Saturday, November 28, 2009

What Obama’s dinner served India

Crystal, chandeliers, stars & stripes- it was a romantic setting, which could have been utilized by two willing partners to the best of their interests. In fact, the right moves were made by both sides like clinking champagne glasses while listening to love songs. But the date ended in a damp squib of sorts as no vows were taken.

We are of course not talking about a PG Woodhouse story or a Yash Chopra movie; but the Tuesday rendezvous of PM Manmohan Singh and President Barack Obama had all the makings of a bestseller and a blockbuster. But it sunk like Blue, with no big agenda in sight.

The dinner was an affair to remember no doubt. The Obamas kept their best foot forward in making the Singhs feel at home- the best one in America. Obama said ‘Namaste, Aapka Swagat Hai’ to Singh saab and Michelle gave the final word on high fashion as she wore churis and dupatta on her gown. The first state dinner of America’s first black President broke the George W Bush tradition in being a gala event for over 300 people in the lawns- Bush liked it small and exclusive; he held only 6 state dinners and one was for Dr Manmohan Singh.

And needless to say, more fruitful too. He convinced the world that it was time for India to come out of the shadows and deserved having the high end nuclear technology, which was denied to it so far. And he was funny, so that gave us a lot to write home about. But that’s a ‘misunderestimated’ aspect of his relationship vis-à-vis India.

So snatching attention from AR Rahman crooning Jai Ho at the green dinner- no link to Pakistan here; just the table drapery and cuisine theme- and focusing it on the business of the high profile visit, one may come to some clear conclusions about the new leadership in the US and its perception of India.

Pakistan & Afghanistan

It was probably for the first time ever that India made it clear it didn’t want the international forces to exit from Afghanistan just yet- and leave the field open for Pakistan to rebuild Taliban there. Singh said in no uncertain terms that he couldn’t believe the Pakistani Army going after its local Taliban and expected Obama to acknowledge, if not endorse, his views.

Tut, tut.

Obama expressed satisfaction at operations in South Wairistan and just said, “Obviously Pakistan has an enormously important role in the security in the region by making sure that the extremist organisations that often operate out of its territories are dealt with effectively." He did not even mention about the billions of dollars being pumped into that country that is most often- as a recent CIA report also said- used against India, though some strict provisions were introduced in the Kerry-Lugar Bill. How far would that be monitored remains to be seen.

The saving grace was Obama’s appreciation of India’s rebuilding efforts which flies in the face of Pakistani charge of India throwing the region off-balance by its presence their.


One of the primary aims of this visit was to test the waters about American policy on Asia and especially China and not just in view of the recent aggression of the communist nation which the PM ‘noted’. The concern was aggravated when Obama-Hu expressed their desire of working for peace in South Asia.

While there has been no retraction on that stance despite the loud noises India made, Obama clearly recognized India as a power, which was essential for peace and stability in Asia.

"Beyond Asia, as the world's largest multi-ethnic democracy, as one of the world's fastest-growing economies, and as a member of the G20, India will play a pivotal role in meeting the major challenges we face today,” he said, adding that India and US shared ‘values’ and were ‘natural and growing partners’. This language was absent during Obama’s China visit where he talked about respecting territorial integrity.

Terror and Security

Obama made it a point to remember the ghastly Mumbai terror attacks two days ahead of its first anniversary. He urged that perpetrators of 26/11 be brought to justice, but failed to name Hafiz Sayeed, who India believes is the mastermind. He vaguely said about cooperation on counter-terror front with India and both countries uniting against ‘external threats.’

He also said," To prevent future attacks, we agreed that our law enforcement and intelligence agencies will work even closer, including sharing more information," he said.

Obama’s mention of ‘terror’ and ‘neighbourhood’ in the same phrase was good to hear ofcourse, but the words have not begun matching actions and policies yet.

 Nuclear deal and non-proliferation

The celebrated India-US civil nuclear deal has emerged as perhaps the biggest sticking point between Obama and Manmohan. A left-over of the Bush era, the deal was to be signed with finality during Manmohan’s visit, but something changed when he landed there as India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao announced they did not expect the PM to lock the deal.

Singh said only "Is remained to be dotted and Ts crossed" to complete the landmark deal.

The issue of reprocessing spent fuel and American nuclear companies having minimum liability in case of any nuclear eventuality in India in their plants has become a stumbling block. Even as both Obama and Manmohan maintained a reassured posture towards completion of the deal that changed relations between the biggest and greatest democracies, India accepting invitation to the Nuclear Conference next year has raised some eyebrows.

While Obama accepted India was a nuclear power, he tactfully added in the joint statement that both countries would work towards a nuclear free world. This falls in line with his proposed amendment to the deal when he was Senator in 2006 that almost wrecked it.

Economic cooperation

Economy is probably the best anchor for stable and prosperous ties between the US and India in times of recession. Not only is the US our largest trade partner, Indian companies invested an estimated USD 10 bn in that country which have created 65,000 jobs.

Some concrete steps have been taken to engage in better economic and trade ties. A new US-India Economic and Financial Partnership to strengthen bilateral engagement on macroeconomic, financial sector, development, and infrastructure related issues will be established by the Finance ministers of the respective countries in 2010.

On long-standing American concerns over India’s reforms, Singh, the architect of these reforms, said the positive changes would continue to occur in the Indian system. That India wants ‘a web of economic relationships to intensify both business-to-business and people-to-people contacts’ was made known by Singh to everyone who mattered.

It resulted in signing of MOUs between the patent offices of the two countries to share their knowledge and avoid any confusions like in the case of ‘neem’. A Memorandum of Intent has also been signed to promote two way investment. However, the two sides still do not see eye-to-eye on the issue of free trade which has stalled the Doha round for years now and it was not even taken up in this visit. An FTA with the US also seems a distant possibility right now.

 Climate Change

Probably the most crucial issue in the world at this time, climate change figured high on the table between the two leaders as was evident in the launching of a ‘Green Partnership’ programme. It envisages enhancing cooperation on energy security, energy efficiency, clean energy, and climate change.

The US is the second biggest polluter while India is the fourth one and both have locked horns in the run up to the Copenhagen Summit on global warming in early December. Obama-Manmohan did not defuse any tensions on the issue though gave a workable idea of bilateral agreements going a longer way. But does Earth have time for every country to enter a pact with the other for saving it?

There were 6 MOUs that both countries signed in various fields.


This was perhaps the most surprising and pleasant development during Manmohan Singh’s meeting with Obama. A highly educated man himself, Singh pushed for a new initiative in the area and launched a USD 10 mn 'Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative’.

This will encourage increased interaction and links between Indian and American universities. The bi-national Fulbright-Nehru Scholarship Program has been given a boost through a 45 per cent increase in funding by each government.

In the end, while one can’t say if India will stand to gain anything from the man who gave a new hope to the world and won the Nobel without even ending the war in Afghanistan, it is true that our PM is returning a happy man. And that is not just because Obama invoked Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and Nehru in his welcoming remarks, but because he has probably realized that while the new President is no Bush, he is at least quite accommodating as well as forthcoming on issues common to India and the US.

After all, for the first time in its history, a US state dinner had a vegetarian menu, in the honour of the man from India.

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