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The Obama visit: A balance sheet

By T P Sreenivasan
November 09, 2010 14:15 IST
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We should dream not about a permanent seat at the horse-shoe table in the United Nations, but of a mature balanced and beneficial relationship with the US, says T P Sreenivasan.

Misdirection is a magician's favourite tool. The big trick is executed as the audience concentrates on a less significant action.

President Obama used misdirection in a masterly fashion during his successful visit to India. The whole world focused on the US position on a permanent seat for India on the UN Security Council, while measures were taken to change the whole architecture of the bilateral relationship.

President Obama held back his pronouncement on the Security Council till the very last minute, despite questioning on the subject at his press conference. When it appeared in his address to Parliament, it was more symbolic than substantive; it was more a wish than a commitment; it was not action oriented as in the case of the export control organisations.

"In the years ahead," he said, "I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member." The audience, which had applauded his earlier statement of welcome to India as it prepares for non-permanent membership for the next two years, broke into thunderous applause.

In the din and excitement of the moment, no one paid attention to the responsibilities of permanent membership he laid out, such as commitment to non-proliferation and protection of human rights.

The linking of the success of the visit to a declaration on the permanent membership of the Security Council gave the President an easy way to gladden Indian hearts. The much awaited recognition of India's great power status was enough even if the permanent seat remained a distant dream.

But the reasons for the inordinate success of the visit from the Indian point of view lay elsewhere. The joint statement is a veritable marriage of the wish lists from both sides, though with the usual caveats and conditions.

Apart from the direction of the strategic partnership which emerges from it, India has reason to feel satisfied on many counts.

By emphasising the indispensable nature of cooperation between the two countries, President Obama recognised the qualitative change in India's power and prestige. Equity, if not equality, has become the hallmark of the relationship.

On Afghanistan, the commitment to intensify consultation, cooperation and coordination to promote a stable, democratic, prosperous and independent Afghanistan is a complete break from the past. The idea of joint development projects between the US and India also breaks new ground.

President Obama has allayed India's fears that the US will abandon Afghanistan and leave the field to Pakistan and Taliban.

On Pakistan, the promise to eliminate safe havens of terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the agreement to combat all terrorist networks, including Lashkar e-Tayiba and the call on Pakistan to bring the terrorists behind 26/11 to book are extremely significant. These are just public statements and the unannounced understanding should be deeper and broader. The security dialogue between the home ministry and the homeland security structure in the US assumes significance in this context.

The agreement on defence purchases, security dialogue and exercises marks an advance, though India has stuck to its guns on the basic agreements that are suspect in our eyes. A very balanced view has been taken of non-proliferation and disarmament, with differing perceptions on the CTBT reflected.

On the bilateral side, the removal of three important entities from the 'Entity List' marks a great advance forward. This is a done deal as no legislative process is required to make the change. Admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime etc are more complex because the other members have to concur and some may raise the existing notion that these are the preserves of the NPT signatories.

Moreover, it is stipulated that the process of India adopting export guidelines and it joining the export control clubs should move together in tandem.

The formulation on civil nuclear trade is optimistic to the extent that neither side sees the Indian legislation or international standards in the Convention on Supplementary convention as obstacles to nuclear trade. The negotiations have apparently begun between the operators and suppliers without much fanfare.

With the blessings of the summit, we can expect progress on this front.

President Obama was frank enough to admit that his mission was economic because of compulsions at home. The bagful of contracts amounting to about $15 billion will create enough jobs to win him a breather after his devastating defeat in the mid-term elections. He was, therefore, not unduly insistent about the evils of outsourcing.

India Inc too has lowered their anxieties about visa fees and protectionism. Market forces will be left to determine the future of outsourcing, which should come as a relief to India.

All said and done, the charm offensive of Barack and Michelle Obama was the big news of the visit. Both of them won the hearts of India by their openness, their genuine enthusiasm for India and their admiration for Indian leaders past and present.

Someone remarked that Obama's long list of Indian leaders from Gandhi to Ambedkar did not include Nehru. Was this disapproval of socialism and nonalignment? Did not someone point out to him that India is still in the hands of the Nehru dynasty and not the Gandhi family?

But for this little omission, the Obamas were perfect, Michelle a bit more perfect than her husband.

Much will be said in the next few weeks about the dangers of the US embrace into which India has walked in. The reactions of China and Pakistan to the new equation between the US and India will spoil the sleep of our strategists.

But if the assertion of President Obama that India has arrived on the global scene is right, we should have the maturity and courage to meet the new challenges.

We should dream not about a permanent seat at the horse-shoe table in the United Nations, but of a mature balanced and beneficial relationship with the United States.

T P Sreenivasan, a former Indian ambassador, is currently a member of the National Security Board.

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