India Awaits Obama

US-India Puzzle

President Barack Obama’s visit to India on November 6th comes under the best possible circumstances. There are few expectations of any consequence in India. The United States off-course, as it is increasingly wont to these days, has a big wish list. A large part of which is made up of military equipment it wishes India to buy. After for long being on the asking side, India is happy to be on the giving side. India will try its best to oblige. India has several reasons to be gratified to President Obama, for it is his administration that has effectively de-hyphenated India and Pakistan by not visiting Pakistan in the same trip. In other circumstances this should have had the same electrifying effect, as President George Bush’s one line put down of a complaining Pervez Musharaff with the words “You are not India!” But some how it has not, possibly reflecting how much the worlds has changed since the US economy’s near death experience and India’s continued economic buoyancy after the turn of the millennium.

Interestingly, the rise of India is matched by somewhat diminished expectations from the outside world. This newfound confidence coincides with a relatively muted clamoring for the baubles of global power like a permanent seat in an expanded UN Security Council. This also owes a good deal to the increasing realization within India that it needs to put its house in order to win the worlds respect. The untidy run up to the recently concluded Commonwealth Games and the accompanying exposures of huge malfeasances; the fact that in terms of critical human development indices such as infant mortality, malnutrition and poverty India is worse off than many African countries; and that a surging China has widened the gap with India have contributed to temper down India’s expectations for world status.

President Obama came to office with the somewhat premature and mistaken notion that the road to extrication from Afghanistan lay through Kashmir. He immediately appointed Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative for South Asia, only to limit him to Afghanistan and Pakistan after India noisily made known its reservations. Secretary Clinton’s first visit to Asia excluded India and this was also taken note off and interpreted as the USA’s reduced interest in India. Obama compounded these early missteps by suggesting a role for China in South Asia. India was, both, mortified and infuriated. With the United States’ optimism now waning about China playing a helpful and responsible role in the world by refusing to revalue the Yuan, by becoming more assertive in its dealings with its neighbors and in world forums, and by its self centered pursuit of its narrow interests in North Korea, Burma, Sudan and even Iran, India sees a reversal of US policies with a more balanced and nuanced approach towards it. This also now works in Obama’s favor.

What still works against him are his somewhat strident and shrill attacks on “loss of jobs to India” ignoring the somewhat obvious economic imperatives that force American corporations to entrust American workers with less work. The visiting President will hear about this and will also be reminded that India also contributes to the USA’s productivity with its brainpower, to the USA’s economy with its growing investments, and to the USA’s industry by placing orders for aircraft such as the C-17 Globemaster and P-8 Poseidon from Boeing, and C-130 Hercules from Lockheed. These and other orders save thousands of American jobs, given that equivalents can be bought elsewhere.

India has given as much as it can on the civilian nuclear deal but Obama will press for more. But the psychological moment is not right given the shocking realization in India in the wake of the Indian judicial system’s long delayed judgment on the Bhopal disaster that Indian lives and environment were valued so pitifully low while the US valued its coastline and animal life so high in the wake of the BP oil spill. Most Indians will not like to see another US corporation get off as cheaply as Union Carbide did. And with the French and Russians quite willing to accept the conditions of India’s existing law, the USA would be well advised not to dwell too much on this during the visit. India would on the other hand appreciate US ideas on how it could help India improve the quality of its higher education and public administration. Both subjects are high on India’s domestic agenda and its leadership is intently grappling with the issues involved.

But President Obama comes with advantages that the earlier visiting Presidents did not enjoy. Not since John Kennedy has an American President generated as much excitement and interest in India with his personal charisma and his great personal achievements. His oratory and soaring idealism, his optimism in the human spirit, and his transparent decency and goodness have caught the average Indian’s imagination. The President will like what he will see here. Indian public opinion has a way of bucking the American trend. George Bush ruled the rarefied heights of popularity here when he was down in the dumps there. And so will Obama. All this only suggests that India admires America and values its friendship more than it generally admits. The United States is still working on how to reciprocate. India expects that day will soon be at hand. India awaits Obama with this expectation.

Mohan Guruswamy is a Non-resident Senior Fellow of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council. This article is part of the Atlantic Council web forum "Obama’s First Tour of India."

Image: usa-india-puzzle.jpg