15 March 2000
The Times of India
A forced one-on-one ?
By Siddharth Varadarajan
The Times of India News Swervice
NEW DELHI: According to an informed Indian source, the US was not
keen on a one-on-one meeting between President Clinton and Prime
Minister Vajpayee and had even struck off a planned encounter from
the list of final events being drawn up. It was only after the
Indian side insisted that a meeting take place that the Americans
reluctantly agreed to schedule the one-on-one. Even now, it is by
no means certain what shape the meeting will finally take, how long
it will last, and whether or not one aide each will be present.
While too much should not be read into Clinton's aversion to
spending time alone with Vajpayee - most likely the prime minister's
lack of loquaciousness is giving him pause for concern - New Delhi
is eager for a prolonged one-on-one because of the positive
symbolism such a meeting would generate. However, one-on-ones are
something of a mixed blessing. If the chemistry is wrong, disasters
can result. And if the chemistry is right, leaders run the risk of
being charmed into making commitments that may not be in their best
German chancellor Helmut Kohl used such a meeting with Mikhail
Gorbachov to trick the Soviet leader into agreeing to the rapid
reunification of Germany. Gorbachov kept his word but the
investments worth $80 billion that Kohl promised never materialised.
At Simla, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto promised Indira Gandhi a step- by-step
conversion of the Line of Control into a de jure border, only to
resile from his unrecorded commitment once he returned home.
One-on-one meetings between Indian prime ministers and US presidents
over the years have had mixed results. After Nehru's 1949
tete-a-tete with Truman, George McGhee, US assistant secretary of
state at the time, wrote: ``Nehru and Truman didn't hit it off at
all. Rumor has it that, in his first informal meeting with the
President, he was offended by Truman's extended discussion of the
merits of bourbon whiskey.'' This was the trip Nehru later summed up
with his memorable line: ``One should never visit America for the
Nehru struck a good rapport with Eisenhower in 1956 but his
encounter with Kennedy in 1961 led the latter to describe it as
``the worst head-of-state visit I have had.'' John Galbraith
recalled later that the US president did most of the talking.
``Nehru simply did not respond.'' Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy's
biographer, quoted the president as saying that talking to Nehru was
``like trying to grab something in your hand, only to have it turn
out to be fog.'' The fact of the matter is that this was the height
of the Cold War and India's views on issues like Vietnam, Berlin and
disarmament were sharply opposed to those of the US.
While Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi reportedly got on well with
Ronald Reagan, Narasimha Rao's meeting with Clinton in Washington
was considered painful. Jimmy Carter's one-on-one chat with Morarji
Desai in 1978 was also a disaster; Carter had been led to believe
that Desai could be persuaded to sign the NPT but Morarjibhai would
have none of it. As soon as the meeting ended, a frustrated Carter
told his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance: ``When we get back, I
think I should write him another letter, just cold and very blunt.''
Unfortunately for Carter, an open microphone picked up his remarks
and relayed them to the press.