India basks in lavish White House welcome

AP News
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Posted: Nov 25, 2009 1:45 PM

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met in Washington this week with President Barack Obama, the White House lavished attention on the unassuming, bookish Indian leader. There was a state dinner. There were movie stars. There was a chandelier-filled tent packed with powerful Americans chatting up powerful Indians. There was talk that the two nations had forged "one of the defining relationships" of the century.

It was Washington's way of telling the world's largest democracy that it matters _ despite America's ties to India's main rivals, Pakistan and China.

The visit was heralded by the Indian media, which on Wednesday was awash with descriptions of Singh's welcome. Obama "hit all the right buttons ... to erase any impression that he had downgraded ties with New Delhi in deference to China," The Times of India said on its front page.

But coming just days after Obama's splashy trip to East Asia _ when he met Chinese leader Hu Jintao, walked on the Great Wall and even hinted that Beijing should play a role in India's ever-delicate dealings with Pakistan _ many here are worried that the pomp in Washington hides a more complicated and sometimes fragile relationship with the Obama White House.

"Pageantry is a distraction and we need to look at exactly what was achieved," said former Indian Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh. "Some of the things we thought would be sorted out were not."

Chief among those was an agreement on reprocessing nuclear fuel, part of the landmark civilian atomic energy accord that cemented Indo-U.S. relations under George W. Bush's administration.

While the agreement was widely expected to be concluded during the visit, and Indian newspapers reported that negotiators were under significant pressure to wrap it up, Singh told reporters Tuesday in Washington that "some 'i's need to be dotted and 't's have to be crossed," before the deal is finalized.

Certainly things didn't go badly in Washington. Obama and Singh both insisted the nuclear deal would press forward, and the United States and India have reached agreements on topics from health to education to agriculture.

But other issues, ranging from differences over climate change to Washington's unwillingness to press the Pakistani government as hard on terrorism as New Delhi would like, remain unresolved.

"It's good to see your head of government going on a significant state visit," Mansingh said. But "it didn't quite meet the expectations that were built up."

But in many ways, it would be hard to meet those expectations. Indian-American relations have changed dramatically in the past few years, reversing three decades of Cold War suspicion during which New Delhi was seen in Washington as a quasi-socialist state with close ties to the Soviet Union.

Ties warmed during the Clinton years, but accelerated dramatically during the most recent Bush administration, with the nuclear agreement seen as the cornerstone of a completely new relationship.

The deal "is the symbolic center of this new strategic partnership," then-U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said in 2006.

Given what was accomplished during the Bush years, it would be hard for Obama to match that kind of diplomatic progress.

Still, the worry in New Delhi is that India might not get the same respect in the Obama White House as it did during Bush's tenure.

"So far, we have seen that the Obama administration doesn't give India the same salience as the Bush administration," said political analyst Amitabh Mattoo.

He said Obama's welcome of Singh was "strong on style, but in terms of substance I think we'll have to wait a while to see how the promise of this visit translates into reality."

Much of the problem is in Beijing and Islamabad.

India and China have a complicated relationship. The two countries are major trading partners and allies when it comes to international issues like climate change. But they are also competing for economic and political power in the region, with India desperately trying to prove it can catch up to China.

Then there is India's nuclear-armed rival, Pakistan. If relations between New Delhi and Islamabad are better than they were a few years ago, the neighbors remain bitterly divided over the Himalayan region of Kashmir, which is divided between them but claimed by both. India believes Pakistan is still backing Kashmiri militants fighting on Indian soil.

The Obama administration, though, has forged close ties with both countries. Washington believes that it needs good relations with China, given Beijing's immense economic and political clout, despite its human rights record.

And Pakistan is seen as a necessary ally in the war against the Taliban and al-Qaida _ no matter its own history as a militant refuge.

Such U.S. alliances could be forgiven by New Delhi during the Bush years, when the nuclear deal was seen as proof of Washington's loyalty.

But in the Obama White House, friendships like that can look like betrayal.