WASHINGTON: So the US President and Indian Prime Minister bonded - over tales of frustration of getting the job done in an unfamiliar city where bureaucratic infrastructure cannot live up to their high standards.
India’s newly elected leader - who had been on the visa ban list of the US for seven years - was welcomed by its President Barack Obama at the South Gate of the White House at 7 pm on a cool autumn Monday evening. The duo shook hands vigorously, before Obama escorted Modi to the Blue Room on the state floor.
Of course, as expected, it was just a dinner in name for Modi. On a strict religious fast, he sipped only warm water. His fellow diners had more choice - a 2010 Shafer Chardonnay ‘Red Shoulder’ and courses of compressed avocados, crisped halibut and mango creme brulee.
Initially, Modi alluded to his fast by saying that he did not want to embarrass anyone. “He hoped that they would continue with their normal practice and everyone else did eat,” said External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin, who was also one of the invitees on the table. It wasn’t mentioned again in the 90-minute dinner.
In line with protocol, a plate, embossed with the official White House emblem was also placed in front of PM. But, it remained empty.
Unlike previous expectations, it wasn’t a private dinner - but rather a working repast for the two leaderships to familiarise themselves.
There were nine guests from each side, sitting across the long dining table. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in a maroon saree, white pearls and black coat sat on Modi’s right, along with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh, Indian Ambassador to US S Jaishankar and senior officials from the PMO and MEA.
From the US side, besides the Vice-President, there was the Secretary of State, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, USAID chief Raj Shah, state department’s Nisha Biswal, US Digital Service Administrator Mikey Dickerson, Commerce’s Vinai Thummalapally and Phil Reed.
“It was a sort of getting to know each other discussion,” said Akbaruddin. Obama seemed to have tried to draw out the PM by asking him about this experience in the first few months of taking office.
“Remarkably, some of the things that he mentioned seemed to have a resonance from President Obama who said that he had similar concerns when he came in first,” he said.
Modi’s narration about how he got a rude awakening on coming to Delhi and finding the machinery much more slower than his state and frustrating his - seemed to have touched a chord in Obama.
“The PM said that when came from Gujarat, he found that the technological infrastructure in Delhi was not what he even used to in Gujarat,” he said.
This seemed to have caused Obama to nod his head in assent, who also shared his “disappointment in terms of initial infrastructure in what was available for government”. “President Obama said his experience was something similar, and how he had gone around focusing on technology and e-governance initiative which the PM was himself very keen about,” he said.
There were other commonalities between the two - an outsider to their capital cities on assuming power and both leveraged technology successfully for their election campaigns.
The conversation was basically to establish a rapport, who had so far talked on the phone when Obama congratulated Modi on the election day.
In fact, Obama mentioned that he had heard about PM’s blockbuster Madison Square Ground event - which must have brought a smile to PM’s face. “They did not get into substantive issues. These were very cordial and comforting conversation where each was trying to understand the other’s perspective,” said Akbaruddin.
At the same time, both agreed on a broad picture - that there had to be big ticket item “to be achieved in a finite period of next few years” which will increase the focus.
In general terms, both also discussed ways to take India-US ties beyond the bilateral realm. “Ebola crisis and Afghanistan, these were the two areas that were broadly flagged,” said the senior Indian diplomat.
Obama and Modi felt that India and the US should focus on “some big thing” to achieve in a finite time period
The two leaders found a common ground - on use of technology during polls, outsider status in their capital cities and vexation with lack of bureaucratic machinery to implement vision
Emphasis on cooperation in global issues — Afghanistan and Ebola — flagged by the two countries