Manmohan Singh, Obama set agenda of engagement for next six months

Last Updated: Sunday, November 10, 2013 - 17:05

Washington: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President Barack Obama have set "a robust agenda" for the next six months to keep the two nations actively engaged during elections in India and lay the foundation for take-off of bilateral ties under a new government in New Delhi.

During their White House meeting on September 27 which lasted over three hours, Obama and Singh agreed that the relationship between the two countries -- described by the US President as the most significant one for the 21st century -- is too important to keep adrift for a period of six months as India enters a crucial election phase.

As such Obama and Singh, who share a personal affinity between themselves, laid out a robust agenda of active engagement for the next six months and prepared groundwork for what the sources familiar with the talks described as "take off" for the new Indian government formed after the general election before May next year.

As part of this active engagement, newly-appointed Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Desai Biswal is soon expected to visit New Delhi which would be preceded by her trip to Tokyo for a trilateral US-India-Japan talks.

Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh is also scheduled to come to Washington for a series of high-level meetings before the end of the year.

In January, US Energy Secretary Dr Ernest Moniz is scheduled to visit India and the trip is expected to pave the way for a new phase in India-US energy co-operation while planning is in works for an early visit of the new Homeland Security Secretary.

The Indian Army Chief General Bikram Singh is also expected to visit the US before the end of this year which informed sources said would make it the first time that heads of all the three Indian armed forces would be visiting the US the same year.

Ground work is also being laid out for a visit of US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to India.

It is only a question of when Hagel would go to India, highly placed sources told PTI, adding that defense and energy sectors are now being billed as the "next nuclear deal moment" for the India-US relationship.

A senior administration official, when asked that the India-US relationship has "entered into a period of inactivity" as India heads towards general election in the next few months, said "I would not say that at all".

"We have a very robust agenda before us. The visit of the
Prime Minister Singh was an important and consequential visit and we have an action agenda of commitments that we made during the visit and priorities that were reiterated during the visit," another senior US official said.

"We have a robust agenda to discuss. I would not say that we are in a period of inactivity under any circumstances," the official said.

Informed sources familiar with the Obama-Singh meeting on September 27, attributed this new direction and enthusiasm, amidst the alleged plateauing of relationship as described by political analysts to the strong personal relationship between the two leaders.

This could be gauged from the fact that two leaders did not follow the script laid out for them by their officials during their 90-minute meeting inside the Oval Office.

Obama not only inquired about his health but also wished happy birthday to the Prime Minister which on paper is on September 26.

Singh was quick to point out that this was not his real birthday and told Obama that September 26 is the date mentioned in his school record which his parents put it for him at the time of his school admission, the sources said.

This is the kind of personal relationship the two leaders have, they said.
Given that Obama has high respect for the Prime Minister as an economist, the President sought tips from Singh on several of the national economic issues which among other things included the shutdown and national debt, the sources said.

Obama is also understood to have shown keen interest in the Indian model of raising public funds and private-public partnership for building national infrastructure, they said.
Singh, who a month later was headed for China, is believed to have chatted with Obama in his Oval Office meeting on the personality of new Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom the US President had met in California earlier this year.

The two leaders briefly discussed the China development model wherein the Prime Minister shared his experience noting that wherever Chinese companies went to build an infrastructure it took its own workers and engineers to complete the project but did not leave any of its skills behind, the sources familiar with the meeting said.

Obama is believed to have wanted to know from him about his visit to Iran and in particular his meeting with Iran`s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

While sharing India`s position on Iran, Singh is believed to have told Obama that the Iranian Supreme Leader told him that Iran is not interested in building nuclear weapons.

A significant part of the Oval Office meeting, which officials said lasted for about 90 minutes, was focused on geo-political matters which included Afghanistan and Pakistan.

China, except for the personal enquiry on Xi, did not figure in the talks, the sources said.

While Obama briefed Singh on Afghanistan and took him into confidence on his policies with regard to post-2014, the US President is understood to have made a personal request to Singh to use his good offices with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to convince him on the necessity of signing a bilateral security agreement (BSA).

Singh is believed to have assured Obama to do his best as the two leaders agreed that an enduring American presence in Afghanistan is critical for the peace and stability in the region.

Besides Pakistan and its new government, the two leaders also discussed Syria, Iran, Bangladesh, Burma.

Well aware that there are chances of the bilateral ties slipping away temporarily in view of the upcoming elections in India, Obama and Singh directed their officials to ensure that there would be high-level consultations and meetings between the two countries every three-four weeks either in Washington or New Delhi or even in a third country, the sources said.

The directions are being implemented in letter and spirit, they said.

Officials from both sides have described the meeting as highly successful which went something beyond their expectations.

In fact when the preparations for the meeting began in the summer it was considered as a mere photo-opportunity and a few weeks before the meeting the draft of the joint statement was of less than two pages.

"Finally it ended up being in nine pages," the official said, adding that the fact sheet on India-US ties issued by the White House was spread over 14 pages.

The Obama-Singh meeting, as such, the official said was a highly successful one and would be considered as a landmark one in terms of the impact it would have on the bilateral relationship.

PTI

First Published: Sunday, November 10, 2013 - 17:05

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