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The extraordinary rapport between President Barack Obama and Dr Manmohan Singh has already been noted, especially in the telling images which showed Obama hugging the prime minister, and the prime minister, after some thought, reciprocating the gesture tentatively. Manmohan Singh is not a man to wear his emotions on his sleeves, and his reciprocal gesture—however tentative—says something about the relationship between the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest. Body language at its best.
Actually, the jhappi diplomacy really flowered behind the scenes. In an unscheduled, unscripted one-to-one meeting at 7, Race Course Road, the two leaders met for an hour. Note-takers were conspicuous by their absence. Therefore, no official record exists of what transpired at this highly unusual but, from India’s point of view, desirable meeting. A fly on the wall, in a manner of speaking, told me that on Pakistan in particular, Obama went much further than his publicly stated position of Pakistan needing to shut down terrorist havens. Even as he urged the prime minister to continue to engage Pakistan in a dialogue, he appreciated India’s current stand of dialogue not being possible in an atmosphere of terror or threats of terror. Dr Singh, on his part, once again stressed the dilemma of a functioning democracy like India: dialogue must have public opinion behind it for the leadership to pursue it.
On China, we played our cards nicely. All this American talk of “containing China” and building up India as a countervailing force in Asia to balance the Middle Kingdom’s “new assertiveness” fell on deaf ears in New Delhi. There was some effort to introduce a line in the joint statement to this effect but the PMO and MEA brushed it aside. “Why should India be a cat’s paw for the United States?” was the line. Long after President Obama and other presidents have gone, India has to live and interact with China. We need to do so on our own terms, and not as a proxy in some Great Game. As a risen, not rising, power, India is unwilling to fall into Uncle Sam’s trap.
Navratna at the Gardens
I have been going to Rashtrapati Bhavan banquets for nearly two decades. For the big boys from the United States we always try to do something extra special. First Bill Clinton and then George Bush. While Clinton’s reception was lavish and held indoors, George Bush was sumptuously feted outdoors. To welcome Barack Obama, however, Pratibha Patil organised something magical at the celebrated Mughal Gardens located at the rear of Rashtrapati Bhavan. On a cool, balmy evening spread out against the sky like “a patient etherised on a table”, Michelle and Barack experienced Indian hospitality, not just in terms of food, but in terms of atmospherics, at its very best. The menu became irrelevant; you can serve a great meal but the banquet can still be awful. Flowers, diyas, garlands, rangoli, firecrackers, sparkling fountains were harmonised with understatement, imagination and style to make the evening unforgettable.
The wonderful people who gave us the opening and closing ceremony at the Commonwealth Games, Wizcraft, presented the diversity of our civilisational treasures in a splendid “cultural tribute to friendship” which included singers from Rajasthan, percussionists from Kerala, Bharatanatyam, Odissi and Kathak dancers, rounding off with the Shillong Chamber Choir singing Khasi songs and also Stevie Wonder’s, “I just called to say”. Well done, Pratibhaji.
A Quick (Re)Word
“He is a shy man,” said the well-known American South Asia expert Stephen Cohen (Mr Cohen seems to be a straightforward PR man for the Pakistan army), explaining President Obama’s cold speech at the Taj commemorating the victims of 26/11. Meanwhile, “geopolitical compulsions” was the arcane phrase employed to justify his use of euphemisms like “perpetrators”. While both the justifications are specious, the president’s impassioned and insightful address to Parliament more than compensated for his earlier lapse. I thought Obama went the extra mile on Pakistan, leaving no room for doubt on what our estranged neighbour has to do—a clarity reinforced by the joint statement which mentioned LeT by name. All of which makes the dull Mumbai speech curious. Jet lag, perhaps?
I have no insider knowledge or privileged information to back me up, but it is possible he travelled the extra distance because of the extensive criticism his lukewarm, uninspired and fuzzy address commemorating the victims of 26/11 generated. The media criticism, which some Indian diplomats saw as “premature” and “demeaning”, might, on hindsight, have prodded Obama to shun generalities on the sensitive P-word. Am I giving too much credit to the fourth estate?
I too got my 30 seconds of fame with the leader of the free world. I buttered him up by calling his speech in Parliament “magnificent”, and then blurted out, “Mr President, the star of your India trip is not you but your wife.”
“You got it right,” he replied, “It always happens.”