Transcript of Media Briefing by Official Spokesperson in Washington on Prime Minister’s Ongoing Visit
Official Spokesperson (Shri Syed Akbaruddin):Good evening friends and thank you very much for being here despite the lateness of the hour.
It has been a rather busy day for the Prime Ministertoday. He began early at 7:30 by hosting a large number of eminent Chief Executive Officers of largely Fortune 500 companies for a breakfast during which he did not have breakfast but all the others there did.
The approach that the Prime Ministerfollowed in that interaction was that he laid out his vision for economic development in India and then said that India is open-minded and we want change, and we want change that is not only one-sided. And he felt for that for change to be broad and acceptable it required inputs from a variety of sources. These include citizens of course but also industrialists and investors. And he said that this was part of his process to engage investors to invest in what he envisages are going to be major and dramatic developments in India’s economy during the next few years.
And this was also part of his attempt to on the one hand brainstorm and get ideas, and on the other hand to hard sell and promote his vision of India and inclusive development that he has. So, he laid out a whole host of things that have been undertaken during the last three to four months, things that he has repeated again today in his speech at the think tank, the Council for Foreign Relations. Basically how he had opened up investment in certain areas for example Railways 100 per cent, 49 per cent in defence, the Make in India programme which according to him has a distinctive feature that for the first time it holds the Indian bureaucracy to strict timelines. He said here decision-makers have to respond to requests for information or projects in specified timelines and this he felt was a defining feature which was different from what were the approaches previously.
Then he went around the table asking for responses and suggestions. The responses of most of those who were present were very enthusiastic and I will try and quote for you some of them so that you understand the sort of responses that there were.
For example, one of the CEOs said that India was a different place at 6 am the day after the election results. And so, he said, there is a great desire now to participate in India’s growth. There were others who said that they wanted accelerated engagement with India. There were some others who said that they had capacities for example where they can create wealth from waste in terms of energy, solid waste, etc.
Of course there were others who also did express their views and concerns on current policies and environment. For example, there were several who did mention about the need for a stable tax regime. AndPrime Minister did assure them that he himself was committed to a tax regime which is stable. And he had said that he repeatedly has clarified that it is his conviction that a stable tax regime is a necessary requirement for investment to flow.
There was, for example, another request about coal blocks, those who were interested in energy sector and they wanted to know Government’s view following the Supreme Court judgment etc. And Prime Minister’s view was that he wanted to convert the judgment of the Supreme Court on coal allocation into a major opportunity to move forward and clean up the past. He said that the Government was studying the judgment. He understood the concerns that some of those investors raised about such matters. He said they were also examining the old rules and also transparency aspects which were highlighted in the Supreme Court judgment.
As far as he was concerned his first priority was India’s energy requirements, and taking that into consideration they can expect quick decisions from the Government on this. He said that they are considering a series of options like auction or public-private partnerships or else public sector mining organisations working with others on this matter. So, there were a whole host of options that they were considering at this stage. That is about his discussions with CEOs. There were eleven CEOs at the breakfast table.
There were others who followed in terms of individuals who had investments in India or were planning investments. In the context of that discussion, Prime Minister did invite BlackRock Corporation and they have agreed to have a major investor conference in India early next year where they would work with the Government of India to bring in major investors from all across the globe. Based on their experience of similar conferences in the past they expected that the first effort of this sort would have investment opportunities of something in the vicinity of $ six billion if they work towards it in the next few months.
Following these interactions with business, Prime Minister had a very warm and cordial interaction with former President Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Prime Minister was joined by the External Affairs Minister during this interaction. The photos are available for you to see the warmth and affection between them. I will try and say some of the things that were raised in that and give you some quotes of what President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton mentioned.
For example, when President Clinton came, among the first things he said was, ‘I am thrilled, I am extremely excited since you were elected’. And then he said in his assessment, "no one had the knowledge or the votes before you to build a national economy and national infrastructure,” and therefore he was extremely excited about the prospects for India with the Prime Minister now having a majority as well as a track record which he had proved in his previous tenure.
