Washington, Nov. 18: Foreign secretary Shyam Saran has stolen a march over his counterparts, ministers and ambassadors from around the globe.
A meeting between Saran and the US secretary of state-designate, Condoleezza Rice, today makes him one of the first foreign officials to meet her since she was nominated to the post two days ago.
The meeting took place in the backdrop of the Bush administration's decision ' also two days ago ' to deny Pakistan 25 new F-16 fighter planes, at least for now.
The Pentagon notified the US Congress on Tuesday that it would sell Islamabad eight P3-C Orion surveillance aircraft, six Phalanx rapid fire navy guns and 2,000 TOW 2 army missiles at a cost of $1.2 billion.
Saran's brief during his two days of talks here, it is understood, is to make the usual noises about arms supplies to Pakistan, but not to hold progress in Indo-US relations hostage to that issue in the knowledge that India is powerless to counter an alliance between the US and Pakistan on counter-terrorism.
Instead, during his meetings here ' which includes deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz and the state department's under-secretary for political affairs Marc Grossman ' Saran will positively concentrate on what is possible in New Delhi's relations with the Bush administration in its second term.
In what is seen as a special gesture, Rice met Saran less than 24 hours before she is to go in for surgery on Friday to remove fibroids in her uterine wall. The fibroids are said to be non-cancerous.
Protocol-wise, Rice, as secretary of state, will be three levels above India's foreign secretary.
Other than her formal nomination ceremony, Rice has attended only two high profile events since last weekend. One was a surprise birthday party for her last Saturday night at the residence of the British ambassador here, attended by Bush, and the second, a meeting with Israel's foreign minister Sylvan Shalom.
Saran would have met Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser-designate, as well, if Hadley had not been scheduled to travel with President George W. Bush to Chile for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.
Saran's two-day meetings will mark the start of the second phase of the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) between India and the US.
The conclusion of the first phase of NSSP, which envisages smooth transfers to India of sensitive American equipment and technology for civilian and military use, was announced during a meeting between Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New York in September.
The foreign secretary's meetings here will be followed by a 'strategic stabilisation dialogue' with the US on Monday, conducted on India's behalf by Meera Shankar, additional secretary for UN, and S. Jaishankar, joint secretary for the Americas in South Block.
The Bush administration's decision not to include F-16 planes in the package sent to Congress for approval puts at rest intense speculation here in recent months that Washington is about to reward Islamabad with offensive weaponry, which it has traditionally used against India.
The Pentagon sold a batch of P3-C Orion planes to Islamabad a decade ago. These are maritime and border surveillance aircraft and will be used, according to America's rationale, in tracking down the al Qaida along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and in stopping arms smugglers along Pakistan's coast.
The justification here for selling the TOW missiles is that Pakistan's inventory of such missiles will soon be depleted by their specified shelf life.
The Pentagon insists that the Phalanx Close In Weapons Systems to be sold are defensive in nature and will guard Pakistani navy vessels against incoming missiles, aircraft and fast-moving surface craft.
General Pervez Musharraf, for whom the F-16s have become an issue of prestige, is expected to continue his efforts here to secure those fighter aircraft.