New York, Jan 11 : US President-elect Joe Biden on Monday named William Burns, who guided the nuclear deal between India and the US but is a strong critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to be the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
A former Deputy Secretary of State and a senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council, and now the President of the think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he emphasised the importance of relations with India while criticising Modi over Kashmir and the Citizenship Amendment Act.
But he has also acknowledged that “outsiders” cannot resolve these issues.
“I continue to believe strongly in the wisdom of the strategic investment that America and India have made in each other’s success over the past two decades,” Burns wrote last year in an article in The Atlantic magazine.
Recalling his role in bringing about the landmark agreement, he wrote: “I was the diplomat charged with completing the US-India civil-nuclear dealing the summer and fall of 2008.”
The agreement reached while Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister and George W. Bush the US President enables the two countries to cooperate on civilian nuclear projects and India to have broader access to nuclear technology and materials.
Burns recalled strong-arming European allies to go along with the exemption for India from the Nuclear Supplier Group to enable it to get access to nuclear material and equipment.
“This was about power, and we were exercising it – hardly endearing ourselves to groggy (European) partners, but impressing our Indian counterparts with the strength of America’s commitment to get this done,” he wrote.
As the US grapples with the rise of China and its hostility to Washington’s treaty allies in Asia, Burns will have to balance his nation’s strategic priorities with his personal attitude to Modi and India that he expressed as the head of a liberal think tank.
The announcement of the appointment by Biden’s transition office mentioned the threat from China.
It said, “Whether it’s cyber attacks emanating from Moscow, the challenge China poses, or the threat we face from terrorists and other non-state actors, he has the experience and skill to marshal efforts across government and around the world to ensure the CIA is positioned to protect the American people.”
Drawing on his experience of working with New Delhi, he wrote in what could be his roadmap for relations between New Delhi and Washington emphasising continuity saying that it was bigger than the ties between President Donald Trump and Modi.
“For India and the US to maximise the return on their investments, we must take a long view, keeping in mind why this strategic bet was made in the first place: our common democratic values, a long-term vision of economic openness, and a growing confidence in each other’s reliability,” he wrote in the Atlantic article published last year around Trump’s visit to India.
He criticised both Trump and Modi saying, “As intolerance and division in both societies erode their democracies, I fear that the leaders may reinforce each other’s worst instincts.”
But Trump will be gone next week and Biden will take over with resets of international and domestic issues.
“A battle for the idea of India is under way, between the tolerant constitutional convictions of its founders and the harsher Hindu majoritarianism that has lurked beneath the surface,” Burns said.
It is “testing India’s democratic guardrails in much the same way that the Trump era is testing America’s” but “either struggle will not be settled by outsiders – but both will shape the nature of Indian-American partnership in the years ahead,” he wrote.
In criticising Modi and the BJP, he listed the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that gave a special status to Kashmir, the CAA that he asserted “discriminates against Muslims seeking refuge in India”, feeding “tensions over disputed religious sites” and “pressures against critical journalists and academics”.
He wrote that Modi like Trump is “skilled in the business of political showmanship, with a keen eye for the vulnerabilities of established elites, and for the dark art of stoking nativist fires”.
Burns was also executive secretary of the State Department and special assistant to then Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, and minister-counselor for political affairs at the US embassy in Moscow.
(Arul Louis can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @arulouis)