The discussions with President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton were largely related to the initiatives of the Clinton Foundation in India. These covered a very broad spectrum including supply-chain management issues, diagnostic testing possibilities in India, solar energy. Prime Minister on his part raised the issue of sickle cell anaemia which he is very concerned has affects in certain parts of India in certain tribes. So, he felt that if the Clinton Foundation could work on this. He also mentioned his recent visit to Japan where he had discussed this matter with a leading Nobel Laureate but felt that the Clinton Foundation could also work on this matter.
Then there was a fairly long discussion about the Prime Minister’s efforts to clean up the Ganga. He explained what was the rationale and how he sees working on this, and requested the Clinton Foundation to consider working on small areas of this. President Clinton said he was extremely delighted on this, but he would like to go back and check where and in what specific area that the Clinton Foundation could work on this. He said, ‘I thank you for undertaking the job of cleaning the Ganga. It is a sacred project and a smart approach.’
Senator Clinton then added that this effort will send a message to others in Asia because she felt that there were in several parts of Asia over the years a neglect of major river basins and rivers. And she felt that this would perhaps set the tone for a renaissance in terms of addressing in Asia how people interact with water bodies. I think that broadly covers the interaction relating to President and Mrs. Clinton.
I will just run through some of the broad points of this evening’s interaction between President Obama and Prime Minister. This was again a dinner meeting. Again I would like to clarify that Prime Minister did not have anything except for warm water. But the conversation was extremely convivial and the discussion was largely a sort of a get-to-know-each-other approach. Therefore, Prime Minister was asked to outline his vision of what were the issues that he faced so far and how he is working on it. And remarkably some of those things that he mentioned seemed to have a resonance from President Obama because he said he had similar concerns when he came in first. They had many similarities that they exchanged. Both had used technology in their campaign very successfully. Both were relative outsiders to capital cities when they assumed power. Both had great interest in technology and they had difficulties or disappointments in terms of initial infrastructure when they started seeing what was available for governments.
For example, Prime Minister said that when he came from Gujarat he found that the technological infrastructure in Delhi was not what he was even used to in Gujarat. President Obama said something similar was his own experience and now he had gone about focusing on technology and e-governance initiatives which is something which Prime Minister himself is very keen about. So, there were these commonalities that both shared over conversations which were spread about 90 minutes.
Apart from that, Prime Minister in great detail laid out his hopes and aspirations for India in terms of again what I had outlined earlier of what is his development vision and how he feels that the United States could help out in that development vision.
They had agreed that they would take up more substantive issues tomorrow morning when they meet both in restricted format as well as in delegation-level talks. But in general the thinking was that there was a lot of goodwill for India and the United States in each other’s countries. People-to-people relations were extremely cordial. There was a feeling that they should try and focus on some big things that they can achieve in a finite time period during the next few years. There was a feeling that India-US relationship is amongst the most important relationships both felt in the world today. And therefore it was incumbent on both of them to work towards strengthening and deepening this relationship.
They have issued a Vision Statement which is now available to all of you. Tomorrow morning they will also be penning a joint editorial in a leading US newspaper. Of course after their discussions tomorrow morning there will be a Joint Statement which gives out the lay of the land in terms of the substantive discussions that they will have tomorrow.
I think I will stop at that because I have given you a sort of a broad understanding of the interactions today. If there are any questions I will respond to them. But please remember, I answer only one question from one person. So, choose your question carefully.
Question:Akbar, who else was there at this dinner apart from President Obama and the Prime Minister? Did the first lady join them?
Official Spokesperson: This was a sort of official delegation on one side and official delegation on the other side. So, there was Vice-President Biden, there was Secretary of State Kerry, there was National Security Advisor Susan Rice, there was USAID Chief Mr. Shah, and there were a few other senior officials from the US side. To my understanding, there were about nine of them.
