Jag Venugopal's Blog

May 3, 2010

Obama and India

Filed under: India — Jag @ 9:45 am

After over six decades of independence, Indians still derive their sense of value from the attention paid to them by America, and to a lesser extent, the UK and Europe. The nation might have progressed economically, politically, militarily and industrially, but it is found wanting in self-confidence. Indians like to compare themselves to the Chinese, yet they never realize that China does not look westwards for validation. Its strength and sense of national self-worth come from deep within.
Indians were elated at the nuclear favors bestowed on them by George W. and the neocons. In many an Indian mind, the nation had arrived on the world stage. The clinching of the nuclear agreement with the United States was seen as a source of great pride and satisfaction. Here was India, finally being recognized for its true worth by the United States. Platitudinous speeches were made, rehashing themes such as common values, a shared commitment to democracy and the free market, and the like.
Witness India’s consternation, therefore, when President Obama won the election, and he promptly set about returning the phone calls of the high and mighty nations, while India received the cold shoulder. India did not figure in Hillary Clinton’s initial itinerary, the same trip that took her to China at the start of the Obama administration. While Manmohan Singh’s state dinner at the White House was filled with pomp, pageantry and condescending statements (“It is fitting that India be recognized [with the first state dinner]” was the literal Obama line), he was supplicating before China shortly thereafter, hat in hand for its money.
While India’s own insecurities are painting a not-too-rosy picture of India’s relationship with Obamaland, the president himself has been rather cool to a relationship that was strongly nurtured by his predecessor (see, for example, this analysis: http://www.cfr.org/publication/21862/obamas_india_problem.html).
President Obama appears to have bought the Pakistan party line that the road to Afghanistan runs through Kashmir. In this line of thinking, it is reasoned that Pakistan is forced to nurture the Taliban as a strategic counterweight to India, and to keep the Kashmir issue alive. Pakistan has also successfully argued that it is not able to throw more resources at the Afghanistan problem because it has to defend its eastern borders. Solve the Kashmir problem, it seems to say to Obama, and we will give you full cooperation on Afghanistan. The appointment of Richard Holbrooke was originally envisioned to carry forward Obama’s Af-Pak-Kashmir strategy, envisioning American participation on solving the Kashmir issue. It is after strong Indian lobbying that Kashmir was taken off Holbrooke’s brief.
As a consequence of Obama’s buying into Pakistan’s assertions, great pressure is being brought to bear on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to make good with his Pakistani counterparts. Indian protestations that the perpetrators of the 26/11 massacre continue to go scot-free, and perhaps receive official protection in Pakistan, often fall on deaf American ears. India was not invited to recent summits on Afghanistan’s future, out of deference to Pakistan’s wishes, notwithstanding the fact that India has a significant stake in Afghanistan’s stability long after the last American soldier has returned.
Accepting that Obama is not as enamored of India as Bush was, there is absolutely no cause for India to fret. India’s self-confidence must be informed by its status as the second fastest growing large economy in the world, the significant global role Indian firms already playing, its acknowledged competence in exporting services, and consequently, its deepening pocketbooks. There is a better indicator of India’s worth than the occasional presidential condescention emanating out of Washington — recently Vladimir Putin of Russia flew (in for a day’s “working visit” minus pomp and pageantry), to ink deals for, among other things, fighter aircraft, an aircraft carrier, and no less than sixteen nuclear power plants. There is a saying in Hindi — “bada hai baap na bhaiyya sub se bada rupaiyya” that India might want to heed. Loosely translated, it reads “economic interests trump all else”. Clearly Vladimir Putin gets it, and Obama will, one day.
A second step India needs to take is to realize it is under no compulsions to fight America’s wars — whether they be fought with bullets as with Afghanistan or with words, as with Iran. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric notwithstanding, India needs to realize that a close friend is better than a distant paramour. My American readers might be aghast at such suggestions of closeness to Iran, but keep in mind that it is no different than America’s relationship with Pakistan. America will neither abandon nor hold India’s western neighbor accountable at India’s say-so. Ultimately relationships are driven by hard national interests, not idealistic dreams.
In the final analysis, India has to realize that nuclear weapons or other largesse bestowed by American Presidents don’t bring it power and prestige. I’d take an India anyday which was ignored by every single western politician, but was at peace with itself, had good roads, no shortages of water and power, and was able to give its citizens the hope of lifting themselves out of poverty. It appears that China is well on its way to achieving all this and more. Maybe that’s the source of their strength.


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