Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, October 25, 2010

EARLY NEXT month, New Delhi will roll out the red carpet for US President Barack Obama. There will be a lot of protocol, pomp, diplomacy and dinners. And of course there will be much speechmaking about shared values of the two large multi- ethnic multi- religious democracies and the common challenges that India and the United States face. We saw the first part of this being enacted in Washington a few months ago when Obama invited Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur as guests for the first state dinner of his administration.

In June last, the president made a surprise visit to the State Department during a reception that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was hosting for the visiting foreign minister S. M. Krishna. The gesture was supposed to send across the message that India remains pretty much on the top of his agenda.

In the months since, India gone out of its way to ensure that the presidential visit is a success.
Considering that only very recently we showed the world how tardy we are in gearing up for big events, the facelift for Parliament House, where the president will address a joint session, is being overseen by top government honchos besides the secretary general of the Lok Sabha. In the next few days, foreign secretary Nirupama Rao will go live on Lok Sabha TV and Doordarshan to tell viewers about the high importance that India attaches to this visit. Our ministers have been jetting to and fro between New Delhi and Washington to make sure that when the red carpet is rolled up and before the guests are ready to leave, they will complement us for being good hosts. In the last four months, half of the senior ministers of the Manmohan cabinet have visited the US, the Indo- US Business Council has met twice and the Indo- US CEO's summit once while several high ranking officials of both countries have been flying in and out of the two capitals to hold backroom discussions.

But behind the public displays of bonhomie, the irritants remain and questions are being asked whether we are bending over backwards to please the visitors even as they continue to blow hot and cold. Take a look at the extent to which we go to keep them happy. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee promised American businessmen during his June visit that New Delhi will address their concerns on infrastructure, investment restrictions, opening up the insurance sector and on expediting legislation on the land acquisition act. During his visit to Washington last month, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma promised American businessmen calibrated FDI liberalisation in the defence Barack Obama and retain sectors.

Remember, these are contentious issues on which a consensus eludes the political class. And what does Uncle Sam give in return? Nothing. During the many recent rounds of meetings, the American response to every India demand has been “ we have a positive attitude”. Clearly, they are reluctant to put their money where their mouths are. Defence Minister A. K. Antony went to Washington last month to request the Americans to remove the restrictions on defence imports to India which were imposed after the Pokhran blasts in 1998. He met, among others, the US Defence Secretary, National Security Advisor besides the secretary of State but came back empty handed.

He also raised the issue of Pakistan using arms given by the Americans to fight the Taliban against India and the response he got from his US counterpart was that they will have something to say about it closer to the presidential visit. India has also consistently been raising issues like the recent hike of H1- B visa fees that has adversely affected our IT sector and US support for India’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. On all these, Washington continues to hedge. While they are telling us to open up our markets, the Obama administration is amending American laws to protect their markets.

Consequently, there is a tussle going on in the establishment. The bureaucracy is vertically divided with the babus in the MEA and the economic ministers being more American than the Americans themselves, while the others are reluctant to blindly embrace all things American.
Barack Obama may not get the kind of rapturous reception that greeted Bill Clinton in Central Hall but with the establishment bending over backwards to accommodate every American demand, the president will be heading back with cheer.

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