On the Indian side there was External Affairs Minister Shrimati Sushma Swaraj, the National Security Advisor Mr. Doval, Ambassador Jaishankar, Foreign Secretary Mrs. Sujatha Singh, and other officials who deal with the US both from the Prime Minister’s Office as well as from the Ministry of External Affairs. There were nine members. With one Interpreter, it comes to ten.
Official Spokesperson: It is available on the website. So, you can read it.
Question:Akbar, while more substantive discussions will happen tomorrow, in terms of issues were some issues flagged by the Prime Minister or from the other side?
Official Spokesperson: There was general understanding that India and US need to work not only in terms of bilateral relations but elsewhere in the world. So, there was talk of possibilities of working together on Ebola for example in Africa; also Afghanistan. These were the two issues which were broadly flagged.
Question:Did they discuss the ISIS situation and cooperation on that at all?
Official Spokesperson: I mentioned to you they did not get into direct discussion of any of the substantive issues. Again let me clarify, this was a very cordial, convivial and comforting conversation where each was trying to understand the other’s perspective and they did not get into very detailed substantive discussions, which will follow tomorrow.
Question: Sir, I am just tempted to ask this.Aapne bataya mahaul achha tha donon ke beech baat-cheet mein.What we have heard from sources was, President Obama ne ‘kemchho’ kah kar ke svagat kiya Pradhan Mantri Shri Narendra Modi ka. Pradhan Mantri Narendra Modi ne bhi kya Gujarati mein javaab diya ‘maja ma chho’?
Official Spokesperson:Yeh aap joh sources keh rahein hain voh main ne hi tweet kiya tha.So, it is available. Aise koi chhupanevaali baat nahin hai kyon ki yeh Twitter par available hai.He responded by saying, ‘Thank you very much, Mr. President.’ Kyon ki unhon ne unki zabaan mein kaha tha aur Pradhan Mantri ne President Obama ko apni zaban mein.
Question:Isi se juda hua mera savaal hai. Aksar jab Prime Minister foreign visit par hote hain toh voh Gita ka gyan zarur dete hain. Aaj kya gift laaye thei Barak Obama ke liye?
Official Spokesperson:Kayi gifts laaye hain. Ek personal level par unhon ne ek special edition of Gita laaye hain, by Gandhiji.This is specially prepared. Mere paas uske photos hain agar aap mein se kisi ko chahiye toh we will circulate those photos.This is Gita by Gandhiji, Gandhiji’s interpretation of the Gita. This is of course a book which was published many years ago. But Prime Minister has specifically ordered a special reprint of that book and copies of these were specially done up in a certain getup with khaadi on its cover and certain other silk covering etc., and all in a box. These were prepared in Delhi and brought and were handed over to the President today.
Also, he has given certain other personal gifts. For example, tomorrow he is going to Martin Luther King’s Memorial and he is aware that President Obama has great regard for Reverend Martin Luther King and there is a Gandhi link between President Obama and Martin Luther King and Prime Minister. So, he had looked up and requested All India Radio to provide a recording of Reverend Martin Luther King’s speech which he gave in India in 1959 when he visited India.
In addition, there are some other memorabilia of Reverend Martin Luther King. There is a photograph of Reverend Martin Luther King at the Rajghat, which Prime Minister has framed and given to President Obama. In addition, there is a small clip which goes back to again 1959 where Photo Division was able to trace back a video clip of Reverend Martin Luther King’s visit to India. All these were prepared by the Prime Minister’s Office in advance and were handed over President Obama today. These were his personal gifts. I will tell you tomorrow about the official gifts because they will be given tomorrow.
Question:Akbar sahab, tasveerein kab dekhne ko milengi is private dinner ki. Kya tasveer nahin hai koi ki aap tweet kar dein?
Official Spokesperson:Dinner par toh tasveer bhi hain aap ko mil jayenge. Voh bechaare kaam kar rahe hain. Jaise kaam complete ho jaye, aapko mil jayegi. Bas kuchh hi kshan intazaar kariye. Break ke baad aa jayega.
