New Delhi: As a US Democrat, Karl Inderfurth chose to go with Barack Obama than Hillary Clinton, which is probably why he is high on the list of those tipped to be the next US ambassador to India. South Asia is Inderfurth’s old hunting-ground. As assistant secretary of state for the region in the second Bill Clinton administration, he was part of the team that rebuilt the relationship between India and the US after India and Pakistan’s tit-for-tat nuclear tests. A speaker at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit last week, he spoke to Mint. Edited excerpts:
What does a Barack Obama victory mean for India? Does it mean anything at all?
I think it means a great deal. It means a great deal more of the same…
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This business is not usual, this Indo-US relationship has taken on a whole new direction and energy, including the successful conclusion of the civilian nuclear deal. That unlocks cooperation that we have not seen before, including space cooperation, although we have been with you to the moon now, we had two Nasa payloads on this Isro mission. What a great achievement that was.
But no big idea, nothing to capture the imagination like what the Republicans had…
Give the Obama administration a chance to come into office and see what they can come up with. Fact is, under Presidents Clinton and Bush we’ve seen policy continuity, there has been bi partisan support, the votes in the House (of Representatives) and the Senate show there is strong support for India…
And Barack Obama voted in the end for the deal…
Not in the end, he said what he would do before, in an indication of his support for the new strategic partnership with India.
Although Hillary Clinton, who’s tipped to be the secretary of state, voted in favour of a killer amendment to the Hyde Act in December 2006, which, if it had carried, would have killed the Indo-US nuclear deal.
That wasn’t going to happen. The votes that took place on the Hyde Act were important votes and both senators Clinton and Obama voted for it in the end. But there were important issues that needed to be aired at the time. There’s no question in my view, and I supported the agreement from the start, that from India’s standpoint the agreement was about energy, but it also had non-proliferation aspects. The US should be a leader on that issue. This is something the US and India should work closely on. We don’t want to see nuclear materials or weapons or knowhow get into the wrong hands. Once we have signed this agreement, I think we should broaden the nuclear dialogue to talk about working together to prevent proliferation… You want a big idea? A nuclear-free world. Lets work on that… How about getting rid of nuclear weapons for all time?
Optimistic: Karl Inderfurth thinks Democrats will be as good with India as the Republicans were. In a lot of places, the Republicans and Democrats are always fighting but not about India. That is a good thing. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
So you think the Democrats could be as good with India as the Republicans were?
I absolutely do, but I don’t want to put it as “good” or “better”. The fact is that we have policy continuity, we see bi-partisan support. The best thing about the US-India relationship is that it is not partisan. India should be very relieved about that because in a lot of places around the world, the Republicans and Democrats are always fighting. But not about India. That is a good thing.
Can I ask you about 1998 when India conducted its tests and the then secretary of state Madeleine Albright said India has dug itself into a hole? In retrospect, what would you say about that?
I don’t want to go there. This is 10 years later, India is recognized as a nuclear state, the US and India are going to have full nuclear cooperation. This is a night and day situation and I think that’s where we ought to begin the discussion. We don’t need to go back to 1998.
One more question about the past. Your predecessor in the first Clinton administration, Robin Raphel, went on record to say that the US doesn’t recognize the Instrument of accession in Kashmir. What would you say about this today?
We are beyond that. These past statements may be interesting for some, but look at where we are today. You do not hear statements like that. You see India and the US cooperation across the board, on counter-terrorism, on defence relations, on space cooperation, on nuclear issues… We are in a new place.
So you’re not worried that Barack Obama will play an interventionist role in Kashmir?
No, I’m not. I think he recognizes that this is an issue that must be dealt with by the two parties, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people.
Are you going to be the next US ambassador to India?
I think it would be a great job to whoever is offered it. It would be a fascinating assignment…
So you’re not ruling yourself out?
I am not ruling myself out or in: It would be a great assignment.