| Singh: All eyes on Big Apple
Washington, Sept. 15: For two days beginning Thursday, the menu of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's first superpower breakfast will be the subject of intense discussions here between top officials of the ministry of external affairs and the US state department.
As Singh and his delegation prepare to leave for New York for the annual UN General Assembly, the White House has told Delhi that President George W. Bush wants to host Singh for a breakfast on September 21, within hours of the Prime Minister's arrival in the Big Apple the previous night.
The menu the two sides will discuss at length for 48 hours from tomorrow will not dwell on whether the two leaders should have cornflakes or eggs or both. Instead the primary subject of these talks will be the 'Next Steps in Strategic Partnership' (NSSP) announced jointly by India and the US in January.
Progress in the NSSP will be the main item on the menu for the breakfast meeting between Bush and Singh. The talks here on Thursday and Friday will be conducted by foreign secretary Shyam Saran primarily with Ken Juster, the US under-secretary for commerce, Marc Grossman, the US under-secretary of state for political affairs, and Steve Hadley, Bush's deputy national security adviser.
Saran is the first top Indian official to visit the US for substantive talks since the new government took office in May. External affairs minister Natwar Singh was in Washington in June for the funeral of former President Ronald Reagan, an occasion that did not lend itself to any detailed talks.
The Bush administration took the initiative to break the ice with the new leaders in charge in Delhi. Within a month of the change in government, Juster visited India and was followed shortly by the deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage.
Saran will build on preparatory talks here last month by S. Jaishankar, South Block's new point man for the US, whose meetings salvaged the NSSP. The government was initially uncertain about what it should do with this idea initiated and doggedly pursued by former national security adviser Brajesh Mishra and his US counterpart Condoleezza Rice.
The new government's ambivalence on NSSP upset the Americans, especially those officials in the Bush administration who had gone out on a limb to push the idea despite strong opposition from non-proliferation advocates and apologists for Islamabad in various agencies of the US government.
NSSP centres on what is known as the 'quartet' issues ' civilian space cooperation, civilian nuclear activities, high-technology trade and missile defence. The Vajpayee government's pursuit of the 'quartet' issues was based on the conviction that access to US technology in these areas was vital to India's progress towards becoming a global power both in strategic and economic terms.
During talks with Jaishankar, it was pointed out by the Americans that successive Indian governments have been knocking on American doors for two decades with limited success, if at all, for access to high-level US technology.
NSSP, he was told, had brought India so close to this objective and India had no hope of getting there in a long time if the government let go of this opportunity. US officials outlined the concessions they had made to take this concept thus far.
Saran, it is expected, will convey to the Americans the steps India intends to take in order to facilitate a formal statement outlining the actual next steps in the Indo-US strategic partnership. The January announcement jointly made by Bush and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee only outlined the broad concept of NSSP.
American and Indian sources expressed doubts if the two sides would have sorted out all the thorny issues on NSSP for that statement to be ready by the time Bush meets Singh. But if that happens, Singh will return from New York with a diplomatic coup for his four-month old government.