India's elusive date with Bush

Posted in India | 09-Sep-05 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava| Source: Asia Times

US President George W. Bush(R) shakes hands with Indian PM Manmohan Singh after a joint press conference at the White House, July 2005.

The author is WSN Editor India

NEW DELHI - It is certain President George W Bush will be in India within the next few months, most likely before the end of February, but fixing a date is turning out to be a very ticklish issue.

The Bush visit will follow the landmark meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who traveled to Washington in July. Manmohan's sojourn effectively sealed Washington's strategic turn toward building India as an economic partner and a counterpoise to China in the region. Addressing a joint news conference with Bush in Washington, Manmohan said, "The US president has accepted my invitation to visit India at the earliest."

Bush also promised an appointment with India during the buildup to his reelection last year. This was as much to remove the grouse of the 2 million Indian-Americans who complained that Bush had not visited India during his first term.

There is also the comparison with former president Bill Clinton, who has romanced the people, the women, food and culture of India. He visited once as president in March 2000 and several times subsequently, for causes related to AIDS, tsunami relief and projects funded by Indian-Americans. Clinton is on his sixth visit this week.

Hillary Clinton has built on her husband's good work and also visited India as a senator, also as first lady. India has laid out the red carpet to her in anticipation of 2008 when Hillary is likely to emerge as one of the frontrunners as a Democratic candidate for president. Manmohan and the all-powerful Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi marked out time for Hillary when she visited earlier this year.

The real countdown to the Bush visit began in May when the president interacted informally with Manmohan at a lunch hosted at the Kremlin by Russian President Vladimir Putin for world leaders attending World War II Victory Day celebrations. Bush said the Manmohan visit to the US later in the year (July) would lead to "great, great things" in bilateral ties. According to reports, for the first time First Lady Laura Bush broached the subject with Manmohan of visiting Delhi, and Bush jumped at the idea by suggesting that he would love to be in India after the Christmas holidays.

According to reports, Bush turned to Laura and told her that Manmohan headed a good democracy in a country that had a very large Muslim population, but no al-Qaeda, and so she should not have any fears about traveling to India.

This further set the officials in both the countries working overtime on the dates. Later this month Manmohan travels to the US for the United Nations General Assembly meeting. Thus, officials have been looking at a wide swathe of winter months from November to February. It is during this period that most foreign dignitaries choose to visit India. It provides the right mix of indoor and outdoor engagements, which Bush will likely have in plenty, without sweating too much. However, Bush's suggestion of a post-Christmas visit limited the options to January-February, but raised another difficult question.

January is the month that Republic Day is celebrated in India. The 26th of the month is marked by a ceremonial parade with the president of India taking the salute. It is also an occasion when India showcases its military might, with the latest armory on display. With India embarking on a defense acquisition exercise there will be plenty to show next year. According to a recent US Congressional study, in the past four years China bought more weapons than any other country in the developing world, with $10.4 billion being spent, followed by India with $7.9 billion. India, however, surpassed China in 2004. The past eight year figures also show that India bought more than China.

Given the official wrangling over dates, Indian officials are wary of suggesting January. To invite Bush in this month could raise the piquant situation of an overlap with the Republican Day parade, where a chief guest from a friendly country is invited. The chief guest accompanies the president in the cavalcade to the podium. Usually India has chosen guests who do not raise any controversy. Thus, the president of Mauritius, a tiny Indian Ocean island, is a popular choice. The king of Bhutan has been invited twice. In 2003, when India celebrated its 50th anniversary of becoming a sovereign republic, then-Iranian president Mohammad Khatami was invited, which did not go down too well with several Western countries, including the US.

Bush as chief guest raises difficult questions. This, despite the new-found friendship with the US, is not a very wise thing to do for the Indian government. Given the colonial and anti-imperialist hangover in the country, the leader of the most powerful country overseeing India's military might on display is not very politic.

Further, the Congress Party to which Manmohan belongs has to contend with key ally, the noisy left parties, on whose support the government survives. The left parties have been espousing a virulent anti-US stance. They have emphasized that India and the US do not share common perspectives on the issues of political and economic freedom, fighting terrorism, weapons of mass destruction (Iraq as a case) and collaboration in operations (without UN mandate) in third countries. The left criticism, as in the case of economic reforms, is rooted more in ideology rather than the pragmatic approach of Indian policymakers.

Although a White House spokesman has declined to confirm Bush's proposed visit, newspaper reports in India have plugged the first week of February as the most likely and safest (from the official point of view) date that Bush will be in India. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said last week that he could not confirm that Bush would visit India early next year, though many believe that a simultaneous announcement will be made soon after the administration comes to terms with the fiasco over hurricane Katrina.

Another question being asked is whether Bush will be able to match the charm of Clinton, whose status in the country is no less than that of a film star, with hysterical girls vying for his attention, some even breaking the strict security cordon to reach up close. In memory of Clinton's past visits, a kebab platter is named after him and a table always reserved in his name at a famous five-star hotel to commemorate a repast.

No one really knows how deep the Bush-India connection is. There has been a suggestion that given his love for exercise, whether jogging or biking, arrangements should be made for a morning at the vast expanse of the Nehru Park in the diplomatic area. Perhaps a Bush jogging trail could be named.

Though reams have been written about Clinton's love for Indian tandoori food, the Taj Mahal and the culture of Rajasthan, there is no doubt that the real fillip to India-US relations has come during Bush's tenure, whether in the form of a nuclear pact, defense deals or business and process outsourcing. Bush's pro-outsourcing and pro-business stance goes down well with India Inc.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.