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What India wants from Dr Singh's visit

By Sheela Bhatt
November 23, 2009 13:28 IST
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Sheela Bhatt surveys the landscape for Tuesday's Obama-Singh summit.

India, says a senior diplomat in the Ministry of External Affairs who is a member of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's team to Washington, DC, is looking forward to the visit with anticipation.

"Among many things, India is waiting to see how Democratic Party treats bilateral relationships as compared with the Republicans," the official said. "Democrats have the high moral ground vis-a-vis nuclear proliferation and other issues. Let's see how deeply and efficiently they want to move bilateral relation forward. The good thing going for India is that there is bipartisan support for Indo-US relations in Washington."

The team accompanying Singh is indicative of the main agenda items: External Affairs Minister S M Krishna; Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia: the prime minister's special envoy on climate change Shyam Saran; and National Security Advisor M K Narayanan are among the main members.

Although Pakistan and China remains at the centre of the US diplomatic agenda in the South Asian region, the official said, "The world has changed fast in the last three years. These days, in foreign policy countries have their own bilateral template to operate from. Democrats would like to set their own parameters for the relationship during Dr Singh's visit."

"After the economic meltdown, the world has seen that the US cannot hold on to global leadership all alone -- it needs the support of many countries, because everything is now inter-connected."

Though there has been movement in the US on its recalibrated Af-Pak strategy, India is unlikely to change its views from its stated positions, the official said. "The US should fight with tooth and nail terrorism on the Durand Line. NATO forces can't take an early exit from the region before substantial gains are made. Terrorism in that area has serious ramifications for India."

India, the official said, has to balance international and domestic realities. Given its earlier experience in Sri Lanka, and the fact that its military is under massive modernisation, India is in any case not in a position to send troops in Afghanistan, the official clarified.

Referring to the changing paradigms of US-China relations, the official pointed out that "Their relations are the functional necessity of two governments, while the Indo-US relationship is strategic, with a heavy push from people from both sides."

Pointing out that cooperation in counter-terrorism is already proving successful and giving India several advantages, he predicted that these ties will be further strengthened during Dr Singh's visit.

At the MEA, Indian and US teams have been in overdrive, reviewing progress on the 123 Agreement that facilitates civilian nuclear commerce between the two countries. The teams are currently examining what they can move forward under the deal, and it is likely the joint statement that will be issued after the Obama-Singh summit at the White House November 24 will have some mention of the status of the deal.

The foreign ministry, in a bid not to ramp up expectations, has contented itself with repeatedly saying that the visit is important; that there will be a reaffirmation of strategic ties; that there will be warmth between two leaders. Beyond this, they warn, the media should not look for 'big ticket events', as such are not possible in every such bilateral visit.

"Some people are talking about the Green Revolution," the official told "But when the first Green Revolution happened, issues like Intellectual Property Rights did not exist. India and the US have held many rounds of talks on agricultural partnership, but the IPR issue will make US participation quite costly for India."

The official said India is interested in higher productivity, but it is coming at too high a price from American companies, which is proving to be discouraging for Indian farmers.

There can be little real progress on Indo-US cooperation in education unless and until Parliament passes the Foreign Universities Bill, which allows favourable terms and profitable commercial conditions for US universities looking to come into the country.

Thus, the official pointed out, the real importance of Obama-Singh summit lies in the many differences on issues and sectors vital to the relationship; a positive outcome would be measured not by big-ticket announcements, but by real progress in ironing out these differences.

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
India Abroad