The phone call by United States President Barack Obama to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Thursday comes as a surprise. The call was made a day after the US-India Strategic Dialogue ended, whereas, it could have been optimally made a week or at least 3-4 days earlier. The SD turned out to be a lack luster event and the best spin that can be put on it is that the US-India relationship is in a ‘pause’ mode with the two leaderships entangled in existential issues in their domestic politics. Keen observers in the world community would have noted that the “impetus” in the US-Indian relationship has drained off — to borrow an expression from a particularly sharp assessment by the Economist magazine.
What was more galling, some very blunt talk given by the US deputy national advisor Michael Froman to External Affairs MInister S M Krishna is a breach of protocol. Froman even finger-pointed the US’s expectations from the Indian prime minister. Such plain-speaking on a public platform was unnecessary. (In the past also, once at least he picked up the phone and gave a bit of his mind to the deputy chairman of the planning commission Montek Singh Alhuwalia who apparently didn’t mind the rudeness.)
Krishna travelled to Washington via Beijing (so to speak) where he made a determined pitch for India’s membership of the SCO, a regional grouping whose very sight upsets the US. And from Washington he left on a 3-day official visit to Cuba. Of course, the joint statement issued after the Strategic Dialogue keeps a deafening silence on the core template of the US’s regional strategy — its ‘pivot’ to Asia and the ‘rebalancing’ of the US forces.
Thus, Obama probably decided to make a friendly gesture after having given a wide berth to Krishna when he was in Washington. The White House account of Obama’s phone conversation with Dr. Singh pointedly omits any reference to the US-India relationship.
However, it cannot be taken at face value, given the US’s wish list (stretching from nuclear commerce to Wal-Mart’s entry into the Indian market) that is lying on Obama’s desk in the Oval Office.
Obama would have known that changes were likely in the stewardship of India’s finance ministry. The western media had been criticising Pranab Mukherjee as the main hurdle in the way of India’s ‘reforms’. The stakes are very high for the US interests.
The White House maintains that the Obama-Singh conversation dwelt on “regional and international issues of mutual interest” and on the sad state of the global economy. A call in the middle of the night to seek the PM’s attention on the Eurozone crisis or the G-20? Unlikely.
Maybe, Obama talked about Pakistan — especially as he prepares to apologize for the massacre of the Pakistani troops last November. Again, the US will expect India to stand up and be counted if or when the crunch time comes over Syria and Iran in the coming weeks.
It seems to me Obama thought up the gesture to make up for the fiasco of the Strategic Dialogue before the post-mortem begins in Delhi. After all, it is no small matter that the US president rings up the PM to consult him how to set right the world economy. How many world leaders would get such a rare honor? The White House readout is here.
– June 16, 2012