Finding the right notes

Washington : External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a joint news conference after India-U.S. Strategic Dialogue in Washington on Wednesday. PTI Photo (PTI6_14_2012_000030B)  

This week, New Delhi and Washington found themselves swept up in an annual embrace of political necessity, an institutional hug that was at the same time both intimate and hesitant, broad but soft.

Welcome to the third India-U.S. Strategic Dialogue, a celebration of the diversity of bilateral cooperation between two nations which are apparently still discovering each other as if for the first time.

This week's Dialogue was led by Union Minister of External Affairs S.M. Krishna and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, two leaders who, after several prior rounds of Dialogues, appeared most comfortable with each other, even under the sometimes-harsh spotlight of media questions.

Fading camaraderie

For all the camaraderie, there were, however, some big differences compared to June 2010.

Then, President Barack Obama, yet to receive the worst political whippings from an intransigent U.S. Congress, broke with tradition and made an unprecedented visit to the State Department and warmly toasted Mr. Krishna and the blossoming partnership with India.

Then, in her closing remarks to media, Ms Clinton devoted her entire attention to answering queries on minute details regarding areas of cooperation with an India that was throwing open sector after sector of its economy to potential U.S. investors.

Then, there was still a fresh sense of hope for the single, “landmark” deal that had brought India in out of the cold, and firmly set it on the path of ever-expanding friendship with the world's only superpower — the civilian nuclear power agreement.

Alas, much has changed since then.

There was no sign of Mr. Obama anywhere near Foggy Bottom, although he was most certainly in the city. Instead, it was evident, the President was pursuing his top priority these days — running a frenetic race to outdo Republican challenger Mitt Romney in fundraising and pre-election campaigning.

Ironically as Mr. Krishna held a private conference with the Indian media at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, that building's back exit was blocked by a motorcade for Mr. Obama, who was apparently wooing deep-pocketed campaign donors at a neighbouring building. So much for the special relationship?

Nuclear programme

There was also no hint of undivided attention for Team India, from the State Department. While Indian reporters, including this correspondent, restricted their questions to Mr. Krishna and Ms Clinton to their achievements during Dialogue 3.0, in a rather unusual display of lese-majesty the American journalists at the briefing prodded Ms Clinton for a response on a brewing crisis with Russia over the conflict in Syria — and asked no question of the Minister.

While she supplied them with lengthy details, a patient Mr. Krishna was left holding the phone, awaiting a return to the subject at hand.

Lest one believe that these signals portend a deflation of the euphoria surrounding the India-U.S. relationship, it is important to make a note of some of the causes for cheer including, at long last, a breakthrough in negotiations on the civilian nuclear power agreement.

With U.S. nuclear corporation Westinghouse agreeing to enter an Early Works agreement for a nuclear plant in Gujarat in recent days, both Mr. Krishna and Ms Clinton appeared to be palpably relieved to have a portfolio of good news to talk about.

“I was pleased that just yesterday, Westinghouse and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India signed an agreement that will speed construction of new power plants in Gujarat and help India meet its energy needs,” the Secretary said, adding that she looked forward to additional deals involving other leading American companies, including General Electric.

Similarly, Mr. Krishna alluded to the long season of cynicism that had descended upon the deal after the passage of India's nuclear liability Act when he said, “I think this should put at rest some of the interpretations and some of the confusion that was prevailing in the immediate aftermath after we signed the nuclear accord.”

Spotlight on higher education

For all the weight that the prospect of bilateral nuclear commerce carried in the last few Strategic Dialogue encounters, it was however higher education cooperation that truly stole the show on this occasion.

The tag-team of Kapil Sibal, Union Minister of Human Resource Development & Communications and IT, and Sam Pitroda, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Adviser, appeared to have truly electrified the State Department with their pitch for collaboration in this space, on everything from community colleges to “meta-universities.”

As in earlier Dialogues, regional cooperation secured a prime spot in the discussion agenda, particularly cooperation through organisations such as the East Asia Summit, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation.

Other relatively innocuous areas of cooperation at this time, such as collaboration in Afghanistan, people-to-people ties, climate change, science and technology, health and innovation and global partnership, escaped controversy entirely. Energy talks were also a vector of positivity, with a caveat for the Iran sanctions issue. With the U.S. giving India an unsolicited exception from sanctions over oil imports from Iran barely a few days before the Dialogue it was more a case of diplomatic disaster averted than anything else.

Overall, across the variegated areas of discussion a quaint blend of harmony and dissonance was revealed, yet there was one ultra-important field of cooperation that showed a real maturing of the relationship — economic linkages.

No dramatic breakthrough was announced, as indeed earlier Dialogues had witnessed India throwing open its retail sectors or the U.S. assuring that it would address the totalisation conundrum.

However, the fact that neither leader suggested that they would press the other on potential complaints regarding issues such as market access or protectionist tendencies suggested a nuanced and genuine appreciation of the difficult times that both nations are presently facing.

That they desisted from trading barbs on this subject marks a deepening of mutual understanding, an attribute that perhaps spells long-term success in cooperative ventures more than any other aspect of their discussions in Washington this time round.

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