M A I N   N E W S

‘Yeh dosti hum nahin todengey’
was Obama’s big message. The US Prez was truly on a song in India

Barack Obama may be the world’s most powerful head of state. But when it comes to occupying real estate, he pales in comparison to that of Indian President Pratibha Patil’s. The Mughal Gardens in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, where the banquet thrown in honour of the US President and First Lady Michelle was held, is just two acres less than the 18-acre White House estate in Washington DC. The Indian President occupies 350 acres of prime estate in the nation’s capital — almost 20 times the size of Obama’s official residence!

For the presidential dinner thrown for the Obamas, the Rashtrapati Bhavan wore a festive look with hundreds of diyas lighting up its environs and bands belting out popular numbers. Among the songs was the hit from Sholay -- the lyrics of which had everyone smiling: Yeh Dosti Hum Nahin Todengey (we are not going to break this friendship) and a little later Khanna Peena Sath Hai (we will eat and drink together). Guests though had a look of uncertainty over the line Marna Jeena Sath Hai (we will live and die together) given India’s policy not to commit its fighting troops to either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Before Obama began his four-day visit to India, the first in his presidency, there were concerns that he had neglected the new-found dosti between India and the US that his predecessor George Bush had forged with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But as Obama and the ever-charming Michelle warmly greeted the 120-odd special guests invited for the last official event of his visit, it was clear that the trip had far exceeded all expectations and could be termed an unqualified success.

Despite the political setbacks at home, Obama showed that he had not lost his impeccable sense of timing or his oratory. Obama made the biggest bang of his visit during his stirring address to a joint session of the Indian Parliament by announcing that the US would support India’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council -- something even Bush had shied away from doing.

Though the echo of his announcement would not be heard as widely in the world as the shot that Bush had fired when he signed the epoch-making civil nuclear deal with Manmohan in 2005, the commitment made by Obama had the potential of emerging as the new big idea that his presidency could claim credit for.

It is still a long haul for India though. Barring China, four of the five permanent members -- Russia, France, Britain and now the US -- have endorsed India’s bid. Apart from China, India now would have to get the support of two-thirds of the members in the UN General Assembly to be assured of getting a permanent seat in the Security Council as and when it decides to reform its representation.

At the end of their visit, Obama and Michelle had reason to look pleased and relaxed as they did during the presidential banquet. The bonhomie between Obama and Manmohan was evident as they chatted freely during dinner. When Obama spoke briefly to propose a toast, he used words similar to that of Bush, describing Manmohan as his “friend and pard’ner” and joking that if there was one outcome of this trip, “it was clear that Michelle is a better dancer than I am.”

The excellent rapport that the two leaders had developed was apparent even during their one-on-one meeting the previous day and during the bilateral discussions. There is an awning age gap between the two but they enjoy a cerebral relationship. While Obama had always been demonstrative, putting his arm on Manmohan’s shoulders or giving him a hug, the Indian PM is also learning to look comfortable when he does so.

Before Obama set out to India, many analysts had opined that he would be in no mood to make any concessions to India especially after the body blow voters gave the ruling Democrats during the US mid-term elections for the Congress on the eve of his visit. But the US President surprised everyone by his “audacity of hope” to borrow the title of his bestseller.

Learning from Bush, Obama used the trip to show that despite his flagging initiatives in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, the US still had powerful friends like India and he could still deliver on the foreign policy front. He was also demonstrating that America remains a major power in Asia even as the world witnesses the rise and worrying assertiveness of China. Many saw Obama’s performance in India as the kickstart of his campaign to be re-elected as President for a second term.

On the first day of his trip to India, he chose Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, to tell his folks back home that he was still America’s best salesman. He announced deals worth $ 10 billion that US companies had just signed with India that would result in 54,000 jobs and the promise of much more to come. On the second day, by spending it with school and college students, he was indicating that the US was ready to invest in India’s next generation and thereby its future.

He also focused on helping India to develop by signing a slew of bilateral pacts in vital areas such as health, education, agriculture and energy. The third day he reserved for enhancing the growing strategic partnership between the two countries, engaging Manmohan in a dialogue that sought a meeting of the minds on the key issues confronting the globe apart from delivering a political message by endorsing India’s bid for a UN Security Council seat.

What Obama and Manmohan did on this trip was to move from intent and declarations to deliverables. In doing so, both sides gave each other as much as they took from the other. On the nuclear front, Obama announced that the US would work towards making India a member of the all-powerful Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). This would ensure that NSG’s recent decision to lift the ban on civilian nuclear trade with India would gain permanency. Obama also removed hi-tech curbs that had been put on ISRO and DRDO, setting aside a major bureaucratic road block for imports from the US. Obama also hit the right notes on Pakistan, pushing it to act on terror and continuing the US policy of non-interference in Kashmir by treating it as a bilateral issue. He did tell India though that on Myanmar and Iran it had to stop waffling.

On India’s part, apart from signing some big business deals, including the Indian Air Force buying Boeing C-17 aircraft worth $ 4.1 billlon, Manmohan assuaged concerns raised by US nuclear companies wanting to set up power plants in India that the new liability Bill passed by the Indian Parliament would be adverse to American interests. Apart from signing the Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC) which gave some relief on the liability issue just before Obama arrived, Manmohan promised him that India would work towards ensuring a level playing field for US nuclear companies.

On this trip both sides had ensured that there was plenty of meat in their relations and that Indo-US relations were fast becoming a partnership of equals. That is a good augury.





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