|Michelle and Gursharan: Tea diplomacy
Washington, Sept. 25: Corporate America’s concerns about doing business in India will be the “centrepiece for discussions” between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President Barack Obama at the White House on September 27, a senior Obama administration official said here today in the first detailed official comment on Singh’s visit.
In a briefing for Indian correspondents in Washington, the official appeared to contradict low expectations from the visit and asserted that progress would be made on defence trade and technology transfer, civilian nuclear cooperation and clean energy.
Notwithstanding such progress or lack of it, the official said the “trajectory” of bilateral engagement during the Prime Minister’s roughly 24-hour whirlwind visit to America’s capital city will “reflect the strength in relations and the personal warmth” between the Obamas and the Singhs.
True to such form, the day will begin with First Lady Michelle Obama hosting the Prime Minister’s wife Gursharan Kaur to tea at her residence while her husband travels separately to the West Wing, the office part of the White House for the summit with Obama.
After the summit and a brief media appearance for statements by both leaders, Singh and Obama will sit down for a working lunch along with their respective delegations for only the second such lunch that the President has hosted in his second term for a foreign leader on an official visit.
Heads of state and government on working visits to Washington are usually hosted to lunch by Vice-President Joe Biden while the President goes about his other daily engagements after the West Wing discussions.
Initially, Biden had offered to host Singh, but Obama stepped in and said he wanted to show his special regard for the Prime Minister by making a rare exception. The only other such working lunch Obama hosted was for the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah.
But then the Sultan is one of the richest men in the world and he personally piloted his private Boeing 747 into Washington on that visit in March this year. In a reference to the Sultan’s vast wealth, Obama welcomed him to the White House with a remark that “we are going to encourage him to do some shopping” in order to “strengthen the US economy”.
The senior official today made a point of remarking that the tea to be hosted by the First Lady “is a distinctive feature and unusual and reflects the closeness of the relationship, both in terms of the nations and also the personal relationship”.
Shortly after the Prime Minister’s special Air India plane lands at the Andrews Air Force base here on Thursday afternoon, Sri Srinivasan, the first Indian to be appointed as a judge in a US Court of Appeals, will have his investiture ceremony in Washington. Gursharan Kaur is planning to attend the ceremony.
The administration official today mentioned Srinivasan’s appointment as an example of the growing people-to-people engagement between India and America.
This appointment is politically significant for Obama because Srinivasan is the only judge that Obama — or George W. Bush, for that matter — has been able to get past the Senate since 2006 to the Washington appeals court where three vacancies still remain.
Srinivasan was confirmed by the Senate only because he is an Indian, reflecting the reservoir of goodwill on Capitol Hill for the Indian American community.
As the Prime Minister left India’s shores, the co-chairs of the Senate India Caucus, Mark Warner and John Cornyn, along with Senator Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a resolution in the chamber welcoming Singh to the US.
At the same time, reflecting corporate America’s concerns, the resolution emphasised that Friday’s summit should pave the way for greater economic liberalisation, facilitate easier foreign direct investment and lead to a bilateral investment treaty and meaningful implementation of the nuclear deal.
At the time of writing, the Senate Banking Committee opened a hearing to focus on the investment climate in India and the need for improving market access in financial services.
The hearing was to have taken place some time ago, but was clearly postponed so that grievances here about the investment conditions in India will get maximum attention on the eve of the Prime Minister’s arrival.
It may be some comfort for Singh that on Friday he will find Obama in a domestic political predicament that is not very different from his own. The US government is less than a week away from a shutdown unless Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill can agree on a spending bill that will fund the federal government beyond October 1.
Obama is also facing intransigent Republicans in the House of Representatives under their control who want to stop funds for his signature healthcare law in exchange for allowing uninterrupted functioning of the government. At the time of writing, Senator Ted Cruz, a hardline Republican, has been speaking in the chamber continuously for 21 hours in an effort to prevent a vote on the spending bill.
In view of such rough political weather in Washington, the White House did not want a full-fledged joint media conference after talks between Obama and Singh. As agreed between the two sides, the President and the Prime Minister will merely read out their separate statements from the Oval Office to the media and will not take any questions.
It is a small wonder that given the poisonous political atmosphere in Washington and the intrigues over a government shutdown, Singh’s visit is getting any attention at all here. Relations with India is one of the few things on which Democrats and Republicans agree and efforts here to make a success of his visit are a reflection of the goodwill for India.