Old Guns Pay Heed To An Upstart Hombre

India 2005

By Troy Turner

June 10, 2009

NEW DELHI, India – Far from its home in the Siberian mountains of northern Russia, a majestic eagle opened wide its magnificent wingspread as it glided down onto a tree at the edge of an immaculate garden.

“They migrate here during the winter,” my new friend from India said as we sat on the side of the long breakfast table that faced a huge glass wall. This giant window in the swank metropolitan restaurant's private room overlooked the colorful and lively garden, a certain distraction for an important business meeting.

That is, until the talk at the center of the table turned to birds of another kind – falcons.

F-16 fighter jet Falcons, to be precise.

“There is a very important change of perception of the United States in India,” said India's foreign secretary, Shyam Saran. “President Bush probably would find India very high up in the list of countries that welcome his election.”

Bush, despite his global reputation outside the U.S. as more of a reckless cowboy than one who leads the cavalry to the rescue, is very much liked here for his outsourcing-labor policy, which has sent low-paying jobs by the tens of thousands to other countries, like India, with the idea of creating better jobs and business climate at home for Americans. Bush also is known here to be a high-stakes corporate business player who thinks in line with the oil industry and other big-money players.

India is a nation rolling the dice.

But don't make the mistake of thinking it is the United States holding the cards. It's quite the contrary, actually.

India, a land of 1 billion people, all of whom are quick to proudly point out it is the world's largest democracy, is nobody's puppet. Not for the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese or the Europeans.

And that, her leaders say, is one of many current factors in explaining why India has a newfound confidence that it finally is about to take its seat at the roundtable of global leadership.

“I give you, what we do in India has some significance for the rest of the world,” said the quiet but powerful Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, during an earlier conversation at his state residence . . .

Far from resolving its own internal problems of mass poverty, language barriers, religious and ethnic differences, a traditional caste system, a woefully poor infrastructure and vast health concerns, India feels its “coming together” is a trump card worthy of notice.

Outsiders and Indians alike often joke about the slow rate of change in India and its clutches to many ancient traditions and primitive lifestyles. “There is an old saying,” said an official in the U.S. State Department. “India is a country with more than 5,000 years of history, and somewhere in India, it still exists.”

True, “we are not interested as a society in the fast track,” said Sanjaya Baru, the prime minister's chief media adviser. However, that patience and a differing perspective are part of India's offering.

When the United States began its current war operations in Iraq, Bush “made the comment that you're either with us or against us,” Baru said, “I don't think India feels that way, or sees it like that.”

Take the F-16 fighter jets, for example.

India – with its explosive new economy based on outsourcing, global call centers, high-tech innovations and a giant new telecommunications industry – has many new billions of dollars to spend. While poverty begs and scratches on every window imaginable to India's parliament, officials nonetheless see the need of increased military spending given the threat of terrorism, a growing and unpredictable Chinese influence in the hemisphere and old tensions with rival neighbor Pakistan.

India, not yet self-sufficient in military manufacturing, wants to buy F-16s or newer jets from the United States to supplement its air force. The key word here is supplement. India has an aging fleet of old Soviet-style MiG fighters and a stockpile of French-made Mirage jets. But it likes to diversify its flight line so that it is not dependent of any one nation or outside philosophy for its arms needs.

The United States, meanwhile, is missing out where it comes to massive arms sales to India, and it knows it.

Two sources within the State Department confirmed ahead of her visit that such would be one of the top items on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to India in March, and numerous sources within the Indian government confirmed as much. Later, headlines verified this as the green light for the sale of F-16s to India, and Pakistan, was announced.

But why Pakistan, the Indian government questioned.

“Doesn't America see the lack of stability there?” an Indian official asked.

India would like nothing more than to see a stable government in Pakistan, as it sees that as the best avenue to peace despite continued differences such as sovereignty of the rich Kashmir valley. It worries, however, that Pakistan's current leadership is susceptible to terrorism or too much of a see-saw balancing act in trying to establish new ties of its own, such as its links to the U.S. in the war on terrorism and Afghanistan while also being accused of black-marketing nuclear arms technology to potential U.S. enemies.

India and Pakistan both irked and worried much of the world when each in 1998 tested nuclear weapons. The United States placed sanctions on India because of the tests, and it didn't remove them until the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and realizing its newfound need of friends in foreign places.

India quickly came to American's aid, and would like to do more. But on India's terms, not necessarily those of the Bush administration.

“You recognize India as being the world's largest democracy,” a member of India's parliament said. “But when it comes to the role of dialogue, you prefer the role of dictatorship.”

Still, “there are no insurmountable barriers to our continued cooperation,” Prime Minister Singh said.

That apparently includes Iraq.

“We would be willing to provide training to not just Iraqi police, but provide other needs and training as well,” Foreign Secretary Saran said. “For obvious reasons, we would like to conduct the training here in India,” but already millions of Indians live and work in the Mideast region, making it very much a local issue for India.

A closer look deeper into India's offer and interest in seeing a prosperous Iraq reveals that it isn't because India suddenly is a nation simply admiring of that cowboy spirit of President Bush. Once again, it is because of a close local issue that piques Indian interest.

Oil.

India is growing faster than its infrastructure can keep up, and that includes its energy production. Almost every day in the major cities there are power surges and outages. Most of the country's finer hotels and businesses routinely keep backup generators ready for operation to ensure elevators and air-conditioners don't stay idle.

Because of this, India also is taking giant leaps toward exploring further use of nuclear power, as well as pushing for more talks instead of military action against Iran, another potential energy source for this nation, which is exploring all prospects. India and Venezuela, for example, announced an oil sale agreement in March.

India also is studying potential plans for a gas pipeline from Iran.

Furthermore, India's need of nuclear-generated energy as an option to petroleum resources seems to make it more tolerant of Iran's claims for such, although India quickly agrees that an Iranian nuclear military never should be allowed. Still, it insists that talk, not war, is the route to go with Iran, thus marking another field of interest where it may, or may not, end up backing American policy.

That is why India also maintains close ties with the Russians, the Europeans, the Chinese, the South Africans and any other nation interested in India's rapidly growing economic and political influence, vast potential markets and independent thinking. If the United States has an edge, it is the bond of democracy, where even there India says it could be the teacher and America the pupil.

“Today, we have for perhaps the first time a window of opportunity,” Saran said.

With that, he began a sales pitch about why India should now occupy a permanent seat on the prestigious and powerful United Nations Security Council, something the big-contributor nations of Japan and Germany also seek. Still, it likely was a rehearsal of what Rice and the American delegation would be hearing during its later visit.

India thinks of itself as quickly becoming “one of the big boys.”

It would be unwise of any other kids on the block to snicker at such a notion.