by Sunanda K Datta-Ray

India’s foreign policy options in respect of Russia, China, Iran and other countries with which the United States has problematic relations, will now be closely watched. Will Narendra Modi have the courage or subtlety with which P V Narasimha Rao handled the case of the Cuban rice?

New Delhi’s latest pact with Washington confirms again that foreign policy is less a question of ideology than of perceived necessity. India’s priorities are supposedly determined mainly by its need for sophisticated technology and investment to counter security threats and meet development needs. Hence, its relentless but unsuspected pursuit for more than 71 years of a close military partnership with the US which recently culminated in the NDA government signing the Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement or CISMOA. The Americans generously renamed it COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) to reflect its India-specific nature. The COMCASA is a foundational agreement that only a few dozen countries — all Washington’s closest defence partners — have signed. It is expected to facilitate a more robust communication between the two militaries.

The road to this finale has been far from easy. In the Cold War years, India was always torn between the two superpowers because need and inclination did not always coincide. Although anxious to develop the relationship, previous Indian governments were reluctant to agree to the COMCASA because they feared it would lay open India’s military secrets to American spying. Mr Modi has no such concerns. His NDA is politically inclined towards much, if not everything, that the Donald Trump regime represents. That was not so in the past.

As Indira Gandhi told Washington reporters when she visited the US as Ronald Reagan’s guest, “When we first wanted to set up our steel plant, we went to America, not the USSR. When they refused to help us, we went to somebody else. When we wanted to look for oil, we first went to the American oil companies. They said, ‘You have no oil’. But then the Soviet Union and Romania came and told us, ‘You have got a lot of oil’. And they found it for us”.

America symbolised the good life even in those years of chilly distance. “When I call on cabinet ministers, the president, or governors, they all love to talk about their sons, sons-in-law and daughters in the United States and how well they’re doing and how well they like things,” mused William B Saxbe, the American ambassador in the seventies. “The next day I read in the papers the very same people are denouncing the United States as a totally different kind of country.”

India’s first choice was the US even before independence. Not Jawaharlal Nehru alone but the diplomats he sent to the US, beginning with India’s first ambassador, Asaf Ali, and the officials who supported them at home (Sir Girja Shankar Bajpai, for instance) all clamoured for closer Indo-American military ties. It was to the US that India turned when China invaded in 1962. India’s leaders were influenced by the government’s British conditioning, by the indifference bordering on contempt that Stalin showed for India, Gandhi and Nehru in those early years, and by Moscow’s perceived close links with Peking.

But the Soviets were also astute strategists. As their relations with the Chinese worsened, and as American politicians like John Foster Dulles alienated Indians with their ham-handed brusqueness, the Soviets began courting an India whose amour-propre was wounded by American arrogance. The US preferred Pakistan whose geographic location was said to make it strategically a more desirable ally. Moreover, unlike India, Pakistan readily joined the US-backed SEATO and CENTO treaties, ostensibly to fight Communism but actually to obtain American weapons to deploy against India.

Nevertheless, India still wanted dual purpose technology from the US. But unlike other Asian countries, it saw the price as an infringement of national sovereignty. The proposal for a joint Indo-US aircraft hung fire for several decades until 2002 when at last Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government summoned up enough courage to sign what was called GESOMIA or General Security of Military Information Agreement. It was another 14 years before Mr Modi’s India agreed to endorse another such agreement, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA).

Now, the COMCASA will allow the US to transfer specialised equipment for encrypted communications for US-origin platforms like C-17, C-130 and P-8I aircraft. It comes into force immediately and is valid for 10 years. Reports indicate that the US Central Command will specially designate an official to coordinate operations between India and the US. This is thought necessary because the agreement is India-specific and “specific additional provisions” are said to have been incorporated in the text to safeguard security and national interests. Towards that end, the ministers are “committed to start exchanges between the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) and the Indian Navy, underscoring the importance of deepening their maritime cooperation in the western Indian Ocean,” according to the joint statement.

While there are more than 50 bilateral dialogue mechanisms between India and the US, this is the highest level of engagement so far. As the joint statement said, COMCASA “will facilitate access to advanced defence systems and enable India to optimally utilise its existing US-origin platforms.” The talks between Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman, representing India, with the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and the US defence secretary, James Mattis, were twice postponed this year. The culmination is interpreted as US acknowledgment of India’s rise as an economic and strategic power.

But such partners are expected to abide by US rules, as was evident when Isidoro Malmierca Peoli, Fidel Castro’s foreign minister for two decades, a cultured Latin politician who was known and respected in India, sought at least 100,000 tonnes of rice in lieu of sugar and credit in April 1992. Previous such bargains, struck on the anvil of non-aligned solidarity, had always drawn angry American criticism which India had ignored. This time, India was evasive, saying first, it could not spare more than 10,000 tonnes of rice, then withdrawing even this offer. “Those days are over” said the finance and agriculture ministries.

Indrajit Gupta asked if the American navy would invade or Carla Hills, the trade commissioner, impose sanctions if India breached the embargo on Cuba. George Fernandes pleaded with trade unionists each to donate a kilogram of rice. As the furore continued, Narasimha Rao quietly allowed the Cubans to buy 10,000 tonnes of non-Basmati rice with a notional Rs 10-crore price tag. The rice was despatched and although the State Trading Corporation engaged in half-hearted negotiations in 1995 to recover the cost, the money was written off in 1999.

In spite of pursuing realpolitik and seeking an understanding with America, India had kept faith with an old friend. Will Mr Modi be able to do the same?

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist