BY: JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS
In a get-to-know-you visit fraught with awkward undertones, US President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to repair a strained relationship between their nations on Tuesday, emerging with expressions of goodwill but little in the way of concrete deals.
At an Oval Office meeting and during a stroll around the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Obama and Modi emphasised what they had in common as democratic leaders who overcame personal obstacles, campaigned as outsiders and embraced technology as a vital tool in politics and governing.
But their talks yielded no resolutions to thorny disputes over taxes, trade and civilian nuclear energy cooperation that have divided the United States and India in recent years. And there was little sign that human rights — a particularly sensitive topic for Modi, who has been accused of being complicit in deadly anti-Muslim riots — was a major item on the agenda.
“Human rights and the importance of inclusive governance were part of the discussions between the President and the Prime Minister,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, told reporters. But a statement issued jointly by the US and India after the talks made no mention of the issue.
The White House has grappled with the perceptions of a visit meant to spotlight the President’s high hopes for working with Modi while not lavishing the full measure of White House pageantry on a leader who until recently was barred from entering the US because of the allegations of human rights abuses more than a decade ago.
Still, in a striking gesture that Modi later said gave their relationship a “new dimension”, the President left the White House on Tuesday to give the Prime Minister a personal tour of the King Memorial. At a luncheon at the State Department not long after, Modi was effusive in thanking Obama “from the core of my heart” for leading him around the memorial. “He took out a lot of time,” Modi said. “We were together yesterday and today for quite some time, and today in fact he took me around, and with such ease and such humility.”
Modi had been denied a visa to visit the US because of accusations that he failed to stop religious violence in Gujarat in 2002, when he was chief minister there, which took the lives of more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. On Thursday, while Modi was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, the human rights group, American Justice Center, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan against him on behalf of two survivors of the rioting, seeking a judgment that his conduct was tantamount to genocide.
American officials have declined to comment on the case, except to say that sitting heads of government enjoy immunity from lawsuits in American courts. But human rights activists had pressed the Obama administration to get the President to raise the issue with Modi while he was in Washington.
If he did, it was in private.
“The purpose of these meetings was to improve US-India relations, so we weren’t expecting Obama to give him the cold shoulder, but we were hoping there would be a little bit of measure in the red-carpet treatment, so we were surprised by the Martin Luther King side visit,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “Delivering a message about human rights is always awkward.”
The two-day meeting did produce some agreements, including the renewal of a 10-year defence cooperation framework, a pact to cooperate on maritime security and several clean-energy initiatives. And as Obama intensifies the American campaign against the Sunni militant group known as the Islamic State, the two agreed to improve their counter-terrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing.
“We discussed the issues of trade, issues of making sure that maritime rules are observed, and we discussed how we can continue to work together on a whole host of issues from space exploration, scientific endeavor, to dealing with humanitarian crises like Ebola in West Africa,” Obama said after a two-hour meeting with Modi in the Oval Office.
Modi, for his part, said he wanted to resolve disputes that had stalled the implementation of the American-India civilian nuclear agreement and stymied progress on trade. He said the two leaders had a “candid discussion” on trade.
“We already have the foundation of a strong partnership,” Modi said. “We now have to revive the momentum and ensure that we get the best out of it for our people and for the world.”