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Last Updated: Friday, 27 January 2006, 18:05 GMT
Does India-US row matter?

By Paul Danahar
BBC South Asia bureau editor, Delhi

India has summoned the US ambassador David Mulford to Delhi to protest over comments he made over how India should vote in a UN motion on Iran's nuclear intentions. What does the row tell us about relations between India and the US?

"If you want to run with the big dogs, you have to stop pissing with the puppies".

David Mulford
David Mulford became ambassador to Delhi in 2004

It may not be very diplomatic but it is the most eloquent assessment of the problems of Indian foreign policy over the years that I have heard.

These were the words of a man whose opinion, in the global scheme of things, matters.

I will not name him because it was a private conversation but I got the chance to ask him again recently whether his view had changed.

He was a lot more upbeat. India, he asserted, had stopped acting like a non-aligned country. He spat out "non-aligned" like a swear word.

He is right, in that India has begun to look beyond its own backyard to the world stage that now beckons.

But while the West courts India's attention, there is one thing it should not overlook.

Prickly nationalism

Indian civilisation may have been around for thousands of years but India the country, in its present form, is only a youngster.

India is not the country it was a few years ago when Ambassador Mulford arrived

The struggle for self-determination is still part of living memory here. With that youthfulness comes a prickly nationalism.

Western countries often think of nationalism as an occupation of an extremist fringe. But it means something quite different to a country that has fought off colonialism.

The White House has learned this by the spade load in Iraq but it does not appear to have sunk in everywhere in the administration.

The Bhabha atomic plant outside Mumbai, India
India's nascent nuclear energy industry needs US help

Enter US Ambassador to Delhi, David Mulford.

Mr Mulford found himself this week at the centre of the kind of diplomatic row he is paid to avoid.

He warned that a deal giving India access to American nuclear technology could collapse if Delhi did not back a UN motion against Iran's nuclear ambitions.

In diplomatic terms India went... well, India went nuclear, and gave Ambassador Mulford a dressing down for his "inappropriate" comments.

It is all a bit embarrassing coming just weeks before President George Bush visits.

Default position

Both sides are trying to play it down saying Mr Mulford's comments were "taken out of context".

Blaming the media is, of course, the classic default position of politicians when they say something they wish afterwards they hadn't.

The truth is that Mr Mulford was not really quoted out of context - but equally truthfully, he was not wrong.

The US Congress probably will take their bat home if India does not vote the way it hopes, regardless of the wishes of the White House.

The Delhi elite consider Mr Mulford to be a clever, thoughtful man and a breath of fresh air after his brilliant but, they thought, pompous predecessor Robert Blackwill.

Robert Blackwill
Robert Blackwill was considered a bit pompous by the Indians

Ambassador Blackwill was also pro-India but notorious for inviting the country's brightest and best to dinner and then lecturing them mercilessly for hours on end.

Mr Mulford is cut from different cloth and wants to listen. But if Mr Mulford was not wrong he risks being seen as unsophisticated about the audience he was addressing.

Here in Delhi, any hint of being pushed around in what might be called a "step brotherly" fashion is always going to provoke genuine anger.

The row will blow over. It is in the interests of both sides to improve their relations. India wants a seat on the security council, American businessmen are salivating at the prospects of a nice big slice of Indian economic pie.

But India is not the country it was a few years ago when Ambassador Mulford arrived.

New mood

The new mood is summed up and also being shaped by the country's Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen.

His book The Argumentative Indian encourages the liberal middle class to reclaim pride in their country and culture from the worst of the Hindu nationalists who hijacked them in the 1990s.

It is a book Ambassador Mulford may well have read. If so, it could have prepared him for New Delhi's instinctive inclination to take offence - and shoot the messenger.

This spat has the potential to damage both sides.

It has made it harder for India to go against its old friend and support sanctions against Iran, something it may well have been inclined to do without nudges from outside.

Now, if it does vote against Tehran, the Indian government risks hurting the renewed pride the people it serves are feeling.

It will fear appearing to its domestic audience, and the bits of the world it wants to impress, like the new kid on the block who is not yet ready to stand up to the bigger boys in Washington.

If you would like to send your views on this issue you can use the form below these comments.

