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Obama’s America reaches out

November 9, 2010

It all started on a low key. If one were to believe the journalists travelling with President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, every second of president’s visit is planned, thought of and choreographed. If it really is as deliberate as that then perhaps the arrival of president Obama in India was planned that way. But right at the outset he struck the right note when he stayed at the Taj in Mumbai. His first stop was the memorial of the victims of Mumbai attacks where he signed the visitor’s books. All hell broke loose in the media when the president ‘failed’ to mention Pakistan as the source of terror. There was a section of the press that was out to run down president Obama’s visit. Americans were on a mission and nothing was going to stop them from getting what they had come for.

By the time the three day trip ended with a resounding speech by Obama to a joint session of Indian parliament, there was not a single critic left of the American president and his elaborate entourage. He had pointedly mentioned Pakistan in his speech as the source of terror and had endorsed India’s candidature to an expanded UNSC. What took the cake was when he said that the people of United States will stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with India at all times. President Obama ended his speech with ‘Jai Hind’ and ‘Long Live India-US Friendship’! This was the crescendo to a well crafted, well thought out and immaculately planned trip of the world’s most powerful man.

So, why had Obama come to India?  President Obama’s trip and his aims must be seen in the light of trips of earlier presidents including President Bill Clinton and George Bush. What was started by them has been taken forward by President Obama. In a way this was staying the course set by his predecessors. The most impressive part of the whole trip was as to how well the President and the First Lady went about their job and how they charmed India. This was a lesson in diplomacy for other world leaders. Whether it was the somber mood at the Taj, or Diwali celebrations with kids in Mumbai where both shook a leg or whether it was meeting Indian business leaders or talking to villagers through video conferencing, paying tribute to Mahatma Gandhi. They went about it with consummate ease, friendliness and aplomb. It did appear though that even the president was a bit overwhelmed after his speech at the parliament and it took him a few seconds and a sip of water before he regained his composure. The occasion had shaken him too as it had us all. The visit could not have gone better.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

The aims of the American delegation were manifold. That the US and India are coming closer is a given. The much touted aim of the American president that he was coming here for jobs obfuscated the wider ramifications of this visit. I think what defined the Obama visit was what the president himself said clearly – that he was here to take the Indo-US relations to the ‘next level’. Clearly he was alluding to President Bush’s Civilian Nuclear Deal and that this was not the end of the relations. Those who had been pointing out that there were no ‘big ticket items’ in the Obama visit and therefore it was more of a ceremonial visit than one with any tangible substance failed to look at the overall picture. This visit by the US president is a watershed of sorts and the ramifications of this visit will be felt for years to come.

President Obama may have been using the term ‘strategic partner’ in his speeches for India but for all practical purposes India has positioned herself as an ally of the west led by the United States. That is the crux of the Obama visit and that is a radical and decisive shift for India and a big move for the US. The president refrained to use the word ally for India because there are certain parameters that need to be met like agreeing on the interoperability clause between the two armed forces, before India can be called an ally of the US. These are minor details and should be fulfilled in due course as Indian air chief Naik also pointed out. This should also pave the way for purchase of American defense material for India.

Obama’s visit started with sanctions being slapped on Lashkar –e Taiba and Jaish e- Mohammad and some terrorists in Pakistan. That is where the president started. A panicky Pakistan insisted that president stop in Islamabad which I guess he did under the pretext of refueling the planes. I am not sure what transpired as the details of his stop were not divulged. Suffice to say that this visit has raised many an eyebrow.

