A US presidential visit to India has always been a momentous event for the Indian government and media. I’ve had the chance now to attend a few joint press conferences featuring an Indian prime minister and visiting US president at Hyderabad House—Bill Clinton and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in March 2000, George W. Bush and Manmohan Singh in March 2006, and now Barack Obama and Manmohan Singh.
But the enthusiasm that the Bush visit generated remains unparalleled. While there were over 300 print scribes and well over 200 TV journalists at Hyderabad House on Monday to cover Obama’s talks with the Indian leadership, the slightly fewer number in attendance for Bush’s visit created a far more electrifying atmosphere. Back then, everyone was pumped up by the knowledge that a historic moment was imminent, with the two leaders set to announce the signing of the Indo-US nuclear deal.
In contrast, no such expectancy filled the air Monday when Obama and Singh walked into the decorated tent on the lawn of their famous New Delhi meeting place. That said, it didn’t take the shine off Obama, who was heard by all present with rapt attention. The tone was set by the very first question, offered by an American journalist. For those who aren’t familiar with the way the prime minister’s office and the Ministry of External Affairs conduct such press conferences, only four questions in total are allowed for the two principals: two from the host country’s media and two from the foreign media.
The American journalist asked Obama how Washington could keep India away from a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council when Obama himself had repeatedly referred to India as ‘a world power.’
An Indian journalist then noted that Obama would go home satisfied with the 50,000 jobs generated by the deals that he struck in India, and asked what India would get out of his visit in return. Obama drew loud applause from the journalists when he answered with the kind of candour not normally associated with diplomacy. He responded: ‘When the American people ask me why you are spending time with India after they have taken our jobs, I want to be able to say, actually, you know what, they just created 50,000 jobs and that’s why we shouldn’t be resorting to protectionist measures.’
This is a new template that Obama has prepared for boosting Indo-US relations—India has gone from beneficiary to benefactor. It’s as if India has donned the Santa Claus robes for the Americans this Christmas.
The United States is now showing its gratitude by announcing support for India’s membership in the yet to be reformed UN Security Council. On the flip side, though, these are just words, and no timetable for change has been offered. But Obama knew that the Indians would lap it up as no other US president had yet stated this goal categorically.
In terms of concrete deliverables, Obama agreed to lift curbs on the export of dual-use technology, a category of exports that can be employed for military as well as civilian purposes. The Obama administration took Indian entities like Indian Space Research Organisation and Defence Research and Development Organisation off the no-exports list, although curbs remain on other Indian outfits like the Department of Atomic Energy Agency.
Equally significantly, Obama offered support for India’s membership in multilateral export control regimes such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a group that restricts exports of technology to prevent proliferation.
India seems to be enjoying its new role of benefactor to the world’s great powers. Singh’s masterstroke during the press conference came when he dangled a potentially more lucrative carrot in front of the United States, by stating in Obama’s presence that India would be embarking on a new five-year plan to invest $1 trillion into the country’s infrastructure, starting in 2012.