Question:I was wondering, from your description it sounds like it was rather a formal setting, almost like a delegation style meeting where dinner happened to be served. When it was described before as a private dinner I thought maybe they would go for a walk together in the garden or something, have a chance to chat with each other and develop some personal equation. That did not happen it sounds like.
Official Spokesperson: There are different people who can develop personal equations differently. What you say is one way. The other way is, if they exchange anecdotes of how they have seen their first few months in office, their experiences, whether there are commonalities or not. I think that is also a way of understanding each other. I suppose you have a way of perceiving it, there are others who have other ways of perceiving it. But I can tell you there was no walk in the lawn in the White House if that is what you are looking for.
Question:You have listed all the gifts from Modi to Obama. What about Obama to Modi? And while they were exchanging gifts, what were they wearing?
Official Spokesperson: The same things they were wearing otherwise. Let me tell you one more thing. These gifts are not exchanged like – ‘Oh, let me take out now. Open it and see’. This was not the way it was happening. That is in Seema’s vocabulary perhaps more befitting of doing. But Prime Minister had paid special attention to President Obama’s own interests and he brought these gifts which were his personal gifts to President Obama. As Government officials there are other elements of gifts which we will inform you once they are exchanged tomorrow. I explained to you his personal gifts. I do not know if there are any personal gifts from President Obama. Once I know, I will share it with you. Otherwise, you are resident here, you can always ask the White House.
Question:Today I asked a question in the White House about this evening’s meeting because this was the first meeting between the two leaders - Prime Minister Modi and President Obama. The reaction from the White House Spokesman was that yes this is going to be the first meeting and it is an opportunity between the two leaders to get to know each other, and then they can move from thereon. My question is, after this meeting do they know each other now because they have so many similarities and also they can move tomorrow morning because they know each other? And finally, what was the reaction from President Obama as far as his gifts are concerned?
Official Spokesperson: Welcome to interacting with me. First of all, I never respond on behalf of another country, I respond on behalf of India because I am the Spokesman for the Government of India. If I try and paraphrase somebody else’s view, I may be wrong. So, when you go tomorrow to the White House please ask them what was President Obama’s reaction. I have given you the background of Prime Minister’s diligence in terms of trying to give a personal touch to this. On what President Obama reactions were, I think you should ask the American side because they will be able to express it better than me. As regards the first part, I have already told you. Before you told me this and revealed to me what the White House had told you, I also explained to you on similar lines what was the basis of that interaction.
Question:This is about the joint editorial tomorrow. Is it the first time that an American President and an Indian Prime Minister are writing a joint editorial; and is this the only exposure to the media that the two Heads of Government are going to have?
Official Spokesperson: My understanding is that they will be making press statements also which will be televised. There will be of course a limited number of people there but they will be making press statements. Yes, my understanding again is this is the first time an Indian leader and an American President have ventured on this path of a joint editorial.
Question:Sir, is it fair to call this an official dinner; and how would this be different from tomorrow’s delegation-level meeting?
Official Spokesperson: I do not know what you want to call it but I can describe it fairly as a very successful interaction between Prime Minister and President Obama. And since this was their first meeting, it certainly has started off on a note where both the sides are extremely happy with the outcomes. I told you they had decided to focus on specific issues tomorrow. Today was a free-flowing discussion on a variety of things. These were largely about themselves, about Prime Minister’s vision for India, and about certain areas where they could cooperate together in the world. These were the three elements in that.
Question:Do you have a list of the eleven CEOs who had breakfast with the Prime Minister?
Official Spokesperson: Yes, I have the list and that is available on the website if I am not mistaken.
Question:Could you tell us a little bit more about this joint editorial in terms of how the idea came to be, how the collaboration took place? They were meeting each other for the first time today. When was this written?
