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Dr Singh's cotton candy visit

Last updated on: December 02, 2009 15:37 IST

Indian foreign policy', they used to say in the late 'sixties, 'is 80 percent protocol, 10 percent alcohol and 10 percent Tikky Kaul'. Today, Tikky Kaul has become a distant memory and the percentage of protocol is certainly less, even if alcohol may be more.

A good percentage of Indian foreign policy today is cold calculation to cope with the challenges all around. But Washington is still under the impression that Indians can be won over by flattering protocol and friendly hyperbole. Those who gloat over the Indian prime minister being accorded the singular honour of being the first state guest of the Obama administration should look at the other visitors who were given no such honour, but went away with goodies in the bag. Those close to the White House like the prime ministers of Israel and the UK walk in and out without so much as a gun salute, while the Indian prime minister gets pomp and splendour and plenty of good words. Whether this is symbolism or form without substance, only time will tell.

Dr Manmohan Singh himself set off the flow of sweet words by asserting that the setbacks to the US economy were temporary and by expressing confidence that the US would remain a preeminent economic power. But he went beyond expressions of faith and optimism and spelt out his agenda in no uncertain terms. He told Fareed Zakaria that India's ultimate goal was to join the NPT as a nuclear weapons state and expressed the hope that it would happen eventually.

In the past, this was implied rather than spelt out in such concrete terms. In fact, the nuclear deal is seen as an alternative to the outright declaration of India as a nuclear weapons state. On China too, Dr Singh was frank and forthright, pointing to the inscrutability of the Chinese attitude to India. He virtually served notice on President Obama that he should not take the Chinese at face value.

On Af-Pak strategy, he provided valuable inputs into policy making by underlining the importance of defeating the Taliban and the need for the United States to stay in the region till the mission is accomplished. He did not hesitate to spell out the Indian position on climate change, however unpalatable it might have been for the Western negotiators.

As against the clear Indian agenda for the visit, President Obama seems to have launched a charm offensive, full of admiration for India and its prime minister and promises of action in the future. Except for the presence of an uninvited socialite couple at the banquet, the protocol was perfect and the menu was exquisite. But the visit did not move the relations further in any of the areas of special interest for India. It has merely raised expectations.

The Indian and the US delegations, we now know, burnt the proverbial midnight oil to conclude an agreement on setting up of an enrichment facility, as agreed upon in the deal. There is optimism that only one more sitting is required to dot the 'i's and cross the 't's in the agreement. But the agreement on the setting up of a separate facility under IAEA safeguards was a done deal under the 123 agreement, by which permission was already given for reprocessing. The Obama administration will be merely implementing the deal by drawing up the procedures and modalities. Much more needs to be done in the US and in India for the nuclear trade to flow and there is much hesitation among the new czars in the State Department to contribute to India's nuclear capability. They would rather let the rest of the world meet Indian requirements than take the responsibility for Indian capabilities.

The Obama administration is still taking the NPT, CTBT and FMCT route with regard to India. The deal, for them, is a temporary measure till the edifice of nuclear non-proliferation is built on time-tested pillars. To deal only with the participation of American private companies in nuclear trade is to evade the real issues.

Perhaps, Dr Manmohan Singh's expectation that India would eventually be admitted to the NPT as a nuclear weapons state has arisen from Hillary Clinton's suggestion that the US should work with India to develop a 21st century version of the NPT. But the White House has shown no enthusiasm for the idea and her statement is being seen as evidence of the fissures developing between her and the president on some foreign policy issues.

The prime minister may have noticed that the US is seeking new concessions from India such as a moratorium on fissile material production and signature on the CTBT as new measures over and above the provisions of the nuclear deal. The question being asked is not what more will be done for India in the nuclear field, but what India would do to support the US agenda on non-proliferation.

Clearly, discretion demands that we do not ask for anything new in this area and operate the NSG exemption to our advantage. Nothing is farther from the minds of the nonproliferationists in the US than the recognition of India as a nuclear weapons state. That proposal should await a more propitious moment.

The Indian visit took place as President Obama was finalising his new Af-Pak policy, which came to light within a week after the prime minister left Washington. There is hardly any evidence that the advice of the prime minister made any difference to the surge cum exit policy outlined by the President on December 2, 2009. In what may well be the first time in history, the prime minister virtually endorsed an occupation force in Afghanistan. He stressed the importance of the US staying the course in Afghanistan and defeating the terrorist outfits there. No joint efforts were discussed or approved in Washington and the leaders merely agreed 'to enhance their respective efforts' in Afghanistan.

President Obama did 'consult' the prime minister on phone before announcing his new policy, but it appeared to be in the context of India's possible assistance to training the Afghan forces. While President Obama stressed his continuing interest in Pakistan even beyond the war, he made no mention of the terrorist threat to India even obliquely on account of Pakistan's sensitivities.

Dr Manmohan Singh was uncharacteristically blunt on China in public in Washington and he may have been even more direct in his private conversation with President Obama. But, as an economist, the prime minister may well have understood the logic of the US policy towards China at this critical moment in the global economic crisis. He must have, however, stressed the inadvisability of assigning any special responsibility to China in resolving the problems in South Asia. But beyond assuring India of no external intervention in India-Pakistan matters, President Obama could not have given any cause of comfort for India in the context of China.

Nobody had expected any movement in India's quest for permanent membership of the UN Security Council during the visit. But the formulation in the joint statement on this issue is even weaker than before. In the statement, President Obama merely 'looks forward to a stable and prosperous India playing an increasingly important role in world affairs' without any reference to UN reform.

On the vital issue of climate change, there was a comprehensive understanding in Washington, which reflects the Indian position accurately. Neither side conceded anything new in this context, but the balanced text indicates the way Copenhagen conference will go in finding a political compromise without specific agreements for concrete action. The subsequent India-China-Brazil-South Africa position has reinforced the perspective of developing countries on the issues in Copenhagen and the battle lines have been drawn. The Washington statement has only helped to identify the issues.

If the objective of the visit was to demonstrate the continuity in bilateral relations beyond the Bush era, that has been attained by the assertion of India's indispensability by President Obama, recalling President Clinton's statements in 2000. But beyond that, the US appeared to be looking for Indian concessions for favours received, not to go the extra mile to meet Indian aspirations.

Those who have eaten cotton candy can understand the feeling in India a week after the visit. The colourful and huge cotton candy is attractive and mouth-watering. It melts in the mouth and satisfies the sense of taste and smell. But it finishes too soon and leaves the consumer no more satisfied than before. A certain sticky mess remains around the mouth and a sense of emptiness persists. If left exposed for a time to the atmosphere, it becomes less fluffy and coarse and eventually disappears.

The visit was pleasing in every respect and full of symbolism, but there is no guarantee that the promises will be fulfilled. The Obama administration itself has been high on promises and low in implementation so far and the Indian case may be no exception.

T P Sreenivasan