When Barack Obama arrived at the State department last Thursday, shortly before Hillary Clinton’s reception for the external affairs minister of India, S.M. Krishna, began, he was given a quick 10-minute briefing on the events of that day, which made up the whole of the first Indo-US “strategic dialogue”.
It is Obama’s habit at such briefings to listen intently to what he is being told so that he can put his very limited time at meetings which follow — in this case, a joint speaking appearance at the reception with the external affairs minister and the secretary of State of the United States of America — to the very best use in promoting the objectives of his presidency. When he asks a question, it is inevitably very precise: Obama’s remarks on such occasions usually give officials of his administration clues to the president’s thinking and help them adjust their priorities.
In this instance, according to a US official who was witness to the proceedings, Obama said very little, but one of the things he did say was that “I am looking forward to meeting Minister Krishna. It is incredible what he has done to Bangalore,” a reference to the time when Krishna was chief minister of Karnataka.
What Bangalore stands for in a reformed India — and what that, in turn, means to America as it faces a challenge of decline — has been a recurring theme in Obama’s speeches, both during his presidential campaign and in the nearly one and a half years that he has been president. It can, therefore, be said with a fair degree of certainty five months before Obama’s visit to India that Krishna will have to be prepared to be the de facto host to the US president in Bangalore even though he is no longer the chief minister.
It is everybody’s hope that Obama’s likely travel to Bangalore will be one of those increasingly rare instances in Indian politics when partisan differences are put aside and a consensus is reached for the greater good. The Bharatiya Janata Party government in Karnataka will have to rise to the occasion and showcase for Americans what Indians can do when leadership, vision and enterprise combine in the example of what Bangalore is today.
Bill Clinton was very keen to make Bangalore one of his stops during his presidential visit ten years ago, but the National Democratic Alliance government was not as keen to send the US president to a Congress-ruled state which had become a symbol of India’s transformation in the 21st century. It is to the credit of then Andhra Pradesh chief minister, Chandrababu Naidu, a constituent of the NDA then, that he exploited this weakness in political Delhi to wangle the opportunity to host Clinton whose aides had offered the president a choice between Bangalore and Hyderabad.
Clinton liked what he saw in Hyderabad. According to those familiar with minute details of the US president’s visit, Clinton was exceptionally pleased that Naidu had assigned the film actress, Jaya Prada, then a member of parliament from the Telugu Desam Party, to accompany the president as something like a minister-in-waiting during his stay in Hyderabad.
Naidu used the Clinton visit to his best advantage. A natural networker, he built up contacts from the Clinton visit to launch himself on a global canvas. On stages such as the World Economic Forum — which shifted its annual Davos meeting to New York in 2002 to proclaim solidarity with the city after the September 11 terrorist attacks the previous year — Naidu was hailed as the embodiment of an emerging, new and modern Indian political class. In the next elections, though, it became clear that Naidu was perhaps more popular in America than in his own state of Andhra Pradesh.
It is one of the imponderables of diplomacy that personal rapport in bilateral engagement has mattered much more in a superpower’s relations with other countries than in relations between two equal powers. This was the case with ties between the Soviet Union and India, where the relationship may have been well short on “deliverables” had it not been for the personal equation between Leonid Brezhnev and Indira Gandhi, and later on between Mikhail Gorbachev and Rajiv Gandhi.
Equally, this is true of Indo-US relations, which reached its nadir when Indira Gandhi and Richard Nixon could not stand each other. Similarly, the early foundations of what has now become of the friendship between Washington and New Delhi were laid in the manner in which Indira Gandhi and Ronald Reagan got along famously at their very first meeting in Cancun where the two leaders were attending an international summit on development only ten months into Reagan’s presidency.
There is a myth in conventional diplomacy that it is the interests of nations and not personalities which determine policies and the course of relations between countries. But the truth is that personal rapport is important, indeed vital, in dealing with superpowers which are more tight-fisted than others in giving away anything at all if only because they are used to having their way. Last week’s meetings in Washington paved the way for such rapport which will show results for Indo-US relations in the period ahead now that Washington has declared that it wants to work with India to “build a new global commons — an international system in which other democracies can flourish”.
It was clear from Obama’s body language at the State department’s reception while he interacted with Krishna that personal chemistry was at work between the two men: it supplements the rapport which already exists between Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It was an indication of how deep Obama had already waded into the nitty-gritty of Indo-US relations that when the president spoke, he mentioned the foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, by name: it is but rarely that a head of State refers to anyone in another country’s visiting delegation below the rank of a minister.
Rao has built an equation with William Burns, the US under-secretary of State for political affairs, who will play a critical role in realizing the objectives laid out during the strategic dialogue. As a former ambassador in Moscow, he is credited with having brought US-Russia relations back on the rails after the deterioration in ties following the conflict in Georgia and wide disagreements on a range of issues.
For only the second time since the Americans created the post of an assistant secretary of State dealing with South Asia, the Indians are talking to the person who holds that job instead of talking at that official. Having served as deputy chief of mission in New Delhi and later as US ambassador in Colombo, Robert Blake understands India unlike a string of his predecessors.
In the long run, however, it may turn out that one of the most productive of more than a score of meetings which took place in Washington as part of the strategic dialogue was a 45-minute session between Krishna and the US national security adviser, General James Jones. Jones represents a vital link between the political leadership and the Washington bureaucracy which has always dragged its feet in the implementation of what are agreed at meetings such as the strategic dialogue or higher.
M.K. Narayanan had a binding personal rapport with General Jones because of which the two men could pick up the phone and sort out issues which were holding up initiatives that had been cleared by the prime minister and the US president. His departure for the Raj Bhavan in Calcutta had created a void which needed to be filled. Till last week, India had not fully recovered from a sense of loss created by the departure of Nicholas Burns, the former US under-secretary of State for political affairs in the Bush administration.
A week after the first strategic dialogue with the US, however, it is clear that Krishna has now become the key person in Indo-US relations who will be called upon from time to time to step in and remove impediments in realizing the idea that India is an “indispensable partner and a trusted friend” of the US.