The challenge for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during and after his visit to Washington will be one of form rather than substance, if the opposition by left parties to the 'New Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship' is any indication. By this yardstick, the prime minister is already in trouble, even before he has packed his bags for next week's journey: he may not be aware of it, though, At least, not yet.
The trouble that is brewing for the prime minister is over a state dinner which President George W. Bush is planning for Singh at the White House on Monday. Indian officials and those in charge of protocol at the White House have spent considerable time making arrangements for this dinner. It will be nowhere on the scale of a banquet, which Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, put together for Singh's predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The guest list will be much smaller: the dinner, and the reception which precedes it, will all be held inside the White House, not on the lawns unlike in 2000.
But that should not obscure the significance of Bush's gesture in welcoming Singh to Washington. In his entire first four-year term, Bush hosted just four state dinners. His parents hosted the same number of dinners even before they had time to fully settle down in the White House ' during the first six months of the 41st presidency.
The White House wants to invite to next Monday's dinner all 10 American members of the Indo-American CEO's Forum, which has been set up in time to hold its first meeting in Washington during the prime minister's visit. But it does not want to invite to dinner the 10 Indian CEOs who make up the forum. Indian officials in Washington are unhappy with the discrimination, but there is little they can do about it. It is still possible that Bush's protocol officials may change their mind on the guest list, but you really cannot tell your host who all he should call home for dinner, can you' The White House has, instead, suggested that the Indian CEOs should go for a lunch being organized by the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, the same afternoon.
It is not as if Indians of the stature of Ratan Tata, Y.C. Deveshwar or Ashok Ganguly are desperate to be feted at the White House. When they agreed to lend their names and prestige to the CEO's Forum, they were participating in the larger goal of adding substance to Indo-US economic relations and helping to fulfil some of the obligations that come from India's new global role as an emerging power. But it still leaves a bad taste in the mouth when they are excluded from an event to which their American counterparts are being invited.
The exclusion will not come as a surprise for those who know the strange ways of America. Roughly a third of the 152 adult guests who slept at the White House or the presidential retreat at Camp David last year were fundraisers or donors to Bush's political campaigns. The practice of selling the White House for money was tuned into a fine art by Clinton. John McCain, the widely respected Republican senator from Arizona, said of the practice: 'the president of the US, in seeking to raise money for his re-election, was willing to use the Lincoln Bedroom, probably one of the more sacrosanct places in America, in order to gain those financial funds which he felt were necessary.'
Several of the American chief executives, who have been recruited to the CEO's Forum, are close to Bush and are among his contributors. Yet, it is a very big thing for each of them to be invited to the White House. Bush wants to use the opportunity offered by Singh's visit to return their favours.
Unfortunately, most Indians will not see it that way. That will be Singh's problem, just as the left parties see nothing good in the new defence framework and want it to be thrown into the dustbin. Singh's dilemma during and after his visit to Washington will be fundamental. For close to 15 years, Indians and Americans have tired of telling each other that one of them is the world's oldest democracy and the other is the biggest democracy in the history of mankind. For five years now, Indians and Americans have thought of each other as 'natural allies'.
But no relationship between nations can be sustained indefinitely on platitudes. In the last one year of his prime ministership, Singh has demonstrated that he can take Indo-US ties forward, building on the foundations for a new relationship which were laid by the National Democratic Alliance government. But that requires a greater understanding in India of the way Americans do things and greater sensitivity to their needs.
At the same time, it would be unrealistic to expect the Americans to reciprocally show any such sensitivity towards India, except when Washington acutely wants something from New Delhi. When the Bush administration was desperate for India's support for its war effort in Iraq, the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, surprised many by calling on the then deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, at his hotel room in Washington on a Sunday within hours of Advani's arrival.
As any euphoria generated by Singh's three-day stay at Blair House, the presidential guest house adjacent to the White House, wears off, the United Progressive Alliance government will realize that it will not be easy to get the Americans to move forward on any issue of critical interest to New Delhi in Washington, notwithstanding the huge propaganda to the contrary by a growing American lobby in India.
The leadership of the Bush administration is in favour of engaging India. But there is entrenched opposition within the American establishment to doing anything with India, be it on nuclear energy, missile defence, cooperation in space, even on HIV and AIDS. Leftist opposition to such issues as the new Indo-US defence framework can actually be useful in resisting American demands in areas critical for India. Such opposition can, at the same time, be used by New Delhi to work out quid pro quos with Washington.
When P.V. Narasimha Rao was prime minister, he effectively used such resistance in India to engaging America as a way of standing up against US demands to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to make concessions in Geneva during negotiations for a comprehensive test ban treaty and for a host of other compromises on issues of national interest.
Because Rao's relations with some opposition leaders were better than his relations with many Congress leaders, he may have even persuaded opposition parties to agitate against the US on certain issues as a way of telling the Americans that he could not accede to their demands because of domestic opposition within India.
Singh's government lacks such Machiavellian thinking, so essential in dealing with a super-power. Instead, there is a scramble in New Delhi to claim credit for what is being done in Washington. The prime minister's visit to Washington was nearly undercut this week by that scramble.
Without telling the Indian embassy in the US, without going through normal protocol, the external affairs minister, K. Natwar Singh, for instance, attempted to organize a lightning visit to Washington on Thursday, ostensibly to tie up loose ends and to give the finishing touches to the prime minister's journey to the White House, according to American sources.
Because national security adviser, M.K. Narayanan, had made an extended visit to Washington last month doing precisely that, the external affairs minister's now aborted July 14 visit was meant to take the spotlight away from Narayanan. Fortunately, the Indian embassy put its foot down and insisted that a ministerial visit at this stage would be disruptive, not productive. What the prime minister needs in his dealings with America is constructive support and constructive opposition, without which his trip next week will be like that of several of his predecessors.