Siddarth Shankar Ray is a very colourful person in Indian politics. Though famous for wrong reasons, we should not forget the way with which he crushed rebellions for good, be it the Naxalite movement in Bengal or the Sikh insurrection in Punjab. He was the mover behind the emergency and he was the one PV Narasimha Rao used to normalize the relations with America. Below is an interview he gave when he was the Indian Ambassador to America, a very insightful one, still relevant.
Is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) India’s major area of difference with the US?
The CTBT is under discussion. Nobody has refused anything. We have one view, they have another. But these views have to be discussed. What is important is that we have now recognised the sagacity of agreeing to differ where there are differences. And the number of differences sometimes dwindle, sometimes increase. Things change. In 1992 when I went to the US, there were so many differences: sanctions on ISRO, Super 301, Special 301, copyright, Kashmir—but now all that has disappeared.
But is the report in the New York Times (NYT) a pressure tactic to get India to sign the CTBT?
Reports of this kind appear from time to time. A report in NYT is not what the people of America are saying. Going by some reports in American papers, you’d think Bill Clinton was the worst president who ever ruled America! Yet this is clearly not so. There is tremendous freedom of expression in that country. Even here I saw in the papers the other day that I had “thundered and blundered” about something I had never even said! Sometimes things are put into my mouth that exist only in the imagination of journalists. But this doesn’t mean we don’t have to discuss the CTBT.
Is it an irreconcilable difference?
Nothing is an irreconcilable difference before full discussions have taken place. We have been periodically telling the world since 1954 about nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. In 1988, Rajiv Gandhi announced his action plan for a nuclear-free world by 2010. In a joint statement by Clinton and Narasimha Rao in May 1994, there were statements about non-proliferation and reduction of nuclear weapons with a view to their elimination. So what we are now saying, what the Prime Minister and the external affairs minister said, is that there must be some discussion on reduction and elimination of the stockpiles of nuclear powers. Discussions must go on. I don’t think anybody would say that the perennial and perpetual existence of nuclear weapons is a good thing.
But are we losing out to Pakistan?
In Pakistan, the US does not invest even half of what it invests in India. It’s not a question of winning or losing. It’s this question that confuses everybody. India is the second largest market in the world, one-fifth of the world’s population. Our relations with a country cannot be compared with the relations which a country in our neighbourhood has with that country. If we go on comparing what we have done to what Pakistan has done, we will get into a sort of morass, from which we will never get out. We will be falling into some kind of peculiar thinking. Why do we keep thinking of Pakistan all the time? It is true we have some concerns, such as Pakistan receiving M-11 missiles from another country, Pakistan exporting fanatic religious terrorism into India through Kashmir which is a part of India…these are serious concerns. But why do we think of Pakistan when we are thinking of something totally different? This is not productive thinking.
But hasn’t the Hank Brown Amendment shifted the balance towards Pakistan?
There are certain aspects of the Brown Amendment that have been missed. Nobody seems to have taken into account the principal thing, namely that the supply of F-16s has been stopped. If you look at the records of old newspapers, analysts seem to protest only about F-16s. Well, in so far as India has succeeded, this is a success for us. Secondly, as far as the P3 Orions are concerned and the Howitzer missiles, it has been made clear that this is only a one-time waiver of the Pressler Amendment (banning arms transfers to Pakistan) and that there will be no further waivers. It has been declared that F-16s will not be delivered.
Also, the amendment was passed by a very narrow majority. A majority of only 9 or 10—the actual voting was 54 for and 46 against. If a handful of senators had voted differently, it would have gone against Pakistan. Just because the amendment was passed doesn’t mean all of America favours it. In fact, people should not treat America as a gone case. We have numerous friends there.
There is a feeling that India tends to suffer in Washington because of the lack of lobbyists.
India never had lobbyists until 1993 when we appointed a firm. But the question is not one of lobbyists, but of being aware of each other’s concerns. In other words, we have to make an all-out effort to understand each other’s concerns and differences. I think in 80-90 per cent of the cases, we understand each other very well. We are two democracies, very vibrant, live and dynamic. And two real democracies can never really agree on anything. Dictatorships can. But democracies have to function with the consensus of the people and two sets of people, quite apart from being in two countries, can never possibly have a single unanimous view. True democracies don’t go to war against each other but they never agree.
But aren’t relations rather bad at the moment to be rationalised in this fashion? Especially after the war of words on S.B.Chavan’s statement in Parliament about US involvement in Kashmir?
That statement was made under certain circumstances. Certain people have said that we have never had such good relations in the past. America is the first investor, first trading partner, the recipient of 18 per cent of our exports. You should have heard some of the defences of India made during the Brown Amendment debate; they were so impassioned. Unfortunately, the history has been one of lost opportunities. But the 1.3 million Indians in America have made a tremendous difference to our image. In America, there are some for whom being anti-India is a way of life. But there are more anti-American Indians here than there are anti-Indian Americans there. There are Cold Warriors living in both countries and some are thriving. In India even some of my own friends cannot conceive of an America which is friendly with India. But all this will die down once there is greater exchange between the people.
It’s been reported that you don’t get on too well with the MEA. Have you had problems?
Why don’t you ask the MEA that? Why ask me? Ask any IAS or IPS officer who I have worked with if my relations with them have ever been anything but cordial. They will all tell you the same thing. I don’t understand why the press is making me into a colourful personality.
Apparently you refuse to meet any official below a certain rank in Washington?
Who told you that? On the contrary, I must have met 200 senators and Congressmen and hundreds of other Americans. I address numerous meetings outside Washington. In fact, I’m out of Washington three-four days every week. I tour a great deal.
Are you enjoying it?
There’s so much work, so many worries, there is little time to enjoy oneself. But I ride in the country sometimes. I enjoy a game of tennis. I’ve been made a fellow of Harvard University although I don’t deserve it. The Washington Symphony Orchestra performed Mozart’s Magic Flute as a salute to India.
Does India really matter to America?
By the end of this century India will matter very seriously. We will become the single largest free market in the world. But to succeed properly we have to have massive social and educational reforms. No country can become economically successful with one-third below the poverty line and half illiterate.
Are you planning to return to politics?
Everybody asks me this question. And I really do not have an answer.
The West Bengal Congress leader, Somen Mitra, has said he will oppose your entry.
It’s up to every person to oppose what they want. In any case, what do you mean by return to politics? I am in politics. I have been in politics since 1957. My rivals have said all kinds of things about me, that my hands are stained with the blood of Naxals, that I was responsible for the death of thousands of people, that I was responsible for the Emergency. But nobody ever says I’m dishonest. My rivals said all kinds of things about me in Bhowanipur, but nobody there believed them. I was born and brought up in Bhowanipur. I played cricket there. People knew what I was really like.