Tillerson comes clubbing to Indian subcontinent
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is likely to visit India later this month, the fourth top American official to drop in on New Delhi since Donald Trump took over as President.
The change in guard in the US has seen tough statements by officials of the Trump administration against Islamabad. They have been lauded by New Delhi. But this time, Tillerson might club his India visit with Pakistan, an old habit adopted by most western high-profile visitors and one that has annoyed New Delhi to no end.
Time and again, India has expressed its displeasure over being hyphenated with Pakistan. Various leaders - including Ms Sushma Swaraj at the UN recently - have vehemently decried all comparisons between the two countries.
Some of the differences they list are - India is a democracy, while Pakistan is caught in the throes of its deadly dalliance with home-grown terrorists who have spread their doctrine of murder and intolerance around the world; India is among the world’s five fastest-growing economies, whereas Pakistan is nowhere near there; India is the world’s second-biggest consumer market, and Pakistan has never really featured in that list.
So why has the West stuck with this old habit of bunching the two countries together? Here is an explainer.
If most US Secretaries of State hyphenated India and Pakistan since Independence right up to 1989, there was a plausible reason - India was allied to the Soviet Bloc whereas Pakistan was a US ally. But India began liberalizing its economy by introducing market reforms in the early nineties.
And after the end of the Cold War, also began re-calibrating its global alliances. This still didn't change much about the West's approach to trips to the subcontinent.
Out of the three Secretaries of State during this period, two – James Baker and Warren Christopher – never came to India. Madeleine Albright, who took over in 1997, made two trips to the sub-continent – in 1997 and 2000 – but both itineraries included Islamabad and New Delhi.
The devastating terror attacks on 9/11 were a turning point. From this day onward, the trails of many acts of international terrorism were found to lead back to Pakistan. Because of 9/11, travel to Pakistan intensified but -always in tandem with visits to India.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, who made four trips to the sub-continent in his eight-year-long tenure, always visited Pakistan along with other South Asian countries. His successor Condoleezza Rice also made four trips to the subcontinent, but only one was without a visit to Pakistan.
On a May day in 2011, terrorist Osama bin Laden was traced to the heart of a high-security Pakistani cantonment and killed by US Navy Seals.
In other words, he had enjoyed the protection of the very Pakistan army that the United States had been nurturing, training and arming to assist in its hunt for the world’s most wanted man who had masterminded 9/11 and a series of other terror attacks around the world.
Yet, and as far as US visitors went, India and Pakistan were merely quarrelsome twins, both ''irresponsible" nuclear states and needed to be engaged always in one go. And given that some terror trails also led back to Dhaka under a hardline government, western travellers discovered a third subcontinental "sibling'' - Bangladesh.
Hillary Clinton, who was the Secretary of State during Obama administration, from 2009 to 2013, visited the sub-continent twice during her tenure and touched down in Bangladesh too. John Kerry too visited the region four times, but only once did he touch down in India alone.
(The writer is senior foreign editor, WION)