With the legendary Beatles singer Paul McCartney performing at the White House on Wednesday night, chances of External Affairs Minister S M Krishna winning the hearts and minds of America’s top leadership appeared to have somewhat dimmed.
However, US President Barack Obama’s decision to attend the reception in honour of his Indian guests at the conclusion of the first day of the strategic dialogue between Krishna and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton today, caught on well with the Indian team which is taking heart from the gesture.
Obama had not attended either the Afghanistan or Pakistani delegations earlier this year, but did so for the US-China dialogue in July 2009.
Clinton opened the meeting with a passion reminiscent of the days of the Bush administration’s honeymoon with Delhi, emphasising that India was not only the “world’s greatest democracy and the world’s second fastest growing economy, but also a rising power. “The 21st century will be defined by India,” she said.
Clinton also tapped into the heart of the dissonance between the UPA government and her own, pointing out that there were naysayers on both sides who believed that the US was interested in India only as a counter-balance to Pakistan or that several Indians felt the US wanted India to diminish its presence in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s future is as much a concern for India, and the subject would be on the discussion table, Clinton added. Pointing out that security issues, including counter-terrorism, was on top of the agenda, she said the US was committed to helping India refurbish its counter-terrorism strategies as well as modernise its military. “We will address the doubters on both sides,” she observed.
Certainly, the first high-powered strategic dialogue between the two governments is symbolic of a wide-ranging partnership between India and the US. The Obama administration wanted it this way; they had done the same thing when Obama, and more recently Hilary Clinton, went to China, in an effort to infuse the strategic dialogue with more meaning beyond security issues.
Which is why Krishna is accompanied by deputy chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia (who co-chairs the energy and agriculture dialogues with the US), HRD Minister Kapil Sibal, Minister of State For Science & Technology Prithviraj Chavan and Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao.
The US team, led by Clinton, has on board National Security Advisor Jim Jones, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Rao’s counterpart William Burns, USAID’s Rajiv Shah.
The Obama team seemed to be pulling out all the protocol stops on the eve of the Krishna-Clinton dialogue, pulling in Burns to deliver a substantive speech yesterday at the influential think-tank, the Council for Foreign Relations, on the “rise and rise of India.”
“India’s strength and progress on the world stage is deeply in the strategic interest of the United States,” Burns said, adding, “We do not see relations in Asia as a zero-sum game. Never has there been a moment when partnership between India and America mattered more to the rest of the globe.”
At one time, Burns indicated that India would be a suitable permanent member in an expanded Security Council, but it turned out he wasn’t prepared to make any promise.
Indian government officials were non-committal about the statements from the US leadership, pointing out that they would wait and see how this would impact on the ground. Wary about America’s overwhelming need to subscribe to Pakistan’s point of view in the ever-enlargening war against terror in the Af-Pak region, they said they would welcome US assistance in refurbishing the Afghan economy “as this was in the best interests of India.”
If the energy or agriculture dialogue could put new blood into the decaying infrastructure at home, India would welcome it. Education could become a new bridge connecting the world’s largest and oldest democracies, with US universities setting shop in India and Indian students continuing to be the largest expatriate student body in the US, it could only take the relationship from strength to strength.
But, hidden behind those carefully chosen words is the pragmatic strain so prevalent in South Block these days : India holds the key cards in the relationship as well. Among these are opening the $450 billion retail sector, a
$12-billion deal for the purchase of 126 fighter aircraft, another $10-billion deal to set up US civil nuclear power plants in India. The last is subject to several conditions – including the fact that the major US civil nuclear companies are controlled by Japanese share-holders, and that India must pass the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill in Parliament before the US Congress agrees to pass the remaining clauses of the 123 Agreement at home.
Government officials said they had told the US that it would be in America’s interest to pass the few pending clauses to the 123 Agreement as quickly as possible, because “time was passing, and other countries like Russia and France had already started building power plants in India”.
With the Obama administration somewhat nervous about India actively promoting its presence in Afghanistan, for fear that this will annoy Pakistan, the Indian side feels the large sum of money to be potentially made by US business in India will serve as both carrot and deterrent, at least in the immediate future.
India’s other major concern is about the growing partnership between the US and China, especially US attempts to “outsource” the security of South Asia to Beijing. Delhi has rejected any such attempt by either nation to oversee its growing influence across Asia.