Very well observed column, I am an Indian feel exactly the way it expressed in your writeup. Indians are prepared to lose a lot to gain a little in pride.
rudraiah.rajasekhar@gmail.com, usa

Jayant Gupchup, India

Typical!! The ink has not yet dried on this "nuclear co-operation treaty" and already Indian foreign policy is being dictated from the American embassy. That was the knee-jerk reaction. Though Mr Mulford is not incorrect, this deal is going to die an early death in congress irrespective of which way India votes on the Iran issue at the IAEA. The Indian lobbyists better make the right sorts of noises on the democratic side. As the USA is so polarized these days, that by simply making a deal with the Bush administration the Indian govt. has earned the scorn of many on the other side (democratic), irrespective of the merits of the deal itself.
Vivan Joshi, Chicago, USA

Good reportage. Usually when a western journo is covering India, I find a sentence here and there in the article that I find is a little off; not quite right, as it pertains to India. Mr. Danahar, on the other hand, seems to have summed up the controversy perfectly. The Indian side and the surprisingly crass way that a diplomat has allowed himself to behave were both covered well. Given that a private hint on the matter to high level officials in the Indian Government would have been far more effective, you have to wonder which is more likely, that Mr. Mulford had a brain freeze or that he had an ulterior motive in making his comments. Dr. Manmohan Singh is probably annoyed at Mr. Mulford in no small measure for making his government's decision on supporting the Western countries in the Iran case nearly impossible to make.
Rahul Prasad, USA

India, measured upto any given standards, is not just a new kid on the block, rather a very strong and intelligent player quietly playing its way to the very top. And as Mr.Danahar has mentioned, US businesses are not just waiting for the economic pie of India, but are vigorously learning how to win the confidence of Indians, who they know, will send their brightest to the US but will never trust the intentions of the west. This row sent a clear message to the west that India can no longer be treated as a pet, but as a partner and even a better player if not their equal player, however difficult it might be for them to digest.

I think this mantra about India 'arriving at the world scene' is more a chimera than anything else. It is a condescending portrayal by the US-led west to boost the ego of Indian elites to win them on their side. The simple fact of the matter is that India is not even a regional power, let alone a world power. India has not been able to stand up to Pakistan's (a country seven times smaller and mired in all kind of problems) provocations, let alone deal with Pakistan on its terms. Pakistan still believes that terrorism is its trump card to wrest concessions from India, and India simply has not found an answer to deal effectively with this eternal albatross around its neck. And despite all talk of de-hyphenation, the US-led western world still hyphenates India and Pakistan on every issue despite all of India's merits.
Chellury R. Sastry, USA

While all responsible nations of the world should be more than willing to prevent nuclear arms proliferation in Iran the U.S. has no right to tell India how it should vote. I agree that the U.S. imbassicleodor should have kept his comments in private and that he has harmed rather than strengthened the case for reffering Iran to the SC.
Dan, USA

Sanctions, Embargoes , terminated deals, The oldest form of currency when purchasing your votes. Ahh democracy in action.
Jerry Eastlake, USA

I agree with most of the author's comments. When i heard that comment by the US Ambassador to India, I felt like "Who is he to tell a country how to vote?." So now whatever decision the country is going to take(i believe that will be in the best interest of the country keep the current and future interests in mind), but this inappropriate remarks, he made it difficult for the leaders who had to make the decision. especially after several hundred years of colonialism, we finally believe that we can make the decisions of our own.
jayachandran kamaraj, USA

India and the US need each other more than either need Iran. I think it's good that friends know exactly what is at stake from their actions; both for the US & India an ounce of action is worth a pound of words.
J., US

I could see it coming from the Indian government as soon as I read Mr. Mulford's comments. This was typical arm-twisting technique by US except this time it was in public. I suspect his days in India could be numbered after presidential visit.
Vikram Ranade, USA

India should act on its own merits and not be influenced by the current events emerging around this situation. India should carefully asses what is most beneficial on a long term basis.
Paresh Puhan, New York, USA

Indian Pride and a sense of nationalism was always there, but couldn't find expression and was moderated due to various problems in the past.. The new face of India given the economic resurgence validates the fierce sense of self that had been just itching to flower.. There is a feeling that India can stand up to anyone and will, with gusto
Manjunath Kustagi, New York, USA

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