Dr. Manmohan Singh’s American month began with a warm lunch for George Bush in Delhi and will end with a more constrained dinner with Barack Obama in Washington.

  Always happy to oblige on cosmetics, the White House has awarded this meeting the status of a state visit, although in India’s parliamentary system the Prime Minister is not head of state.  But there is a hard question behind the glitter.  Dr. Singh signed a landmark nuclear deal with Bush last year – was that a mere sentimental knot with a “best friend,” or was it a substantive document capable of survival beyond the predilections of a President?

The value of the nuclear deal, which was about much more than peaceful nuclear energy, lies in its tactile strength, but Delhi and Washington have begun stretching in different ways.  Dr. Singh expected it to be the launchpad of strategic and economic privileges.  Condoleezza Rice did, a trifle gratuitously, promise to make India a superpower.  But that was so last year.

This year, the broad Democratic view is that Bush surrendered too much on core issues like proliferation for far too little, and this is payback time for India.  This is compounded in Delhi by the apprehension that India does not occupy primary space on the specific Obama agenda.  The cynical interpretation is that India has been allotted 1.5 billion words a year and Pakistan 1.5 billion dollars.

Behind the smiles demanded by “teleview” international relations, Singh and Obama will find their flexibility hedged by compulsions.  Obama inherited an economic catastrophe and a military crisis.  He took advantage of both to win his election, but his victory was someone else’s punishment.  Answers are more difficult to get than votes.

It is evident from the time invested during ten months in office that Obama’s axis of interest is a direct line between Beijing and Islamabad.  He has been forced into a tightrope walk between his banker and his security subcontractor.  It was entirely appropriate, therefore, that while Obama was walking the talk on the Great Wall, his national security adviser General James L. Jones dropped in to scold Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari.  The Pakistani armed forces, it seems, are so busy eliminating the extremist threat to Islamabad that they seem to have forgotten that American money is meant to solve America’s problems. Jones carried a letter asking Zardari to broaden the war to those elements of the Afghan Taliban who were using Pakistan territory as sanctuary.

America is discovering what India has known for a while: all terrorists not equal.  Those who serve Islamabad’s interests are kept in play through screens.  It is common knowledge that Obama is increasing troop levels reluctantly and wants to leave the Afghan battlefield as soon as possible.  Hillary Clinton was candid recently on ABC’s This Week program: “We are not interested in staying in Afghanistan.  We have no long-term stake there.  We want that to be made very clear.”

Pakistan, conversely, does have a long-term stake in Kabul, and America’s current foe, the Afghan Taliban, was its most useful regional ally until 9/11.  It can hardly be lost on either Dr. Singh or Obama that they will be meeting exactly one year after India’s 9/11, when Pakistan-based terrorists launched an audacious and bloody attack on Mumbai.  Doubtless there will be some variation of the two-minute silence in their talks, but tokenism has long passed its sell-by date on the subcontinent.  When American officials like Ambassador Timothy Roemer in Delhi urge Islamabad to get serious about the masterminds in Lahore, it sounds worse than tokenism.  America, which launched two wars in search of the perpetrators of 9/11, displays fleeting concern for accountability when India demands some from Pakistan.

Pakistan treats terrorists who attack India as “freedom fighters.”  Islamabad may need the Afghan Taliban for strategic reasons; it supports anti-Indian terrorists for ideological reasons.  China has a vested interest in the Kashmir dispute, since its own border disputes with India extend across the Himalayas.  China has even tried to block efforts in the sanctions committee of the United Nations Security Council to name known terrorist organizations like Jamaat ud Dawa and Jaish e Muhammad.

Obama seems to have little interest in the complex regional conflicts in the nations south and north of the Himalayas, apart from what is necessary to pursue the American agenda as he has written it.  You do not have to be psychic to read Obama’s mind: he needs China on-side to prevent a collapse of the dollar, and his ideal endgame in AfPak would be to outsource the fighting completely to Pakistan so that American soldiers could return home.  He was happy to project China as a benevolent partner in the effort to resolve disputes in South Asia, including Kashmir.  Islamabad has not heard any music above the gunfire recently, so this particular aria must have sounded particularly mellifluous.

But Obama’s next Asian engagement is with the Prime Minister of India.  Delhi has already asked America and China to stay out of the Kashmir dispute.

For the last decade, since Atal Behari Vajpayee became Prime Minister, each bilateral between India and America has been preceded by high expectations and succeeded by an expanding comfort zone.  Dr. Singh has invested hugely in the America relationship.  He goes to Washington, however, engulfed in uncertainty.  There will be pomp and circumstance enough to please television crews.  The hard news could tell a more muted story.

M.J. Akbar is a journalist, scholar and author of numerous books.  Most recently, he launched COVERT, a fortnightly political magazine.  This piece is part of the Passage to America forum on the significance of  the Indian Prime Minister Singh’s visit to the U.S.