What a difference four years can make! When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in the US capital in 2009, he had received a rock star reception. As the first head of state to be invited for a White House dinner by President Obama, the visit was a real Washington event. The who’s who of Indian Americans flew into the city for the dinner and the three days he spent in this city were a celebration of India-US ties, whose heady days—the signing of the civil nuclear deal— were still in the rearview mirror.
Compared to that visit, Singh’s trip to Washington last week was a low-key affair that failed to generate any sort of enthusiasm and failed to put back on track the bilateral relations, which, at the moment, seem to have veered off course a little.
With Syria, Iran and an impending government shutdown dominating the headlines, it also barely registered on the US media radar. In the Indian media, Rahul Gandhi’s ill-timed comments against a cabinet decision made sure that more ink, bytes and airtime were spent on discussing the dynamic between him and Singh.
Granted this was not a state visit, which is usually accompanied by pomp and pageantry.
The only major official events on schedule were a one-hour meeting with the president, followed by brief press availability and a working lunch.
Personally, the two leaders reportedly got along very well when they met on Friday. But not much else seems to have come out of this visit. Despite their joint statement proclaiming that the partnership “is stronger today than at any point in their 67-year history history,” there are way too many issues where wide chasms exist on the positions of the two countries. Implementation on nuclear deal, intellectual property rights, protectionism and the US immigration bill, to name a few.
Leading up to the visit, critics of India have been lobbying Congress and the administration to act against what they termed “the harmful trade practices by India.” The day Singh arrived, the National Association of Manufacturers, a trade group representing small and large manufacturers, and 17 other business groups wrote a letter to Obama, urging the president to take up with the prime minister India’s “discriminatory trade barriers, which are harming US manufacturers.”
The powerful trade group had also launched a campaign ahead of the visit, ads in newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, as well at the Dulles International Airport. (Singh’s plane touched down at the Andrews Air Force Base, not Dulles.)
The two sides also disagree over the implementation of the civil nuclear deal, which was signed in 2008. American companies expected a windfall from the deal, but that hasn’t materialised so far. India, on the other hand, has been angered by the “Gang of Eight” immigration reform, alleging that it discriminates Indian companies and information technology workers, specifically the highly skilled workers coming on H-1B and L-1 work visas.
Differences on all these areas made Singh’s job of selling India in Washington a more difficult job. One did not expect the prime minister to magically solve all the problems in the India-US relations in less than a day, given the fact that some of these problems have a long history.
What was expected of the visit was to provide a spark to the relations and address the concerns of the Americans about India and dispel the notion of a standstill in the relationship.
One is doubtful whether Singh was able to do that during the 24 hours he spent in Washington. Judging from the reactions, at least, in the short run, the visit has not; whether it will, in the long run, only time will tell.