Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Obama calling India: Is anyone listening?

President Barack Obama will be coming to India later this week. He is the third US president to visit India in this decade, and the only one to have done it so early in his term. Yet, the visit has not triggered any great popular interest. In my article titled "In Bush's footsteps in India" in the Walls Street Journal Online, published on November 2, 2010, I outline the possible issues on the agenda, and the reason for the lack of expectation from this visit.

In a longer version of the article "Obama calls on India: Is anyone listening?" I contrast the different political contexts between President Obama's visit now, and that of his predecessor President Bush in 2006. I suggest that President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh shared a political vision for India, and that enabled the two leaders to stake so much political capital on issues such as the civilian nuclear deal that the two signed. In contrast, India does not seem to figure significantly in President's Obama's scheme of things, consequently, neither side is willing to risk precious political capital on any significant issue. Here is an excerpt from this article.

In politics timing and popular mood significantly impact policy and colour the perception. President Barak Obama is coming to India this week. But the visit by the leader of the only superpower in the world has not raised much expectation among Indians, this time. The only hope is that there would not be any new flashpoint, given the whole range of issues on which the perceptions between the two governments diverge today. But most importantly, what is missing is a mutually shared vision that looks convincing!

Let’s look at the two issues which could have transformed the dynamic between the two sides, and taken the relationship to a really new phase. For the first time, the Indian side has agreed to buy fighter aircrafts from the US, worth $11 billion. And for the first time in decades that the US had agreed to sell offensive military equipments to India. Yet, the Indian government is unable to bell the cat, unsure of the political cost.

Likewise, the US administration is keen that the India’s civil nuclear liability law meets the concerns of the private players. This would have taken the hard fought India-US nuclear deal to a culmination. But in the aftermath of the re-ignition of the controversy over the Bhopal gas leak in 1984, the Indian government is unsure whether to risk further political capital at this moment.

The contrast with the 2006, visit by George W Bush could not be starker. Bush and Manmohan Singh had staked huge political capital on the India-US nuclear deal. Bush was already becoming unpopular at home because of the direction of the war in Iraq, and there were high decibel protests in India too. Manmohan Singh risked the survival of his government to get the deal signed.

No US president had done so much to accommodate India. And No Indian prime minister had put so much faith in a single piece of Indo-US policy. To this day many Indian policy wonks wonder why and how such a thing came about. This was one rare instance when two political leaders chose to lead from the front, in the face of major opposition to the deal on both sides. But this spark of leadership was underscored by an unusual level of trust and confidence the two leaders seemed to enjoy.

Obama will address the joint session of Indian Parliament during this visit. In 2006, rising political temperature in India meant that Bush did not get the same honour. Bush spoke to a select audience under shadow of the old fort in Delhi. Most Indian’s who heard that speech felt convinced that George W Bush truly believed in India’s democracy. The shared values of democracy, tolerance and pluralism were not mere clich├ęs, but ideals that Bush and Manmohan Singh really believed in, and were convinced that the other truly shared that belief. In the context of emergence of international terrorism, the political significance of the democracy agenda had been greatly enhanced, and stood in sharp contrast.

Once that kind of relationship is established, almost all political obstacles can be overcome. Manmohan Singh and the Congress party leadership were completely vindicated when the parties that had opposed the new Indo-US camaraderie lost heavily in the 2009 general election. This is why the Indian prime minister had unusually warmly received Bush even after he had demitted office.

Obama had come to the world stage capturing the imagination of the people with his inspiring ‘Yes we can’ theme. Yet, he seems to lack the broad political vision that unites many people for a common purpose. Consequently, Obama, who won promising bipartisanship in domestic affairs, has now polarized the Americans as much as Bush or Bill Clinton. Internationally, Obama’s personal approval rating is still high, but over the past years his charisma has lost a lot of shine.

Obama’s lack of unifying vision could be on display during his maiden trip to India. To his credit, he is the first US leader to come to India so early in his term. If reelected in 2012, Obama may have an opportunity to come to India again, and perhaps he would discover his own vision by then. But this time, it is clear that in two years India and the US have drifted apart on a whole range of issues.

Obama has three key issues on his international agenda – Af-Pak, the Yuan-US dollar exchange rate, and climate change. In none of them the two sides share a common perspective. Either the US administration does not see any significant role for India, as in Af-Pak, or the Indian priorities are different as in climate change.

When Bill Clinton visited India in 2000, the reception was euphoric. A lot of Indians saw the first visit by an US president after a gap of 20 years, following the economic reforms of the 1990s, as an indication of India’s emergence on the global stage. But in the aftermath of India exploding nuclear devices in 1998, Clinton hardly had anything tangible to offer to India.

In 2006, Bush visited India amidst very polarized conditions, experiencing eulogies from one side of the political spectrum, and extreme political hostility from another. Indian democracy with its attendant debate, dissent and dirt were in full display.

Obama’s lack of broad vision for this trip has meant that he has failed to attract enthusiastic supporters, nor energized the traditional detractors of US policies. For the leader of the oldest and the second largest democracy in the world, the trip to the largest and vibrant democracy, is likely to turn in to a damp squib.
You may read the complete article on our website In Defence of Liberty.

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