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A Political Discovery of India

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November 2003
A Political Discovery of India

It is not everyday that young Indian Americans get a one-on-one audience with the former Prime Minister and the former President of India. Thanks to a unique program by the Indian American Center for Political Awareness, six youngsters had a journey of their lifetimes while enjoying an insider's view of Indian politics.

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By HARIN CONTRACTOR

In August of this year, five WLP (Washington Leadership Program) alumni and I set out on one of the most amazing, eye-opening, and educational experiences of our lives. We made a nine-day journey to India, our motherland. To some of us in the group, India was a foreign land; to some, it was one that we had not seen in over a decade; some had been there just a few months earlier. Regardless of our previous experience, this trip to India was unique. Due to the kindness of the Indian American Center for Political Awareness, the Indo-Asian News Service, and the Indian government, we were on a visit to learn about the political, economic, and social structure of India.

August 10th:

A brief history of Indian foreign affairs

Our group of six ? comprising Sheena Jain, Veena Srinivasa, Anjali Shaykher, Hari Kondabolu, Naresh Tanna, and I ? landed at the airport in Delhi, where we met our most gracious host, guide, and teacher, Manoj Kapoor. He led us to one of our first discoveries: cars that ran on natural gas. New Delhi's taxis and commercial vehicles must now operate on these engines, and according to every local we spoke to, it has drastically reduced the pollution levels in the city. Manoj then took us to our place of residence for the next week, the India International Center (IIC), which can be described as a "country club for intellectuals." Apparently there is a ten-year waiting list to be a member to this club where only certain persons are allowed in. To gain a sense of IIC, we ate at the same cafeteria as Members of Parliament, and stayed down the hall from Mahatma Gandhi's grandson.

The highlight of the day was our meeting with India's foreign policy guru, J. N. Dixit. He has shaped and continues to guide India's leaders on matters of foreign policy, relations, and development. Dixit authored the bestseller India-Pakistan in War and Peace. He was also former foreign secretary of India, ambassador to Afghanistan and member of the National Security Advisory board. Our discussion with Mr. Dixit gave us a great overview on the history of U.S.-India relations as well as the history of Indian foreign policy. He highlighted three concerns that India faces: 1) Finding and maintaining an Identity, 2) Maintaining territorial Identity, and 3) Political unity with such diversity.

After the formal discussion was over we had dinner with a group of reporters from various Indian media: The Economic Times, The Tribune, IndoCenter for Media Studies, and of course the Indo-Asian News Service. That was very useful, as we received a balanced, impartial and front-end perspective on India and its problems, challenges, and achievements.

August 11th:

Indo-American relations: Discussing Outsourcing, Patriot Act and more.

We began the day with a visit to the U.S. embassy where we were met by the acting ambassador and Deputy Chief of Mission of the embassy, Robert Blake. The embassy itself was very nice; it looked exactly like the Kennedy Center in DC. Mr. Blake, a very knowledgeable man, began our discussion by speaking about the cooperation that India and the U.S. have with defense. The U.S. military is working closely with the Indian military on the war on drugs as well as the war on terror. Blake is a big proponent of "outsourcing" to India, explaining that it benefits both consumers and companies. He added that India had to buy more American products to balance out the effects. According to Blake, the U.S. wants to stay out of the Kashmir conflict, but is more than willing to give suggestions or mediate between India and Pakistan. Blake then spoke about the Trinity Trade pact between India and the U.S., consisting of the Space, Hi-Tech, and Nuclear programs. Blake foresees the Bio-Tech/Pharmaceutical industry as the next area to be "outsourced" to India, but companies are hesitant because of the lack of Intellectual Property Rights protection laws in India.

We then went to a luncheon at the Sheraton, where we met Navtej Sarna, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs. There were actually many members of the press and persons from MEA at the luncheon as well to meet and speak to us. (Sarna treated us to the now popular "Clinton Lunch" at the Shereton: the course that President Clinton had when he had stayed there.)

