Washington: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pays what will likely be a farewell White House visit on Friday, seeking to lock in his legacy of a transformed diplomatic, military and economic compact with the US.
Singh, who turns 81 this month, is seen as unlikely to stand as the Congress Party’s candidate in next year’s elections, so his US visit, which also includes probable talks with Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif at the UN, has a valedictory feel.
The Indian leader, increasingly battered by corruption scandals, a slowing of India’s economic growth and a weakening rupee, will be keen to highlight a warming of relations with Washington as a highlight of his rule, as he nears the end of a second five-year term.
Singh and US President Barack Obama will also discuss glitches slowing the implementation of a civilian nuclear accord, plus increasing defense cooperation and economic issues.
“With the sinking economy in India and elections on the horizon, US-Indian relations represent a bright spot,” said Milan Vaishnav, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“I think the Prime Minister very much wants to cement his legacy. The shift towards America was the linchpin of his first term.”
Obama has in turn seen improving relations with New Delhi as a centerpiece of his strategy of shifting US economic and diplomatic resources to Asia, and views India’s vibrant democracy as a kindred national spirit to the US in a region where political freedoms can be fleeting.
Obama hosted Singh for the first state dinner of his presidency in 2009 and paid his own state visit to India a year later. US vice-president Joe Biden was in India in June and a long string of US cabinet-level officials have trekked to the country.
A senior US official told AFP that Singh’s tenure had seen relations between the world’s largest economy and the world’s most populous democracy transformed.
“The US has made a long-term strategic bet on the relationship with India and our strategic partnership with India is one that has global ramifications and spans pretty much every aspect of human endeavor.”
But despite the air of nostalgia and achievement cloaking Obama’s talks with Singh in the Oval Office, there is a feeling that still greater strides could have been made. Some Indian analysts have also seen Obama as less active on India than his predecessor George W. Bush, despite high expectations.
“It’s time we take this relationship to a new level for each of our own well-being,” said Biden in a speech to BSE.
“The question is how do we bridge the gap between this vision and the present reality?”
Singh’s visit is likely to remembered more for symbolism than substance, but there may be progress towards bridging the gaps that Biden lamented.
There are expectations of progress on a dispute over liablity payments that US nuclear firms would face in the event of a disaster involving equipment they install in Indian power stations.
Obama and Singh also meet at a high point of US-India defense cooperation. New Delhi has bought nearly $9 billion in US defense articles since 2008, officials say and both sides want to do more business.
India is meanwhile alarmed that visa reforms in a proposed US immigration Bill in Congress could disproportionately hurt punish its thriving information technology and software sectors.
India, seen by some in the US as a bulwark against future Chinese dominance of Asia, also has security concerns, fearing that the Taliban could make a comeback when most US troops leave Afghanistan next year.
Singh has given no indication he will run in India’s election, and has given his blessing to Rahul Gandhi, should he shed his apparent reluctance to take up the Congress Party banner.
The soft-spoken Singh and Obama have established what one senior official here described as a “genuine personal connection.”
There is uncertainty meanwhile on the tone of future personal relations between US and Indian leaders.
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), currently leading national polls in India, has chosen Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat as its candidate for the post of prime minister.
Modi has been denied a US visa for years because of claims that he did not intervene to stop a massacre of Muslims in 2002.
US officials however argue that the relationship between India and Washington is now so broad -- at multiple levels -- that progress is irreversible.
And analysts say that Washington’s diplomats, like those of other Western nations, have reached out to Modi and that if he was elected head of state, his visa ban would likely be revoked.