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India: 'Obama administration sending a signal'

November 24, 2009 00:15 IST
Karl F 'Rick' Inderfurth, former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs in the Clinton administration, says the symbolism attached to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh being the first head of State to visit the White House during the term of the President Barack Obama administration is fitting, as it underlines the transformed United States-India transformed relationship.

Inderfurth, who was a foreign policy adviser on South Asia to the Obama presidential campaign, said the pride of place bestowed on Singh is fitting because of the transformation "we have seen in this relationship over the past 10 years and two administrations. So I believe that the Obama administration is sending a signal that it is going to be a continuing part of that transformation and that it recognises India's role as a global actor."

The goal of the summit, Inderfurth believes, will be to consolidate the agenda decided upon during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to India. "But it will be good to break out of the box with a couple of new ideas. And I am hoping the back and forth will result in some additional initiatives that we can take," he said, pointing that in recent times, Home Minister P Chidambaram, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, Human Resources Minister Kapil Sibal, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma and National Security Adviser M K Narayanan have all visited the US to push aspects of the bilateral agenda.

"Clearly we've got a very full agenda already, with such things as the CEO Forum, the Strategic Dialogue, the Agriculture Initiative, and all of these things are in need of review and further consolidation. But I'd like to see some additional items placed on the agenda."

Unlike many experts, Inderfurth does not believe that the US sees India's role in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre as marginal at best, or even non-existent. Arguing that President Barack Obama will use the summit to brief Prime Minister Singh on the new strategy for Afghanistan, Inderfurth said "I hope that he gives the prime minister a full briefing on not only the decision that he has made, but also the thinking that has gone into it and asks the prime minister for his views about what is taking place in the region with Afghanistan and Pakistan, because both of these countries are under siege right now."

"The question," he added, "is how best to address that, both in terms of the region as well as the US and NATO, and as such a good, frank discussion on this with the prime minister would be of value to both sides."

Asked if Obama was likely to nudge Singh towards resuming the composite dialogue with Pakistan, Inderfurth, who continues to consult with senior Obama administration officials said, "We all hope that this dialogue can be resumed as quickly as possibly because the fact is that every day, yet another suicide bomb blast goes off in Pakistan -- that country is as threatened today as it's been in its history and the threat is internal, not external. It is therefore in all our interests, and particularly India's, of seeing Pakistan not become the failed state taken over by extremist elements."

The global economy will also figure largely in the summit, believes Inderfurth. Pointing out that India has a place at the table as part of G-20, he argued that several of India's proposals were taken up at the recent Pittsburgh meeting of the G-20. Obama will, Inderfurth said, look to discussing the state of the economy with someone of Dr Singh's calibre.

"They need to also have a discussion about our nuclear future. I know that there are some concerns and some apprehensions about returning to contentious issues of the past, including CTBT (the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), but the fact is that both leaders are now on record of wanting to move toward a nuclear-free world and nuclear disarmament. The question is what they can do to advance the goal, and I believe we are in an entirely new phase of our nuclear dialogue and this is one that can be productive, not acrimonious as it has been in the past."

Climate change, another contentious issue, will also figure in the summit talks, and Inderfurth hoped there could be some kind of modus vivendi between the two nations on the issue. "If the United States and India are not part of the solution, then this problem will never be solved."

On bilateral issues, Inderfurth said he would like to see some special focus on two areas of cooperation. "The first is space cooperation, and seeing the synergies of our two programs working together in a visionary way, and the second is higher education. These are ripe for greater attention and out-of-the box thinking by the Obama administration and the Indian government."

Inderfurth, who is preparing a document on space cooperation that he hopes will be considered by both governments, said this and other critical issues that have "global dimensions" are always helped by such summits. "My only concern is will they have enough time to cover all these in a way that they'll be satisfied at the end of their meeting."

Aziz Haniffa Washington, DC