Obama, Singh Meet at Nuclear Summit

Though the meeting between Indian PM Manmohan Singh and United States President Barack Obama at the 47-nation Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on this week didn't break any fresh ground, it has helped in subtle ways to contain the drift in the Washington-New Delhi relationship.

Despite Singh's successful visit to America last November at Obama's invitation, there have been growing strains between New Delhi and Washington on a number of issues. The US's continued military and financial support for Pakistan – much of which is used as a bulwark against India despite US intentions that it be used to clear up resistance in the border areas – is a sore point for Delhi. For its part, Washington has expressed growing impatience with the Indian delay in putting in place enabling legislation for the Indo-US civil nuclear deal signed in 2008. American nuclear suppliers are rubbing their hands waiting to bid for lucrative contracts.

Singh brought to the table his apprehensions about what India regards as the misuse of US military supplies to Pakistan, prompting Obama to assure him that he will keep in mind India's concerns in relations with Pakistan. Obama also acknowledged India's unease about the activities of Lashkar-e-Taiba and other terror groups based in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and told the India premier that Washington was"working to resolve these issues."

Singh emphasized the need to force Pakistan to take convincing action against those responsible for the terrorist attacks on luxury hotels and the main train station in Mumbai on November 26, 2008, which left 170 people dead. In the eyes of most observers, Pakistan has delayed taking action against those who planned the attacks.

"Unfortunately, there is no will on Pakistan's part to punish those responsible for the terrorist attacks in Mumbai," Singh said. This was disappointing, he said, considering that the way terrorism is tackled in South Asia can be a key determinant in the region's future.

Singh's words appear to have clicked with Obama, who asked Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani"to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai terrorist strike to justice" and said that the action would be"a positive step towards improving Indo-Pak ties."

"I am against terrorism and always of the opinion that those who are the culprits should be brought to justice," Gilani said. Critics find that questionable. It has been established beyond doubt that most terror attacks against India – including the Mumbai massacre emanated from Pakistani soil.

The US media on the eve of the nuclear summit published reports highlighting the nexus between Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence bureau, or ISI, and terrorism. The media reports embarrassed Pakistan as its state head was attending Obama's summit.

To reassure India further, Obama said he fully supports New Delhi's request for access to David Coleman Headley, the Pakistani who took an American name and who has been accused of providing intelligence to the terrorist commandos who invaded Mumbai in the November 2008 attacks. The President said he was working"through legal systems" on the matter. India read that as a positive development as it is expected to provide information about the extent of the involvement of serving officers in the Pakistani military and intelligence in anti-India terrorist activities.

The Singh-Obama discussion also touched on the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill now slowly passing through India's parliament. The bill is vital to the implementation of the Indo-US civil nuclear deal which, which nearly cost Singh his job due to stiff opposition from the Left parties. India has been acutely sensitive to damage to the environment and health since the Bhopal disaster of 1984, when a pesticide plant operated by the US-based Union Carbide sprang a leak that is estimated to have taken the lives of at least 3,787 deaths.Some estimates are that 8,000 died within the first weeks and that another 8,000 have since died from gas-related diseases. Those figures are disputed by other authorities.

The bill seeks to limit the liability of nuclear power plant operators at US$10 million in case of an accident. The legislation has been hanging fire as its opponents feel Singh has agreed to concede too much to the US companies in terms of compensation. Obama said he hoped that the proposed legislation would be"concluded expeditiously" by the Indian Parliament. The Indian government on its part agreed to amend the bill suitably and table it soon.

Obama also endorsed India's role in Afghanistan during his meeting with Singh. This came as a big relief to Delhi which had always believed that the US wanted it to shrink its presence in the region because of pressure from Pakistan. However, at the same time, New Delhi also recognizes Washington's critical dependence on the Pakistani Army to achieve its strategic goals in Afghanistan. It knows that for uprooting American enemies, Pakistan will be richly rewarded by the US administration.

However, despite this regional dynamic, New Delhi came away from the summit strongly believing that Obama wants vigorous engagement with India, and that amity with Pakistan can't be at the cost of its relations with India. On its part, India is also more accepting of the fact that it will have to tackle the diplomatic challenges that lie in dealing with Pakistan-Afghanistan on its own.

In fact while triangulating its relations with Islamabad and Delhi, India knows that the US can only be that accommodative of its concerns. India will thus do well to act independently to alter the regional environment. In other words, Delhi will have to shape the contours of its Afghan policy, not by watching the signals emanating from the White House, but on its own evaluation of the situation.

While Washington cannot make Indian concerns its overriding priority in the region, the Obama-Singh engagement in Washington has gone some way in helping New Delhi showcase its geopolitical concerns at a global platform and see that they are well-accommodated.

Without the attendant brouhaha of a high-profile summit, the Indo-US Washington exchange has helped the two acknowledge and recognize each other's concerns. That realization should help the two further recalibrate their policies in south Asia. That alone should help the Indo-US bilateral relationship get back into a more positive groove.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based journalist contactable at neetalal at hotmail dot com