This was another great opportunity to meet and speak to decision-makers and reporters about the foreign policy issues of India. Our next stop was a meeting with Jayant Prashad, Joint Secretary for the Americas. He was happy to explain that U.S.-India relations have changed dramatically in the past four years. While briefly discussing the Patriot Act, Prashad mentioned that India had a similar act called the POTA, which allows for habeas corpus for the accused, unlike the Patriot Act.

August 12th & 13th:

Cacophony at the Lok Sabha

We began with a meeting at the residence of Mrs. Najma Heptulla, deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha (Upper House). She spoke about the Constitution and explained in depth how the parliamentary system of democracy worked in India. She explained that the members of Lok Sabha (Lower House) are elected directly by the people, and they in turn elect the Prime Minister. She also shared that 8.7% of parliament is comprised of women.

We then arrived at the Lok Sabha (Lower House) in time for what they call the "Zero-Hour." The defense minister, George Fernandez, had come to defend himself against accusations of money laundering in defense deals during and after the Kargil conflict. The opposition party, which sat on the right side of the speaker, started chanting and yelling so loudly when the session began that we couldn't even hear Speaker Manohar Joshi or Minister Fernandez speak. The opposition had been trying to build momentum for a vote of No Confidence motion, which they would call for in the coming weeks. Our time in Parliament was entertaining, to say the least.

We then went to a luncheon at the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) office. This was a very interactive meeting, where we were asked about our perspectives on India and the changes it has undergone. It was an interesting discussion, one of the few times when we asked the majority of questions. Next we went to the office of the largest Indian newspaper in English, The Times of India. The editor in charge of the Delhi news informed us that the media in India have a lot of freedom. He pointed out that there were no anti-defamation laws. Despite the popularity of television, the newspaper's circulation has grown because people want their children to learn English. Overall, it was an interesting look at India's version of The New York Times.

Former Prime Minister Gujral: Discussing Gujarat riots and more.

In my opinion, the most inspiring part of the trip was our meeting with I. K. Gujral, the former Prime Minister. We first asked him what he thought about the nuclear tests that were conducted shortly after he left office. He agreed with them, arguing that India's tests showed the world the hypocrisy of the CTBT agreement. But Gujral added that the world as a whole must disarm. When asked about the war on terror, he pointed out that India started fighting this war in 1989, but no one listened until 9-11. He thinks that 9-11 occurred because terrorism was not stopped in its early stages, and the war in Iraq will only encourage this. He went on to say that the Iraq war was a mistake, just as it was a mistake for India to send its troops into Sri Lanka. The former Prime Minister firmly believes that the UN should have continued its observations in Iraq. He remarked, "Does the world have any other option but the UN if it wants peace?"

Gujral spent a lot of time talking about the Gujarat riots. He put most of the blame on the government of Gujarat. He explained that this was the first riot since independence to remain confined in one spot and not spread to other regions of the country. He mentioned also that it was the first riot to be strongly condemned by all but two of the 6000 newspapers in India. "Don't extinguish fire with fire," Gujral said.

He went on to say that India was a success story of secularism. Out of all the jihadis from around the world in Afghanistan, none were Muslims from India. He pointed out that Muslims in India do not want a separate party, but a secular one. His vision for India: not a military power, but a technological and scientific one. Since Indians had missed the first Industrial Revolution, he remarked, they'd grabbed the next one when it came along. And now India is in the middle of a boom that will continue. Gujral concluded by commenting that non-resident Indians (NRIs) should not compromise their loyalties to their native lands. If they are Indian-Americans, he said, they must identify with America and remain loyal to it. His intelligence, grace, humility, vision, and charisma were overwhelming. I will remember our meeting with the former Prime Minister for a long time.

Party politics: A charged environment

We ended our day with a man who had been in the news non-stop, Jaipal Reddy, the spokesperson for the Congress Party. Being the spokesperson for the opposition party is a tough job under the current political environment in India. Though, Mr. Reddy passionately articulated his frustrations against the ruling BJP whom he blamed for injecting the country with divisiveness and communal poisoning. He cited the Ayodhya temple conflict saying that it should be left to the courts; any government legislation towards the issue would be unconstitutional. The meeting with Mr. Reddy gave us an up close perspective on party politics in India.

August 14th:

Defense matters: An education in India's rise as a regional superpower.

