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Singh talks Pak, terror with Obama

Long-stalled N-deal hovers as a big question mark in the relations between the two nations.

Kabir Taneja  New Delhi | 28th Sep 2013

he summit level meeting between Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and US President Barack Obama on Friday did not provide any excitement or bilateral boost to either side.

As Dr Singh landed at Andrews Air Force Base in the state of Maryland near Washington DC a few hours before his meet, the mood, both in the American capital and in New Delhi was that of scepticism, with the long-stalled nuclear deal hovering as a big question mark in the relations between the two countries. "People on Capitol Hill are not expecting much from this visit at all. They know that the UPA government is in stall mode before the elections. They see this as a general visit at best," says an aide in Washington to this newspaper on condition of anonymity.

Sentiments in the US regarding India have drastically changed as well. Reports of ad posters at American airports asking India to stop its protectionist policies and allow freedom of investment amplifies the sentiment of a fading "Incredible India" story amongst American businesses.

The press-briefing, held by the two leaders at the White House, seemed informal at best. President Obama thanked Dr Singh for "persisting with peace talks with Pakistan" on the back of the latest terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir which killed nine Indians. Obama said that America had an integral interest in the stability of South Asia and would work with India and Pakistan to achieve so.

It is believed that Dr Singh spoke in detail over terror activities arising from Pakistan and the steps that America should take to put pressure on Islamabad to rein in those groups responsible for cross-border terrorism into India. According to sources in Washington, Obama is also believed to have asked Dr Singh for an "increased effort" in Afghanistan and is known to have said that Pakistan is still a "wildcard" in post-2014 Afghanistan.

Although US troops are slated to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, Washington plans to run more than half a dozen air bases in the country. Previously, India has been asked by Kabul to provide some basic military equipment, but New Delhi till now has not entertained such ideas. However, this may change in time to come.

President Obama has also said that India was a "world power" and not just a "regional power," putting the onus on New Delhi for a greater global role. He also discussed "regional issues" such as the on-going crises in Syria.

Dr Singh later on talked about India's challenges of eradicating poverty and the need for the country to have good economic growth. He said that India "needs the US by its side" in order to fulfil its economic aims. The Prime Minister also mentioned crucial sectors such as energy, technology, defence and so on, where India and the US should be seeking to increase cooperation.

Both President Obama and Dr Singh, however, face challenges by two different types of "Congress" in their domestic political scenes. Only hours after the meet, Obama was back to fighting the US Congress which has been threatening to derail his healthcare bill. At the moment both India and US are pre-occupied with domestic issues, which seemingly makes current environment unviable for a big change in bilateral dynamics.

Trade ties between the two countries have been growing irrespective of major hurdles such as the civil nuclear deal, which remains as a pin-prick between the two countries. Even as American company Westinghouse and India's NPCIL are ready to sign a "pre-early works agreement" for six 1,000 MWe reactors, analysts are seeing this as simply a formality to showcase some kind of progress from the current stalemate. With the issue of India's nuclear liability law (NBL) still rife, American business lobbies have made it clear that topics such as the NBL and retrospective taxations will deter foreign investments into India and have already created a bad atmosphere. Nonetheless, with US business in India now more than $80 billion, keenness from both sides for increased economic interactions is unquestionable.

Even as the nuclear deal's implementation moves at a snail's pace, many experts believe that this much progress under this deal has helped India come out of nuclear isolation as a non-signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). India, today, is open to do business in the civil nuclear sector with all major countries. However, much of the problems arising in India over nuclear energy are due to the country's own domestic policy failings.

Political pundits in New Delhi also agree that the slowing pace of Indo – US ties is also due to New Delhi not having enough "friends" in the US State Department anymore. Dr Singh's government is finding it challenging to replicate the bilateral success it achieved during President George W Bush's era. President Obama, by many such as former Indian Ambassador K C Singh, is seen as a spent force and an "injured President," specifically after the diplomatic circus over proposed military action in Syria and the constant stonewalling of his own domestic policies by the US Congress.

The US is still well aware of the political changes taking place in India before the elections next year. Certain sections of Washington have hinted in the past at inviting BJP's prime ministerial candidate and Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who is seen as a pro-business leader, to visit. Other Indian states such as Bihar, Orissa and Tamil Nadu have also seen or have generated interest from American investments.

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