Did Obama come to India for jobs? That would be looking at his visit too simplistically. Yes, business was on his agenda but then there was a lot more on his mind. A rising China has been a cause for concern for the west. Furthering ties between two democracies therefore is a natural progression. He did sign deals worth $ 10 billion but this trip has paved the way for at least ten times that in terms of business in the near term. India can be a source of business and collaboration between the two countries on a long term basis. India is the second largest arms buyer in the world. The US cannot let this opportunity slip by. India also plans to add at least ten nuclear power plants of 500 mega watts each in the next five years. The US must get its fair share. India is going to open up its economy further. Foreign direct investment in retail is bound to happen. Such conglomerates like Walmart will find footing in India. Both countries are also cooperating in thermal power, solar energy as well as higher education. Agriculture is another field where the US wants better access to Indian markets. Obama talked about another green revolution – I guess he was referring to genetically modified seeds that can increase crop yield. This is one contentious issue and I am not sure we need this in India.

While business was an important issue it was the strategic dimension of the Obama visit that was at the heart of Indo-US dialogue. The Americans are stuck in Afghanistan. They are not finding enough cooperation from Pakistan. They are in fact seething with rage at the duplicity of Islamabad. While they still call Pakistan a strategic ally, they are at their wits ends as to how to deal with a recalcitrant ‘partner in war against terror’. Their reaching out to Russia for help shows their sense of desperation. They are also worried about increasing influence of China in the region. The fact that Chinese troops have stationed themselves in Northern Areas has not gone un-noticed. They also see Beijing throwing its weight vis-à-vis Japan. A resurgent China with more than $2 trillion in reserves is a strategic threat. They want China to revalue the yuan. Closer ties with India come handy in check mating both China and Pakistan. India is a foil to China and a stick to beat Islamabad with. British prime minister on his visit to India had pointed at Pakistan as the source of terror. Many had criticized Mr. Cameron of getting carried away. The prime minister stuck to his guns. Now people should be able to understand as to why he said what he did. It is west’s policy to mince no words in telling Pakistan that they must get their act together. The war in Afghanistan may not end tomorrow and Obama may not be able to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2011 as per plan because of Republican majority in the House, but suffice to say that the US and its allies are finding it impossible to unlock Afghanistan. And they are losing patience. India is a foil to any Pakistan machinations in the region.

The mention of Burma by President Obama was an oblique reference to China’s expanding horizons and a reminder to India that we must be on the right side of ‘international opinion’ and he meant our position on Iran. He said that with an elevation in status come ‘responsibilities’ while mentioning India as a candidate for an expanded Security Council. I am not sure India will be able to tow western line on every issue. That will be a test of Indian fortitude and the resolve of Indian leadership. The Iran question bothers us too and we would do well to go along with international opinion.

The lifting of curbs on Indian space and nuclear research organizations shows that the US is serious about its commitments. The entities list has been done away with. It is also a given that India will become a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. But these developments point to a US-India partnership that can only be called an alliance. Obama’s visit is not the end of the story. Rather it is the beginning. It remains to be seen as to how well we use this opportunity to further our interests and to ensure that the lives of ordinary Indians gets better. There is a 400 million strong Indian middle class as of now. If we can double this in the next five years then maybe we can say that we made the best use of this opportunity that has come our way. Nothing is static. The world is a dynamic place. We must brace ourselves up and work with our friends and allies to usher in a better tomorrow.

Update 10.11.2010: Indian administration it seems has made it clear that we cannot pull out of Burma or close our fist vis-a-vis Iran. Both are important for us. We cannot give a free hand to China in Burma and cannot disengage Tehran for obvious reasons. The west understands our position. India however will be with the west were there any punitive actions taken against the rogue regimes. But to highlight this as a major departure and ‘standing up to US’ as the media has been doing, will be wrong. This is a reality that we all have to live with.

Suddenly, the US seems to have woken up to Burma. It could be that the US has finally realized the importance of Burma and how Yangon as a satellite of Beijing is a potential threat to west’s interests in the region. The Strait of Malacca being a strategic sea lane and access to Burma’s rich natural resources at China’s disposal being the other. The sheer presence of China down to the bay of Bengal straddling the South China Sea is a cause of concern to the west. It is good that west has finally realized the importance of Burma.

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