
Were you surprised when the Chinese sought to block India at the Nuclear Suppliers Group some weeks ago?
I think they miscalculated the number of countries trying to block India from the NSG waiver. The combined population of the countries trying to block India was the size of New Delhi. These are fairly small countries and what was put to them was that you’re blocking a relationship between a country of a billion-plus people for what purpose. I think the Chinese misjudged that and they paid a diplomatic price for it.
And the Americans went out of their way to tell the Chinese that?
Yes, I am no friend of the Bush administration but I give them full credit—the Indians would say full marks—for actually sticking to this deal and for putting a lot of diplomatic and political muscle behind it. We don’t benefit that much from it, we’re unlikely to be selling India nuclear energy, there’s primarily strategic logic behind it to do away with the bad past history and start on a new footing.
What does this do for India? India becomes a de facto nuclear weapons power?
De facto yes...
Not de jure?
We can’t do that under the terms of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) which defines a nuclear state in a particular way. But in every other way, in terms of buying uranium India comes out way ahead. This deal benefits the US also but not quite as much as India does.
Seems to some of us here that the gap between the Indian elite and the Democrats is much wider than between the Indian elite and the Republicans…
The Democrats were more influenced by non-proliferation considerations, and for a number of years, this steered US policy towards South Asia, especially after the nuclear tests of 1998. But before that the Democrats were very pro-India, it was the Republicans that were hostile to India. The Republicans thought India was a socialist state, they didn’t like Nehru, they didn’t like Krishna Menon. It’s flip now.
Now that the non-proliferation issue is behind us, I would say one remarkable thing about elite public opinion in the US is that everybody likes India. Whether they are for the deal or against the deal, they like India as a state. I think that is a major accomplishment of India and it puts a new spin on our relationship. But here, for example, the Left parties are systemically anti-American, whereas in the US even those who are against the nuclear deal are very pro-India.
If senator Barack Obama comes to power and becomes the next president, you think there will be some rollback?
Yes, because the relationship is being powered by economic ties. That is the bottomline. There are some people in the Obama group that did not like the nuclear deal…(but) would like to see India do more for global arms control. I would agree with that position myself. I favour the deal but I think India has to do more in terms with dealing with the proliferation issue. I wouldn’t limit India’s nuclear military programme, but they must be a partner in this logic.
In the past, there was some preaching on Kashmir. Do you think that has changed and that both India and the US are on the same page as Kashmir?
Well, the policy is called de-hyphenation, that is we separate India policy from Pakistan policy, which means we don’t pay any attention to Kashmir. I think that is a mistake. I think there is a legitimate American interest in Kashmir, not supporting the Pakistani view, which I think is wrong, or the Indian view entirely, which has its problems, or least of all encouraging independence.
But I think we can facilitate India and Pakistan to reach agreement which at least puts the Kashmir issue for as long as necessary into cold storage. Because the Kashmiris themselves are suffering and recent events in Kashmir were caused not by Pakistan but by mismanagement on the Indian side. So, if there is anything we can do we should do.
I would like to ask you about terrorism. Both countries have faced challenges from terrorism, can they work together?
Until recently, there hasn’t been much cooperation, (only) a lot of rhetoric, hot air. But on the… attempt against the Indian embassy in Kabul. We got intelligence somehow and informed the Indians about it and apparently the death toll in the embassy in Kabul would have been much greater otherwise.
One of the conclusions that was drawn from the bomb attack against the Indian embassy in Kabul was that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, could have been involved. The US has definitely said so.
Why would the ISI do this?
I think they wanted to show the US, Pakistani politicians and maybe the Indians that they were still in business. And what better way to do this than to launch an attack against the Indian embassy. I think it was a mistake. I have just spent a couple of weeks in Pakistan. The question is, who runs ISI? Does the army run it? Does it run itself? Certainly the civilian politicians don’t have much influence over the ISI. That is one of the big issues facing the US and also facing India, and of course Pakistan.
Who runs Pakistan? Is it Asif Ali Zardari, the President, or is it the army chief?
President Zardari can issue orders and make recommendations, but nothing happens until the army agrees. So in a sense the army still has an important role in running Pakistan. That is why you can’t do anything without the army’s cooperation.
What about the democracy project in Pakistan, can India help in any way?
I have always felt that India could do more to help Pakistan than the US could. It is in India’s interest to have a pluralist, functioning democracy in Pakistan. My concern is that it may be too late for Pakistan.
Do you think Pakistan is a failing state?
It has failed in bits and parts for the past 30-40 years, but it hasn’t failed comprehensively yet, which means that it hasn’t broken down like the way Somalia has or Afghanistan. But every part of it has failed one time or another. Its military policy has failed, its diplomacy has failed, its social policies have failed, the provinces are going their independent way. I think it’s critically important that we keep Pakistan together as best we can. A truly failing Pakistan would surely send a couple of million refugees and Islamic extremism right on your border which is something you don’t want.
And yet American troops are now fighting Pakistanis?
The bad news is that we are fighting the Pakistanis, the good news is that they don’t care about India anymore. I think India can do a lot to normalize Pakistan. But a failed Pakistan which breaks up would leave huge migration out of the country and loose nukes on the world market.
And yet it was the Americans in the 1980s who funded Zia ul-Haq…
Yes, we should have pressed Zia more, we should have pressed Musharraf much earlier, in fact we didn’t press him at all about reforming Pakistan. I think our neglect and India’s coolness made it easier for these forces to gain power and control Pakistan.
Much more mistrust now?
When we did have influence we failed to use it, in terms of cutting off economic assistance. The new administration, whether Obama or McCain, will have a new set of rules to go by and our aid to Pakistan will be highly conditional. We will not provide military assistance to Pakistan except to fight terrorists and we will not provide economic assistance under strict conditionalities to be delivered to the people of Pakistan. It may be too late for that to work, that is my concern.
Indo-US relationship, on the one hand, and the US-Pakistan relationship, on the other. How would you compare them?
I would say they’re separate but not equal. That is, we have vital interests with Pakistan, in terms of Afghanistan. We’re disappointed with Pakistan allowing the Taliban to operate in Afghanistan.
In the case of India, it is seen as a rising major power, a potential rival to China although I wouldn’t push that too soon. Also, a great overlap of interest in democracy, human rights and so on.
We each have our failings but essentially we’re both democracies, that has always been a factor and always will be.
To view a video of this interview, as well as the earlier four in the Power Point series, go to www.livemint.com/powerpoint