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PM-Bush meeting had an eye on history

Sheela Bhatt in New York | September 29, 2008 18:12 IST
Last Updated: September 29, 2008 20:48 IST

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If the July 2005 White House summit was about defining an agenda for enhanced bilateral relationships, the one between President George W Bush [Images] and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh [Images] at the White House last week had a more valedictory feel to it.

In the intervening period, the US has seen its influence on the world stage eroded, and the summit itself was taking place against the backdrop of an economic meltdown on Wall Street that now threatens to diminish America's standing as the world's economic leader.

Democracy and terrorism, the two pet themes of the 2005 summit, were largely left unsaid in the official briefing on the September 25 summit. The omission, observers say, speaks volumes about the realities the US is facing in the global war on terror, in responding to Russia's [Images] assertive manoeuvrings, managing anti-US sentiment in Pakistan, and battling a resurgent Taliban [Images] in Afghanistan.

Speaking after the Oval Office meeting, Bush thanked Dr Singh for his 'briefing on the neighbourhood in which you live', and said the informative briefing 'helps me make decisions and helps me formulate policy.'

Asked to explain, Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said the President's words had nothing to do with "any larger multinational force or anything. We have not participated in that, we don't have a military presence and we don't intend to change that."

Menon was laying to rest fears that India would attempt to cement its relationship further by sending troops to join the US forces in Afghanistan, or to involve India in some form in security management in the region -- something that would be impossible for the Prime Minister to establish, as there is no possibility of building a political consensus in India for such a move.

The summit was important for the expanding of the relationship beyond the nuclear deal. "Once the 123 Agreement is signed India will buy few reactors from the US, France [Images] and Russia and get on with work. But the issues like education, health, agriculture and high technology needs political push, too," pointed out a former PMO official.

Over the last four years and more, in the areas of education, agriculture, civil aviation, defence, energy, economic partnership, health and high technology sectors, there has been considerable activity between the two nations, and the Indian delegation constantly highlighted these elements, at least in part to diminish the feeling that the India-US relationship is pegged on the one track of nuclear cooperation.

"Everything that we wanted to do and achieve was done, but naturally there was something of a valedictory tone to it as probably it was the last time President Bush was in White House that the PM was visiting," said Menon. "There was a strong sense of satisfaction achieved over the last few years and where we have brought the India-US relationship."

The summit will also be remembered for the startlingly flowery language the two leaders used to describe each other, and the relationship -- language that has already evoked strong reactions from the political opposition in India.

It is undeniable, however, that Bush has consistently gone the extra mile to push the strategic relationship in all directions, even on occasion staking his hard earned political currency on it. Asked what would happen to the relationship once Bush departed office, Menon said, "The relationship itself enjoys broad bipartisan support, and even if you look at the opinion polls, then this is one of the most popular relationships. I am not worried that political transition will affect us. In a democracy, we get used to transitions. This has been going on for 200 years. I don't think that is going to affect a relationship that so clearly works for our interests and their interests as well."

The foreign secretary pointed out that such qualitative transformation in the relationship between two countries is generally based on mutual interests and shared benefits. "It is not dependent on any one government," Menon said, to underline his point that even after Bush, the "logic of the relationship and our mutual interests will see it through."

There was a sense that the two leaders, both entering the final phase of their tenure (or more accurately in the case of Dr Singh, the final phase before he has to test his government's popularity at the polls), were attempting to put the record straight with an eye to history.

Thus, Singh said, 'When history is written, I think it will be recorded that President George W Bush made an historic goal in bringing our two democracies closer to each other.'

Bush, equally fervent if a shade less effusive, said, 'You and I have worked hard to change the relationship between our countries. India is a great country, with an incredibly bright future. And it's in the US interests to have a good, strong strategic relationship with India. And we've worked hard to achieve it.'

Those statements could well be the epitaph of this particular political friendship.

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