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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Obama Visit India on the eve of Diwali

October 6, 2010

Washington, Oct 6: The American President, Barack Obama will be visiting India on Diwali night, Nov 5, flying most likely into Mumbai first, the White House sources said.

Ready for Obama ?

Over the last two weeks Washington has witnessed a virtual procession of Indian ministers and senior officials, all of them anxious to clinch as many outstanding issues as possible in order to make US President Barack Obama’s first visit to India in the second week of November a big success. Talks between them and their opposite numbers have been “comprehensive and cordial”, and there is conspicuous optimism on this score. However, there is yet no certainty about how far the things would go.

India’s commerce minister Anand Sharma was the first to arrive. Having protested against the manifestly unfair and even discriminatory restrictions the United States has imposed on outsourcing of IT business, he made his point to his hosts rather politely. Foreign minister S.M. Krishna was next. Though he came primarily to receive a prestigious international award on behalf of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New York, he was the only one to have met Mr Obama on the fringes of the UN General Assembly session. Defence minister A.K. Antony’s arrival created much excitement because huge defence deals are under discussion and the American side is keen on announcing them during the presidential visit. Close on his heels came national security adviser Shivshankar Menon and in the course of two days saw US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, defence secretary Robert Gates, his own opposite number, General James Jones, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, an array of senior defence and security officials and no fewer than eight senators, including Senator John Kerry and Senator John McCain. India’s finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, unquestionably the most important Cabinet minister, would be in Washington today.

Mr Menon also found time to address a meeting of opinion makers at one of the major thinktanks, the Carnegie Endowment. In his speech he expressed satisfaction with the state of the bilateral relationship, describing it “better than ever before”, but summing up the situation thus: “Ours is a partnership that has come a long way in a short time, but it still has enormous potential”. In his view, the time to tap that potential and for both countries to become “ambitious” about their relationship was “now”, that is to say before the Obama visit.

Against this backdrop, let me focus on the preparatory work for the Obama visit now in progress. The first point to remember is that while the members of the US President’s Cabinet and officials concerned are busy in brisk discussions, the President’s own mind is on something else. He and his Democratic Party are in the throes of a very hard mid-term election to the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate, and so great is the economic discontent in the US today, that the Democrats might lose control of at least one of the two houses of Congress, if not both. No wonder then that Mr Obama is concentrating on hot-paced electioneering in a vigorous attempt to mobilise his young followers that seem to have got disillusioned.

As it happens, the US President is scheduled to arrive in New Delhi for a three-day stay on November 7, barely a week after the crucial mid-term Congressional poll. In June last — at the time of Indo-US strategic talks at the level of foreign ministers — Mr Obama had gone out of his way to declare that during his visit to India he would “make history”. How far he can live up to that promise is a moot point but, according to American sources, the desire is there. Indian sources are also hopeful.

While high-level discussions on some important issues are still on, some matters are apparently settled. One of these is the purchase of 10 C-17 transport aircraft by India, a deal of great significance to the US because it would keep the production line going and thus save a minimum of 20,000 jobs at a time when unemployment is America’s biggest problem. Another similar military deal may also be concluded soon. In addition, India has already bought $4 billion worth of defence equipment and material and orders worth the same amount are in the works. All these deals are under the US Foreign Military Sales rubric, which means government-to-government transactions. The US is very keen also on the sale of more than 100 F-18 advance fighter aircraft but it is a competitive deal for which there are global tenders and several competing offers. Whether a decision on it can be taken before the visit is difficult to say. Moreover, there is no American answer yet to Mr Antony’s complaint, voiced during his visit as well as afterwards that America’s supplies of sophisticated military equipment to Pakistan that has nothing to with fighting terrorism is causing difficulties for India.

The Indo-US nuclear deal, entirely a handiwork of former President, George W. Bush, is the epitome of the transformed India-America relationship. Despite his earlier opposition to it, Mr Obama has carried it forward. It is indeed in its final stages of implementation though India’s Nuclear Liability law has become a sticking point for the US. The Indian side has told it that the two governments should complete their respective obligations after which private companies can enter into necessary negotiations.

Transfer of high technology, including defence technology, to India seems to be a more difficult issue in Washington than it had appeared to me in Delhi. Whatever the inclination of the White House, there is much resistance within the American bureaucracy. The outlook is much brighter on “creative and innovative” cooperation in such fields as agriculture, science, technology, education and healthcare.

Overriding all this is the wider and crucial matter of defining the exact content and meaning of the strategic relationship between the world’s largest and most powerful democracies. During the last 20 months, Dr Singh and Mr Obama have met six times. But almost every summit ends up in what may be called “give and take”. What is needed is a wider, principled and long-term strategic partnership based not just on congruence of interests but also on shared values. What Mr Obama would say on this subject will be the key to the future.

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