It looks as though Washington has the sort of Monsoon Wedding last-minute event management that India displayed with just-in-time results on Delhi’s recent Commonwealth Games.
In just ten days time, President Barack Obama will arrive in India for a three-day visit, but no-one involved seems able or willing to say officially, or even semi-officially, where exactly he is going, nor more importantly precisely what he hopes to achieve. The word from Washington is that officials there have only just started drawing up a “wish list” for the White House.
Indeed the White House seems to be behaving so much like the India’s procrastinating Commonwealth Games’ organising committee that despairing US diplomats in New Delhi have begun talking to journalists about the visit (albeit anonymously), without waiting for firm or final steers from Washington.
But what they are saying lacks detail, especially on the substance of the trip, and is indeed in tune with lines taken by Suresh Kalmadi, the games chief organiser, that it will all be marvellous when it happens.
The next ‘big thing’
In the last couple of days I’ve heard a very senior official say that the “next big thing” in the two countries’ relationship is to “deepen and broaden” the closeness that was achieved by President George W. Bush with his deal that opened up India’s nuclear power industry to international high technology. Wow!
Another official used a very broad brush to talk about co-operation on anti-terrorism and Afghanistan, while the lack of progress on defence deals led another to say that defence co-operation was based on people exchanges as well as equipment purchases. Wow again!
Yet another official, faced with questions on the two countries’ sensitivities on trade and investment, ducked out by saying the aim was how to take the talents of people, universities and business to develop the relationship. Wow again, new wording on an old theme!
So what has gone so wrong with the run-up to the visit that it makes the invasion last July by Britain’s David Cameron, accompanied by an unprecedented troop of cabinet ministers, look a raging diplomatic success?
Basically it seems to be the fault of Obama’s advisers, who have insisted on an information blackout that has allowed mostly negative stories to circulate, focussing on what Obama will not be doing instead of what he will.
The officials seem to be terrified that what is planned for India will worsen Obama’s dismal prospects in America’s Congressional elections next week. In short, Obama is a president in decline and is more concerned, inevitably, with what happens in the US next month than how India sees his visit.
So he is not going to Hyderabad or Bangalore, India’s high tech capitals that were eagerly visited by Clinton and Bush, for fear of being seen back home admiring call centres and the other information technology outsourcing that is stealing US jobs.
He isn’t going to Amritsar, the capital of the Sikh religion, because his advisers didn’t want him to look to Americans at home like a Muslim when he covered his head on a visit to the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, the magnificent Golden Temple. A survey has shown that 17% of Americans think Obama is a Muslim – and that, in an age of terrorism, is not an electoral plus. (Actually, there was no real reason for him to go to Amritsar, but he was persuaded to do so by Sant Singh Chatwal, a Sikh hotelier in the US who has thrived on his closeness to the Clintons and other Democrat leaders.)
Obama has also reportedly decided against going to the India-Pakistan border at Wagah near Amritsar because of the risk that, in a speech on South Asian peace, he would have upset one or both of the two countries, probably over the disputed territory of Kashmir.
There are even reports that businessmen attending functions in Mumbai, where he starts his visit, are having to fill in questionnaires declaring their trade and investment links with the US. If true, that’s presumably so that those with sensitive businesses such as outsourcing can be kept away from the front line of introductions. In Mumbai he is staying at the old Taj hotel, which was disastrously attacked by terrorists in November 2008.
Obama does of course start off a big disadvantage compared with Bush, whose popularity in India was only matched by his unpopularity in most other countries. Bush clearly loved India, and his visit was a triumphant mix of substance, built around the nuclear deal, and big-event stage management. Earlier visits by Bill Clinton were successes – those who watched him were impressed by his showmanship, and those who met him by his focus and apparent sincerity.
Obama seems from a distance to have neither’s easy charm, nor their fascination with India. It also looks unlikely that the sort of big-ticket items that the US would like will be forthcoming.
Little progress is expected on big defence deals and agreements. American would love to bully its way into an $11bn contract for 126 multi-role combat fighter jets against competition from Europe and Russia, but it’s a least a year too early for that, and France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy and Russia’s prime minister Demetri Medvedev are both visiting later this year with similar ambitions. Two key defence agreements on co-operation for logistics support and communications, which the US has been pushing for a long time, are not ready because India does not want to be subject to close Pentagon surveillance.
Obama is expected to seal a $3.5bn contract for ten Boeing C-17 transport aircraft, but that has been in the works for a long time. He can also extol recent contracts for Boeing’s long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft and a $2.1bn order for P-81 maritime reconnaissance aircraft. These contracts mark a significant shift towards America in India’s defence purchasing. They are the result of Bush’s nuclear deal – and Russia, India’s other big defence supplier, has also been doing well recently.
A deal on dual-use high tech trade sanctions might be signed, which will help India, and there will also be deals and significant discussions in other areas, notably clean energy including shale gas, agriculture, food security, and legislation making foreign nuclear industry suppliers liable to accident damage claims (India signed an international treaty on this today in Vienna).
In more secret talks, there will be India and America’s concerns about China’s growing role in the world, how that links with US support for Pakistan, and the future of Afghanistan.
The US has been pressing India to relax its foreign direct investment (FDI) restrictions on multi-brand retail (jargon for supermarkets), insurance, and defence manufacturing. Wal-Mart’s top executives are in Delhi this week lobbying on retail, and are backed by some sections of the Indian government, including the sometimes-influential Planning Commission. But there are powerful vested Indian interests against any move on retail FDI, as there are on insurance and defence.
So let’s see how the visit pans out. It is clear that the public relations approach is partly to play down expectations so that what does happen looks significant rather than the reverse. And none of the current uncertainties reduces the importance of the developing and strong India-US relationship.
The fact that the American president is visiting will of course, barring slip-ups, create a momentum of its own, once he arrives. That will mostly silence the critics – just as the razamataz of an Indian wedding silences the in-laws and leads to a great tamasha.