Jag Venugopal's Blog

October 15, 2010

What will Obama’s India visit achieve?

Filed under: India — Jag @ 12:06 am

President Barack Obama will visit India in November. Doubtless, platitudes will be issued about the countries’ shared democracy, commitment to eradicating terrorism, and the like. A few cultural agreements of little significance will also be signed. Obama will visit a few old forts and the Golden Temple in Amritsar, proclaiming the two countries’ shared commitment to pluralism and diversity.  He will visit Gandhi’s grave, which is de rigueur for any visiting head of state, and tell his hosts something to the effect that they are an emerging power. He will attempt to explain away the recent increase in H1B visa fees, squarely aimed at Indian outsourcers and his recent use of the word “Bangalore” to be synonymous with “Bogeyman”.

But beyond these, what will Manmohan and Obama talk about? Sure, India needs all manner of stuff, ranging from airplanes to uranium. India is unlikely to rush headlong into an American embrace to procure these items, because there are many sellers and India would like to get the best price. Similarly, Obama is not going to grant India its fervent desire to be a permanent member of the security council. As Sumit Ganguly asks in the Newsweek, what does India have to offer in return? India will again complain loudly about Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism, little realizing that the US has its own problems with Pakistan to deal with. In any case, fighting terrorism in India is not Obama’s problem — its Manmohan’s.

All well and good, but worth a state visit? Surely both the President and Prime Minister have better things to do in their respective capitals?

In the ultimate analysis, the relationship between India and the US will be economic rather than military or political. Any respect that India gets today is inspite of its myriad problems, and only because of its perceived economic potential in the years to come. Much praise for India in the western press has to do with its ability to produce and innovate — software, cars, medical science, communications, and the like. I have not seen one magazine article that praised India for its nuclear reactors, nor for its army and certainly not for the quality of its government.

I wish President Obama will have the courage to tell his hosts to stop obsessing about being called “an emerging power”, and membership in the Security Council. I hope he will counsel them that their greatest chance for respectability and status is in ensuring 10+% annual growth for a couple decades, thus lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. And yes, I do hope he has the guts to tell them to let go of the long-alienated Kashmir valley. India has far more important things to do than to hold on to 0.25% of its population against their will.

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