Manmohan Singh speaks with Barack Obama in the Oval Office on Friday. (AFP)
Washington, Sept. 27: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took the unusual step here today of cautioning in the presence of US President Barack Obama that “expectations have to be toned down” on the outcome of his meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in New York on Sunday.
For his part, Obama also defied convention and spoke on the Russia-US chemical weapons agreement on Syria at length in Singh’s presence after asking for the Prime Minister’s “indulgence” to do so.
Officials travelling with the Prime Minister said Singh’s remarks on Pakistan were a departure from talking points thrashed out with his aides here last evening.
A draft statement for media availability at the White House had been prepared but, wisely, was not distributed since it did not contain any references to his meetings with Sharif.
The departure appeared to be an attempt by Singh to shield himself from critics on a day he had already been battered by developments back home on the controversial ordinance cleared by the cabinet pertaining to the Representation of the People Act in the context of convicted lawmakers.
Singh’s senior aides, who were standing behind the media in the Oval Office where he and Obama made statements, appeared surprised when the Prime Minister said: “The epicentre of terrorists still remains focused in Pakistan.”
Although this reporter clearly heard Singh use the strong description of “epicentre”, the White House transcript was unsure and substituted that word with “presence” suffixed by a question mark.
The White House pool report explained that “Singh spoke next, and although he spoke in English, he spoke softly and pooler was unable to hear much of what he said”.
The pool reporter asked her media colleagues to “please check transcript for remarks”.
The Prime Minister’s impromptu departure from previously agreed remarks could also have been because Obama may have nudged Singh on doing a deal with Sharif in New York or soon afterwards.
Obviously, the Prime Minister wanted to make it clear in public that he is not in a position to do so because of domestic political compulsions, especially with elections so near.
“We have also discussed our relations with and our approach to dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan. I explained to President Obama the difficulties that we face…. Expectations have to be toned down given the terror arm which is still active in our subcontinent.”
For his part, Obama said: “We had a chance to discuss Pakistan and our shared interest in seeing a peaceful reduction of tensions on the subcontinent. We want to very much thank Prime Minister Singh for what has been a consistent interest in improving cooperation between India and Pakistan.”
On Indo-US relations, Obama appeared satisfied with the progress, albeit limited, in the implementation of the nuclear deal, which had become controversial in India in the last few weeks following allegations that the UPA government was trying to dilute the nuclear liability bill passed by Parliament.
“We have made enormous progress on the issue of civilian nuclear power and, in fact, have been able to achieve just in the last few days an agreement on the first commercial agreement between a US company and India on civilian nuclear power,” the President said in his remarks.
The brief joint media appearance by the Prime Minister and the President in the Oval Office at the end of their hour-long meeting had all the hallmarks of a farewell call by Singh on Obama before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
“Prime Minister Singh... has been a great friend and partner to the United States and to me personally during his tenure as Prime Minister of India,” Obama said.
“So across the board, Prime Minister Singh has been an outstanding partner.”
Singh said in his reply that “during the time that I have been Prime Minister, and particularly during the time that President Obama and I have worked together, I think President Obama has made an outstanding contribution to strengthening, widening and deepening of our cooperation in diverse ways.”
The Prime Minister recalled that when he came to Washington in 2005, a year into his prime ministership, and addressed a joint session of the US Congress, “I said there are partnerships based on principles and partnerships based on pragmatism. I then said that in the case of Indo-American cooperation, both principles of our commitment to democratic values, rule of law and pragmatism, both combined to make us strong and durable partners.”
Singh added: “I am very happy to say that during the last five years that I have worked together with President Obama, that process has got strengthened in every possible way.”
He promised new areas of cooperation with the US in energy, clean coal technologies, energy-efficient technologies, environment, defence and security, intelligence-gathering and counter-terrorism. “In all these areas, India needs the US to be standing by our side.”
The Prime Minister complimented Obama for his vision and for his courage in giving diplomacy a second chance in both Syria and Iran.
“India fully supports these initiatives because six million Indians live in West Asia. They earn their livelihood. Their contribution has an important role of sustaining our balance of payments. Therefore, anything that contributes to peace and stability in the Middle East, in Iran, in Syria, is something which is in the interest of the global economy.”