It is a measure of the continuing drift and listlessness in the India-United States relationship that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spent an entire 36 hours more than he had originally planned in Washington DC for a 50-minute conversation with US President Barack Obama on terrorism and related issues. Apart from the usual spin about how the two get on famously, the official briefing suggested nothing substantial was achieved. It is, therefore, not clear why the meeting was arranged at all. If it was the case that both sides wanted to be seen conversing with each other a day before the presidents of the US and China were to meet, then the differing agenda of the two conversations should say it all. President Obama talks business and the world with President Hu Jintao and terrorism and the region with India. It is not clear why the prime minister had to step in on the bilateral conversation between India and the US on the David Headley case, and even less clear how exactly the US plans to walk the talk on its stated concerns about Pakistan’s efforts post-26/11. On the Headley case, the matter should have been left for officials to handle, once the Indian home minister had taken it up at the political level. The narrow framework of the Obama-Singh dialogue, as spelt out by official spokespersons, restricted to issues like terrorism and the situation in Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak), shows that the bilateral relationship in the Obama presidency is still being painted on a smaller canvas than was the case with President George Bush.
Apart from the fact that there seems to be no meeting of minds between India and the US on the AfPak issue, nor indeed on the nature of the threat of terrorism India faces, the more disconcerting aspect of the Singh-Obama meeting is that the two countries are back to discussing nothing more than Pakistan. This is how the Pakistanis and the Chinese would like to see India-US relations and that is how President Obama seems to view it too. Prime Minister Singh’s attempt to widen the canvas of the conversation, which succeeded during the Bush presidency, no longer seems to find many takers in Washington DC. Indian diplomacy, for its part, has also not risen to the challenge. There does not seem to be any meaningful conversation between the two governments on other issues. None of this is, of course, news. The signals from Washington DC have been clear for some time now. India and the US are not on the same page as far as President Obama is concerned. Till this changes, one should not expect more from such bilateral meetings. While such conversation between heads of government is useful and India should certainly keep the US constantly engaged in wide-ranging conversation, it is not clear what exactly the prime minister has achieved by spending an extra day in Washington DC. And, if he has achieved something, then the message has been poorly communicated.