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Tea with BS: Strobe Talbott

Engaging India, again

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

Strobe Talbott has chosen an awful place for this meeting. It's the tea lounge off the ornate reception area at the Taj Mahal hotel in New Delhi, so noisy even Business Standard's eye-catchingly antediluvian recorder captures every loud conversation, laugh, cough, sneeze and tinkle of crockery, an intrusive background that makes concentration difficult. The choice, however, is dictated by necessity; Talbott is staying in the hotel and can only spare time for a chat in a crowded schedule accompanying the setting up of Brookings India.

Even if he wrote out a half-page CV, Talbott's credentials would be formidable. As deputy secretary of state in Bill Clinton's government, his job brought him up close with the world's power elite and gave him a ringside seat to most of the seminal events in global politics at the time. That included famously negotiating with Jaswant Singh, then India's external affairs minister, in the aftermath of the Pokhran tests of 1998, which produced the readable Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and The Bomb. He's headed Brookings, acknowledged as the world's most powerful and reputed think tank, since 2002. But, it's the fact that he's been a leading journalist - with Time magazine in its heyday - before all of this that makes me most nervous; I'm hoping he won't be judging my interviewing technique or lack thereof, writes Kanika Datta.

He eyes the tape recorder with polite interest so I feel beholden to explain the virtues of its stolid reliability. To accompany our chat, he opts for camomile tea, a beverage I studiously avoid because of its (inexplicable) association with elderly British biddies in dreary boarding houses. I decide to try it this once and the order is placed.

The launch of Brookings India is a huge development in the relatively small, and largely Delhi-centric, world of domestic policy wonks, not least because the think-tank culture here is decidedly weak and the concept of independence almost non-existent. As the tea is served, with a small jug of honey, I ask him how he planned to establish the Brookings agenda for impartiality and independence in India given these obvious constraints.

He admits that that took him almost a decade to figure out, since the issue concerns funding patterns. "When I came to Brookings, I had some personal aspirations, and one to which I was most committed was to have a capacity on India and in India commensurate with our capacity with regard to China" (he is referring to the Brookings-Tsinghua Centre in Beijing and the China Centre in Washington, DC).

In India, the issue appears to have been its infinite variety and the need to have relations with a broad swathe of stakeholders. There is the "multi-partisan" political establishment, indigenous think tanks - Brookings currently partners three, National Council for Applied Economic Research, Centre for Policy Research, and the ponderously named Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations - and there's the private sector, both a major player in the public policy space and a source of funding.

Talbott calls the business model that Brookings eventually came up with the consortium model - "with a small 'c'," he emphasises. The official term is "Founders' Circle", a list of high-powered funders that includes both the Tatas and the Ambanis. The idea is that "it would be diverse in terms of the sectors of the economy, political perspectives and in ways important to us in the US, including gender". The point about the Founders' Circle, he explains, is that "there is no primus inter pares", adding that it was "Ratan Tata who counselled us to go in this direction".

Uniquely, too, Brookings India's Chairman Vikram Mehta (formerly of Shell India) will report directly to Talbott and the foreign policy head. Talbott is animated about this reporting structure. It is quite different from, say, Brookings' Doha Centre, which reports to the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy, or the Brookings-Tsinghua Centre, which reports to the China Centre.

The point he underlines is that "there are some fundamental commonalities between India and the US - democracy, a vigorous, open society, and press - and we have always been able to operate here the way we do back home than we can in China and Doha."

Okay, camomile tea is definitely not what it's cracked up to be, but Talbott accepts seconds as I turn the conversation to the Indo-US nuclear deal. I remark that his book conveyed a rising sense of frustration at the inability to pin down the Indian government to a non-proliferation regime, something the Bush administration was able to achieve. "Under a different government," he clarifies dryly, but provides an even-handed assessment. "What Jaswant Singh - and he remains a dear friend - and I were able to do was turn a leaf. It was a proof of something I always believed as a writer and practitioner of policy - that an awful lot of state-to-state relations really do depend on personal relations. We were able to take these estranged democracies and have them being engaged. What we were not able to do was come to terms on nuclear issues."

But he's generously approving of the "civ-nuke deal". "No responsible person I know in the US thought that the US should not ratify the civ-nuke deal," he says, truly remarkable considering it nearly brought down the United Progressive Alliance in India. He's disappointed, however, with the follow-up. "Both in the US and here, there's a little bit of frustrated expectation over how that's panned out," he says.

He's alluding to the contentious issue of pinning liability on suppliers of nuclear equipment in the event of an accident and I explain why we feel uncomfortable not having this provision in our laws.

Inevitably, the conversation leads to Pakistan, especially after the US pulls out of Afghanistan. He answers carefully, having had first-hand experience of the ultra-sensitivities of this topic. The critical mass of opinion, he says, is that Pakistan defines its national interest in terms of what it sees as an existential threat from India and that, "in my view, is profoundly wrong". "You'll have to go very far to the fringes of Indian politics to find anybody who says it is in India's interest to have a war with Pakistan or have Pakistan disintegrate. But Pakistan does not accept that proposition. They still haven't gotten over Partition. But till such time as Pakistan recognises the existential threat is on Pakistani soil and substitute doing something about that rather than preparing for an Armageddon with India, there isn't going to be a fundamental change."

The disinclination to change, I suggest, may have had something to do with its almost permanent role as lynchpin - first, for the US during the Cold War and now with China. He demurs on the latter. "I go to China quite a bit and my sense is that though their relationship with Pakistan is important, ever since the explosion of ethnic violence in Urumqi and Kashgar, they have been looking a little more warily at Pakistan."

Time is almost up so I request him to sign two of his books that I have read (he's written nine) - Engaging India, and The Russia Hand on the Yeltsin years. As he obliges with the left-hander's characteristic lopsided slope, I notice a luminous green plastic band on his wrist. It's a Nike fuel band, he says, a device that tracks daily activity (number of calories burned and so on). I recall him saying he'd given up running owing to bad knees in one of his books but he still swam and worked out. He also, he tells me, plays the guitar. Blues, I ask with all the excitement of an obsessive fan. "Emphatically not. Classical," he replies.

Meanwhile, I switch off the tape. It reminds him of an interview with Nixon, in the eighties, long after Watergate. Talbott says he hadn't taken a tape recorder expecting the chat to be off the record. "When it became clear that he was speaking for publication, I pulled out a notebook. When the piece appeared, Nixon wrote me a note saying I'd accurately conveyed his views, which he appreciated, and he also noticed that I was 'an old-fashioned reporter, like Arthur Krock', who took notes and didn't rely on electronic gadgets."

"Then came the wonderful line - and I've never known if he used it with irony or not: 'The tape recorders, they'll get you every time'." That was, of course, an allusion to the presidential tape-recording system that was used in evidence in the Watergate investigations. Talbott says he never used a tape recorder in the subsequent interviews he did with Nixon, a reminder, in these days of short-term media frenzies, of the virtues of conscientious, old-fashioned journalism.

First Published: Fri, April 26 2013. 22:30 IST