WASHINGTON: They couldn’t really break bread together, but they bonded over political banter and, unlikely as it seems, geek talk. President Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi met for the first time ever on Monday evening, but so much preparation had gone into the diplomatic date that a US-India dalliance at the end of it was a foregone conclusion.
After nearly two hours of informal talks, the two sides issued an expansive vision statement chirpily titled “Chalein Saath Saath” (Forward Together We Go), and in a surprise move, the leaders essayed a joint op-ed in the Washington Post pledging a partnership that is “robust, reliable and enduring”.
The op-ed largely echoed the vision statement, which, while short of announcing a formal US-India alliance, is redolent of a transcendental partnership aimed at elevating the relationship to an even higher plane than it enjoys now. At its core, the statement presages a deep and abiding security partnership.
“Our strategic partnership is a joint endeavor for prosperity and peace. Through intense consultations, joint exercises, and shared technology, our security cooperation will make the region and the world safe and secure.
Together, we will combat terrorist threats and keep our homelands and citizens safe from attacks, while we respond expeditiously to humanitarian disasters and crises,” it said.
The statement also suggested upcoming agreements, overt or covert, while supporting “an open and inclusive rules-based global order, in which India assumes greater multilateral responsibility, including in a reformed United Nations security council.”
“At the United Nations and beyond, our close coordination will lead to a more secure and just world,” it said in what would constitute a massive reversal of past form in which the two countries have voted against or been pitted against each other more than 90 per cent of the time.
Deals on climate change and energy were also hinted at.
“Climate change threatens both our countries, and we will join together to mitigate its impact and adapt to our changing environment. We will address the consequences of unchecked pollution through cooperation by our governments, science and academic communities. We will partner to ensure that both countries have affordable, clean, reliable, and diverse sources of energy, including through our efforts to bring American-origin nuclear power technologies to India,” the statement, reflecting long-term vision more than immediate intent, said.
The op-ed in WaPo expanded on some of the more immediate areas of partnership, including US support for a “Clean India” campaign, where the two sides will leverage private and civil society innovation, expertise and technology to improve sanitation and hygiene throughout India. They will also expand on their recent tradition of working together to empower women, build capacity and improve food security in Afghanistan and Africa.
“The currents of kinship and commerce, scholarship and science tie our countries together. They allow us to rise above differences by maintaining the long-term perspective. Every day, in myriad ways, our cooperation fortifies a relationship that matches the innumerable ties between our peoples, who have produced works of art and music, invented cutting-edge technology, and responded to crises across the globe,” the vision statement said in one of its more lyrical passages.
The op-ed also referred to the separate but almost simultaneous Mars probes sent out by the two countries to infer a transcendental relationship. “The exploration of space will continue to fire our imaginations and challenge us to raise our ambitions. That we both have satellites orbiting Mars tells its own story. The promise of a better tomorrow is not solely for Indians and Americans: It also beckons us to move forward together for a better world. This is the central premise of our defining partnership for the 21st century,” it said.
Such an expansive vision was hardly on the day’s menu that began with the “private dinner” going off-script. President Obama, doubtless tutored by his Gujarati-origin assistant secretary of state Nisha Desai Biswal, greeted Modi by inquiring “Kem Cho, Mr Prime Minister?” (in Gujarati, How are you?) as he received him at the White House. Modi responded in English.
By then, it had been agreed that Michelle Obama, who was out campaigning in Milwaukee would not join the party, allowing the dinner to become a quasi-official event, with nine officials on each side joining the leaders. For form’s sake, Modi encouraged his hosts and aides to not be embarrassed to eat their dinner while he sipped warm water on account of his Navratri fast.
As their senior aides and officials knocked back a meal of crisped halibut and saffron basmati rice accompanied by a California wine, Obama and Modi exchanged notes about their political career, according to an official who briefed the media about the meeting. They spoke of their respective election campaigns, of coming to their respective capitals as outliers, and the problems they encountered in the lack of technological savvy around them, before gravitating to more serious topics such as Ebola, Afghanistan and other serious bilateral stuff that both sides want to work together on.
“It was a free-flowing discussion. There was a feeling on both sides of the need to focus on some big things to achieve in a finite period over next few years,” MEA spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said of the meeting in the White House Blue Room.
On the sidelines of the meal, officials passed on Prime Minister Modi’s gifts for President Obama: A personalized and customized special edition of Gandhiji’s interpretation of Gita, brocaded in khadi and silk, and various memorabilia associated with the visit of Martin Luther King to India in 1959, including audio and video clips.
The two leaders are meeting again on Tuesday morning for formal talks after Modi did a round of the monuments to the great men both he and Obama admire: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.