INDIA WORRIES ABOUT PAKISTAN -- BUT
LAPS UP THE CLINTON BOOK
By Tom Plate
June 28, 2004
NEW DELHI - The clerk at the
Sheraton Maurya Hotel here remembers that he once jumped into a folk dance
and executed a twirl or two -- "he really was larger than life," as she put
it. An American embassy official, begging not to be named, says he will go
down in history as a powerful change-agent in the transformation of
U.S.-India relations. A political officer at the Japanese Embassy asserts
that he remains, despite stiff competition from other U.S. presidents who
have visited, the most popular in India today.
It was a bit much, frankly. I did
not expect to come to India and hear so much about William Jefferson
Clinton. But, then again, the commercial release in the United States of his
longish autobiography, "My Life," resonates here as if the Beatles were back
The Indian press, in some ways as
serious as the elite U.S. press, and in other ways as outrageous as the
down-market British press, jumped on the book's release. One newspaper
commented that it was hard to imagine an Indian politician writing such a
book because Indian politicians remain on the political scene for so long
(unlike U.S. presidents, who get at most eight years and then they're
history) that they're incapable of total honesty. Another paper commented --
perhaps cruelly -- that such an autobiography would have slight impact in
India because so few Indians bother to read books.
That may be -- but they're
certainly eating up the "My Life" portions pertaining to India's role in the
world. They are applauding the former president's revelations that he warned
Pakistan leader Pervez Musharraf (whom Clinton nonetheless described as
"clearly intelligent, strong and sophisticated," Indian newspapers reported,
fairly) that the terrorists in Pakistan, if left unchecked, would eventually
destroy the nation.
Indians are also applauding the
revelation that Clinton agreed to meet with Musharraf's predecessor after a
Pakistani invasion in Kashmir only if it was understood that the Paki forces
had to be withdrawn and that the meeting could not be viewed as a reward for
a "wrongful incursion." Because Indians believe that tension on the South
Asian subcontinent is largely caused by Pakistan aggression and extremism,
they delight in the fact that this prominent Western figure would make such
an unequivocal statement.
Indians often resent the
commonplace perspective in the West that puts the world's most populous
democracy on the same ethical plane as Pakistan, which is not a true
democracy. They also believe that deep ties between elements of Pakistan's
military and security apparatus fuel Al Qaeda, blamed for the 9/11
atrocities. Thus, they cheered Clinton's warning, as outlined in the book,
to a former Pakistani prime minister that "the Pakistani military was full
of Taliban and Al Qaeda sympathizers." Clinton even admitted that his
government informed Pakistan of a covert U.S. military strike on Al Qaeda
camps in Afghanistan only at the last minute because "it was likely
Pakistani intelligence would warn the Taliban or even Al Qaeda."
Clinton's book, it is noted here,
does not let India off the hook entirely. Its five nuclear tests during his
second term "shook me," as the Indian press observed about the former
But on the whole, the Indian press
is reading "My Life" as a relative vindication of overall Indian policy. Key
to tensions between Pakistan and India is the disputed territory of Kashmir.
Clinton reveals that the then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had
asked for U.S. intervention. He argued, Clinton recalled, that "it was as
worthy of my attention as the Middle East and Northern Ireland. I had
explained to him that the United States was involved in those peace
processes because both sides wanted us."
The full story is more complicated.
Clinton got involved in the Middle East in part because of America's Jewish
vote-bloc and in Ireland because of the imprecations of Sen. Ted Kennedy
(D-Mass.), who speaks for the Irish-American crowd. Similarly, Clinton was
well aware that Indian-Americans number well more than one million, in a
largely wealthy, professional class (and many vote Democratic). Clinton may
have hailed from Arkansas, but few have ever alleged a political-IQ
Even so, Clinton did stop in
Pakistan on his official visit to India as a sitting president, despite
domestic, not to mention Indian, urgings against it. That show of respect to
Pakistan turned out to be invaluable to his successor, when George W. Bush
sought Pakistan's hand in the U.S. war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Imagine Pakistan's reaction to the Bush request for assistance if Clinton
had snubbed it on his presidential visit to India.
It would appear that the Clinton
book will sell well in India and perhaps in Asia generally. The only
negative review I heard was from a foreign embassy official. He complained
that the book offered only "20 pages or so about Monica ... and that's the
main reason I bought it." Even in India's elite circles, that story simply
will not die.