Official Spokesperson: Prime Minister wrote an editorial to the Wall Street Journal sometime ago. That was also a first of sorts. So, we are moving down many firsts. This thought came up while we were working on the editorial of the Prime Minister and Prime Minister immediately agreed to it that if this could work out it would be very good. And then they worked this through. Both Prime Minister and President Obama are great votaries of digital diplomacy. Therefore, it is very easy digitally to interact through electronic means. It was only finalised just this evening after Prime Minister’s arrival here and that is why we could not tell you in advance.
Question:You said that both the leaders are great advocates of digital diplomacy, and they have the largest number of followers on Twitter. But we have not seen both of them exchanging notes over Twitter.
Official Spokesperson: Just wait for it. Maybe tonight you may see something. Prime Minister usually tweets in the night. Please check.
Question:You were talking about the firsts. We think this may be the first time that President has hosted someone who is on a fast. So, I wondered if I could ask you what arrangement was at the table, did he have a plate in front of him, did the President eat, do you know what the President and other people who were eating or dining on at this dinner, and where was it?
Official Spokesperson: I must confess I did not notice what the room was. I will try and go back and look up my notes. I did not write down where it was. But that said, yes there was a plate served. As is normal protocol there is a plate kept. Prime Minister mentioned that he did not want to embarrass anybody and he requested that they continue with their normal practice of having the dinner while he would have his warm water. Yes, the President did have the normal food.
Question:Akbar, during this discussion did they review the state of Indo-US relations, what was wrong with it, and what needs to be done about it?
Official Spokesperson: Raj, I do not think from the interaction that they had they ever felt there was something wrong about it. They only felt that there were possibilities of deepening it, widening it, and strengthening it. But, they were both quite happy that they were moving from a strong base. Prime Minister and President Obama both felt that the relations were good but they need to move it to the next level, and that was the focus. I do not think ever the word wrong came about in this discussion.
Question:Why was the first lady not there at the dinner? She was supposed to be there in the first place.
Official Spokesperson: I do not know, you are saying all this. I am not aware of what you are saying ‘was supposed to be there’. Did you know this in advance?
Official Spokesperson: Well, the answer is here from somebody who knows the White House. I think you should address all these questions to the host. How would the guests know this?
Official Spokesperson: The answer is here.
Official Spokesperson: The answer is there again.
Question:You said there will be a press statement issued tomorrow. What time will that be and will the President and the Prime Minister be taking questions?
Official Spokesperson: ‘Press statements’ means press statements. That will be I think between 12:15 to 12:30.
Question:At the dinner table, was Prime Minister’s fasting and his habit matter of discussion by anybody? Did anybody from the host side ask about it?
Official Spokesperson: No, there was no discussion on that. There were many other important issues to discuss. So, this was not referred to at all. At the starting Prime Minister said, please do not feel embarrassed and please continue with your food. Then there was no further reference to that.
Question:This entire idea of fasting was taken for granted?
Official Spokesperson: In diplomatic practice it is normal to inform the host of the dietary preferences of the guest in advance. So, they were all aware of it and were prepared for it.
Question:I would like you to clarify the statement coming in from a senior BJP leader who says, ‘Happy that Modi committed to Obama that India would join the anti-ISIS war. Now Indo-US good relations will reach new unprecedented heights’. Do you confirm that there is such an agreement on an anti-ISIS front between India and the US?
Official Spokesperson: I think I mentioned that this issue was not discussed. It is likely to be discussed tomorrow morning, and the outcome will be available in the Joint Statement.
Question:I just wanted to get a sense whether the Madison Square Garden address of the PM came up over the informal part of getting to know each other, like you described it? Did the President say something?
Official Spokesperson: There was sort of a discussion of how long the Prime Minister was here, and the President did indicate that he had heard reports of the tremendous reception he had got at the Madison Square Garden.
Question:Were there any personal gifts from Mr. Modi to the family?
Official Spokesperson: Yes, there will be tomorrow. Everything is not once. Drip theory!
Thank you very much. We end this discussion now.
29 September 2014