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India on the mind

delhi Updated: Nov 05, 2010 00:08 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times
Yashwant Raj

As the president’s speechwriter, Ben Rhodes is paid to second-guess his boss. And he says the India story is very close to Barack Obama’s own story as an African American of humble origins.

Obama has been very keen on India from the beginning. In fact, it was his decision to host Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the first state guest of his administration, Rhodes said recently.

In short, expect great things to happen when Obama is in India later this week. Though they will not say what to expect, there are enough indications that economics will dominate. Deals will be signed, commitments sought and roadmaps drawn and redrawn.

Bilateral India-US merchandise trade stood at $37.64 billion in 2009, and $32.44 billion from January to August 2010. “It’s the fastest growing economic relationship for the US,” said the White House recently.

No wonder then that the President will be opening the visit in Mumbai, India’s business capital — though an Indian diplomat tried to play that down, saying the Delhi leg of the visit will be more substantive.

That’s probably how the two countries are looking at the visit. For the US, it’s about exports and creating jobs at home. India is looking at the strategic importance and spin-offs.

The Obama administration has repeatedly been asked if it would endorse India’s demand for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but the answer so far has been a long-winded no.

Will it remove controls imposed on the export of sensitive technology with both civilian and strategic use? The answer has been a cheerful, “We are working on it, we are working on it.” What about President Obama’s stand on outsourcing? “Just wait.”

From the US point of view, the sorest point was the nuclear liability bill, a point India has redressed somewhat by signing the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage.

“That was a positive development,” said under secretary of state William Burns, in his characteristic matter-of-fact style. Behind closed doors, there were plenty of high-fives, apparently.

But there is a general expectation of landing a few meaty deals — there has been talk of India buying, at a cost of $5.8 billion, ten Boeing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft for carrying troops and equipment.

The atmospherics around the buildup, however, are heady.

“India is indispensable to the US,” said Rhodes. “Not enough attention has been paid to the fact,” said principal assistant secretary of state Geoff Pyatt, “that the President’s Asia tour starts with India.” That’s how central India is to US plans.

One think tank — Center for New American Security (CNAS) — released a paper recently calling India and the US “Natural Allies”, borrowing a phrase first used by former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998.

The think tanks have been more forthcoming, for obvious reasons.

The CNAS report bluntly criticised both the US and India for letting relations “stall” lately: “Many prominent Americans and Indians now fear that the rapid expansion of ties has stalled.”

President Obama’s visit might just provide that much-needed boost.

the heavy hitters

Obama's trip

US Presidents and India