Obama’s India visit: No major game changer expected

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

WASHINGTON - The first ever visit by President Barack Obama to India will be marked by its ordinariness instead of it extraordinariness, if one goes by what US officials say. There are no big ticket items on the agenda and certainly nothing comparable to the civilian nuclear deal signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington in 2005.

There is less than a month to go for President Obama’s state visit to India and the momentum is just about picking pace. But that seems to be only from the Indian side. Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, Defense Minister A.K.Antony and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee have been in and out of Washington D.C. meeting with their counterparts.

But there seems to be hardly any excitement in the local media about the impending 12-day state visit. India is hardly part of any public discourse. All talk about Asia, centres around China or else the problem child - Pakistan. India, as the outsourcing Mecca and jobs gobbling dragon, is in the periphery of interest among Americans outside of the capital.

Senior officials are trying hard to play down expectations of the Obama India tour. They hint that Obama cannot deliver much, whether at the bilateral level, or even at the multilateral level (read UNSC seat for India). President Obama is expected to broadly endorse India’s candidature, but an outright backing of India, will be not be on anvil.

Obama will steer clear of contentious topics like Kashmir other than saying that India and Pakistan should resume the stalled process of talks on the prickly issue. He has been advised by senior administration officials and also think tanks that India will not take kindly to anything that remotely brooks as interference on Kashmir.

Speaking at the United States Institute of Peace on the issue of Kashmir, former ambassador Howard Schaffer said that the view in Washington is that the Kashmir dispute is like an albatross around India’s neck, pulling it down from prosperity and development. The administration is aware, he said, that India would resent any major initiative suggestions on Kashmir.

Schaffer said “Obama would be well advised to urge India and Pakistan to keep all dialogue on Kashmir insulated from publicity.”

Panelists at the USIP conference argued that India seemed to be at its wit’s end on dealing with “the intifada-like situation in Kashmir”. Schaffer, however, said that Obama was adopting a “hands off approach on Kashmir” and “has scrupulously avoided commenting on Kashmir.”

That isn’t about to change when he lands in India. Schaffer said: “The US is concerned with the human rights issue of tte Kashmir problem and would want the wishes of the Kashmiri people realized, or else, at least taken into consideration” when talks are held between India and Pakistan in the near future. But how these wishes will be ascertained is something India will have to figure out as America will not be forthcoming with suggestions.

US administration officials speaking on background said that Washington was willing to play a more proactive role on the Kashmir issue, as it had a direct bearing on regional stability and the US war in Afghanistan.

However, it is well aware that India is highly sensitive to any international attempts at mediation. So far, the US has only been pitching for a role of a facilitator, not even an interlocutor.

But even that isn’t acceptable to India, rue US officials. So, at least for the time being, the best option would be to watch from the periphery and do some conflict management by preventing tensions between India and Pakistan to escalate to conflict levels.

The US is also keen to see what India brings to the table. Climate change and the nuclear liability bills are of course topics that might be debated upon.

American nuclear energy firms are unlikely to queue up after the strict provisions in the Indian bill. Climate change is a prickly topic as are agricultural subsidies and export control issues.

Mutual suspicion is high and it will still take a lot of working to convince either side that mutual cooperation in these areas will lessen the burden on both countries.

The contentious issue of China’s growing assertiveness in the region is sure to come up, but it will be behind closed doors.

President Obama has enough to deal with domestic commentators berating the administration on its weak stance regarding China. So, it is unlikely that India’s growing discomfiture with Chinese ambitions will be publicly debated upon during the presidential visit.

If the Obamas can replicate even a fraction of what President Bill Clinton achieved during his highly successful (March 2000) visit to India or even that of Jimmy Carter (1978) and George Bush (2006), he would have achieved much. By Smita Prakash (ANI)

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