Our discussion at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, the military think tank for India, blew me away. Not only did we get an in-depth look at the strategic situation in India, but we also heard from the people who were on the front lines in almost every war India has fought. They began with an overview of Indian history as it relates to the military. After the 1962 war with China, India strengthened its military capabilities. In 1971 India established itself as a regional power. The next phase was the cold war, which left India in an awkward position, but was defined by separatist movements in Kashmir and Punjab. In the post-cold war period, India established itself as a nuclear power in the region. The Kargil crisis and the rise of cross-border terrorism have defined the post-1998 phase.

We then had our second dose of Indian defense strategy when we went to the United Service Institution of India (USII), where we met Lt. Gen. Satish Nambrar, the commander of UN forces in the former Yugoslavia. The USII is a think tank that works to broaden the scope of officers when it comes to international relations. Lt. Gen Nambrar believes that the balance of power in the world is shifting from Europe to Asia. This is because seven of the ten most populous countries in the world are in Asia, and also because there are five nuclear powers (China, India, Russia, Pakistan, and Israel) in the region. He believes that India should and will focus more on developing relations with its neighbors in Southeast Asia, not only economically but also in all aspects of international relations. When asked about the UN and a possible role in Kashmir, he said that the UN would not be involved. He explained that UN observers were there to monitor the ceasefire, but the 1972 Shimla Agreement made it clear that all issues concerning Kashmir would be resolved bilaterally by India and Pakistan.

President K.R. Narayanan: U.S. should have gone thru UN

The final formal meeting on our trip to India was with former President K. R. Narayanan. He recently stepped down from his position, and it was a real pleasure to be in his presence. Due to his old age, the President took a moment to respond to our queries, but he did an outstanding job in answering them thoroughly. He believes that the U.S. should have gone through the UN before it decided to attack Iraq. He explained that the role of the President in the Indian system is to uphold and implement the Constitution. Presidents use their powers to check the government, and he did that extensively with the BJP. President Narayanan mentioned that the BJP and the Modi government in Gujarat did not take measures to prevent violence during the riots, and he hoped this would not happen again. He felt that the key to India's development was to focus on infrastructure during and after the IT boom.

August 15th:

A soaking wet Independence Day

We woke up at 4 AM to get ready and go through the security check at Red Fort. The story of the day was not Vajpayee's speech on India's space program or the goal to make India a developed nation by 2020. No, the story of the day for us was the tremendous amount of rain that fell from the moment we woke up and throughout the ceremony. We sat outside for over three hours, wearing traditional Indian outfits, with no umbrellas. The funniest part about the whole event was that, apart from the Members of Parliament, we ? the NRIs ? were the only ones who were dressed in traditional garb! It was a sight to see, and we definitely had an experience that I won't forget soon. To actually be at Red Fort and hear the Prime Minister speak on India's independence was something special despite the awful weather conditions.

August 16th:

A trip to the "real" India

We spent most of the day in Agra, where we saw the Taj Mahal. No matter how many times one visits the Taj, it is still a wonder of the world! I had not seen the Taj since I was a kid. This magnificent monument symbolizes the beauty and majesty of India. One of the best parts about our trip to Agra was actually getting out of the city to see the countryside. For one of the few times on the trip, I felt as if I were in the "real" India; and it was beautiful.

August 17th:

Goodbye to India

We spent most of the day shopping. In the evening we met for chai, at the Indian International Center, with Mr. Tarun Basu, Editor and founder of the Indo-Asian News Service and the person responsible for setting up our meetings and other arrangements of the trip. It was a nice way to gain perspective on our journey. He told us to how the program was perceived by the many persons we met, and he asked us about possible improvements for future years. I thought it was a humbling experience that I will never forget. I have to admit I was a bit overwhelmed by the trip and the amount of knowledge we had gained. But it did give me a good grasp on the situation and how I might benefit as an Indian-American. As I grow and become more involved in the political arena, there will be times when I may be able to educate people about the Indian position or give advice on how relations with India might benefit both India and the United States. I thought this trip was a success and hope that many more WLP interns will be able to enjoy a similar experience in India.


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