Saturday, November 20, 2010

President Obama gives India a dream visit

Published in The Sun, November 17th.'2010
M. Serajul Islam

If the Indians were to write the script for President Obama for his Indian visit, they could not have written a better one than what President Obama scripted and executed. While giving Indian support for a permanent seat in an expanded UN Security Council, the President suggested that with “increased power comes increased responsibility,” leaving no doubt that the USA considers India a responsible world power. In fact, in his speech in the Indian parliament, Obama said that India is not an emerging world power; it has already emerged as one.

The President entered India through Mumbai, the financial capital of India. In Mumbai, the President talked business that was on top of his agenda for the Indian trip for which a record 215 member trade team was in his entourage. He was eager to demonstrate to the Americans his focus on what was the major issue that led to the debacle in the mid-term elections for the Democrats. The massive defeat in which the Democrats lost control of the House, has also cast doubts on the President’s re-election bid. He thus pampered Indians to encourage them to sign business deals for not just increasing trade but also creating jobs in USA. He expressed surprise that India is not even in the list of 10 top trading partners of the USA.

Towards helping India achieve that position, deals worth over US$ 10 billion were signed by business executives travelling with him. For USA, such deals will have the potential to create 50,000 jobs. These deals were signed in areas of defence production; automobiles; electronics; aeronautics and transportation. Significantly for India, the US has agreed to lift controls for export of high technology items and technologies to India. This is a manifestation of the trust that US now has upon India.

In Mumbai, the President and the First lady stayed at Mumbai Taj, the scene of 24/11.The hotel was chosen deliberately to convey to the Indians USA’s support for fighting terror. However, Indian expectation that he would also convey a message to the Pakistanis whom they believe to be behind the 24/11 terrorist attacks in which 166 people were killed did not happen. That was perhaps the only issue that the President left undone in the Indians’ wish list but that was understandable given Pakistan’s strategic value to USA in the ongoing war on terror in the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the Joint Declaration, the two sides “called for Pakistan to bring to justice the perpetrators of November, 2008 Mumbai attacks”.

The President was received in New Delhi by the Indian Prime Minister in breach of protocol that permits the Minister in waiting to receive a visiting Head of State. In official talks between the President and the Prime Minister, there was not a chance that there would be even the remotest possibility of any differences on any issue emerging. None did. A gleaming Prime Minister told the press in the press briefing he held jointly with the President that the USA has also agreed to help India gain membership in multilateral export control regimes, including the powerful Nuclear Suppliers Group, a cartel that has held India to a pariah status for over 3 decades following its nuclear tests of 1974 till the US had intervened to help remove India from that status to sign the civil nuclear deal.


The President’s speech in the joint session of parliament was simply the sweetest music to the Indian ears. He said India and the US are “indispensible partners” and the US fervently supports India’s rise as a world power. He partially satisfied for failing to name Pakistan for 24/11 earlier in the trip by stating in the Indian parliament that terrorism linked to safe havens in Pakistan “is not acceptable.” He spoke admiringly about India as a great civilization and even mentioned thoughtfully that the all important number zero was invented in India. He spoke of Mahatma Gandhi and how his life influenced him. Clearly, the President made very serious efforts to make India happy.

The Joint Statement on the visit contained the usual clich├ęs that India and the US are the two largest democracies of the world. Nevertheless, there is a clear emphasis in the JS to conclude that the US now accepts India as an equal in strategic global partnership. In fact, in the JS, US-India has been described as “one of the defining and strategic partnerships of the 21st century.” The areas of cooperation are also significant because it covers important areas to underscore the depth of relationship.


President George Bush had come to India in 2006 with one issue; the civil nuclear deal. President Obama came with his domestic agenda and foreign affairs as priorities.. He has learnt a very valuable lesson on the relation between the economy and job creation and elections; that “it is the economy, stupid” that is of fundamental importance to voters. That explains the record trade team as well as the emphasis on the trade deals and job creation. One therefore cannot help but wonder whether the President would have praised India as he did had the Democrats not lost so badly that made India’s huge market of1.2billion people very attractive.

The foreign affairs agenda was to send a strong message to China to go slow in believing that it would be left with Asia and the Pacific as its spheres of influence. In that context, the President used his trip to tell China that USA and India would stand together to contest such a Chinese desire. The strong words used to support India’s Security Council candidature that is not a burning issue at UN Headquarters at New York at present was intentional for the same China factor.

The President travelled to India with 40 planes, including Air Force One, for reasons of security and logistics. In these, were 6 armoured vehicles including the President’s Cadillac that is fitted with mini communications centre to let the President remain in touch with Washington. This was by far the most extravagant arrangement ever for a US President allegedly costing US$ 200 million a day. The President’s men also lost no opportunity to remind that the 3 days that the President spent in India were the longest on a foreign trip. Clearly, the message of this new interest in India is for China. Nevertheless, for South Asia, it is also a message that India has made a quantum leap in world affairs, leaving the rest of South Asia behind. All said, the question that will linger in this region among those who know India better is whether India has the heart and the vision to live up to the importance that US has given it. Bangladesh for one would be looking expectantly for an answer when Dr. Manmohon Singh comes over to Dhaka for a visit early next year.

India’s current position, rising as it is towards becoming a world power, did not warrant the extravagant praises the President heaped upon it. For one, India’s contribution to the world GDP is still a low 2%. Inside the country; it has plenty of problems; one being the situation in Kashmir on the human rights issue that is hardly a happy one. India’s problems with its neighbours still linger where India has not shown the maturity that would make President Obama’s lavish praise fully comprehendible. One analyst called the President’s efforts high on “diplomatic flattery” while another reminded him that he spent the early part of his administration “kowtowing” China and neglecting India.


The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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