Source: The Week
By Kallol Bhattacherjee
When he sought political inspiration, he chose India’s father of the nation; he won the presidential election spouting anti-outsourcing rhetoric; he chose the Af-Pak war on terror over the war in Iraq; for his first state guest, he chose the Indian Prime Minister and for his longest overseas visit, he chose New Delhi; for his staff, he chose a number of south Asians. Barack Obama is the most south Asia-centric president in American history.
Behind Obama’s bonhomie lies the real politics of Obamaland. Obama may be a skilled communicator but his main focus is on winning the war in the Af-Pak region and, as a result, he does not have the required space to help India achieve its big political objective of permanent membership in the UN Security Council.
Bob Woodward, author of Obama’s War, recently wrote that Obama had staked his entire reputation on winning the war. Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna admitted that attaining the UN seat was difficult. This and the controversy over outsourcing have prompted Sanjay Puri of US-India Political Action Committee to say, “India does not push that hard when it comes to vital political issues that will give it a larger political profile in the world.”
According to Woodward, 26/11 changed the strategic thinking of the Obama administration. But Obama has failed in the crucial areas so far. Woodward says Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has refused to act against the likes of LeT saying: “I’ll be the first to admit I’m India-centric.” That means as far as Pakistan’s anti-India attitude is concerned, little has changed under the Obama administration.
Yet, the Obama administration has a number of Indian faces, like Farah Pandith, special representative of the administration on Muslim affairs, and Rajiv Shah, administrator of USAID. According to Puri, India does not display enthusiasm for the Indian channels in the Obama administration to push its case. So far, India has not made any effort to reach out to the Indian faces in the administration in a big way.
Dr Karan Singh, a friend of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, says that Indo-US relation is focused on long-term gains, and not on quick returns. “Indo-US ties have reached a level of maturity that can withstand minor irritants,” he said.
According to a U.S. government official, Indo-US ties have braced defence, strategic cooperation, agriculture, education, energy, environment protection and high tech as well as small and medium industries. This, he says, has given the bilateral relation a much broader foothold. “In matters of relation, India and the U.S. are not tied to the positions of buyers and sellers any more. Today, because of advancements on both sides, India and the U.S. are partners and not clients of each other,” he said.
But this visit is not just about deals, and all sides know this. Obama, who has a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi in his office, has been an old admirer of the father of the nation. His visit to Rajghat will be a great symbolic moment for the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the current administration. That apart, this visit will also be the longest that the American president has undertaken so far. Sources in the U.S. government said the length of the visit—from November 7 to November 10—signifies the warmth and importance the Obama administration attaches to India. According to sources, Obama emphasised that the visit was important both for him and his family. Authorities are tight-lipped about the plans of Michelle Obama during the visit. But the buzz is that the first lady, already a style icon, will set new standards in power fashion in the land of Bollywood.
The growing warmth of bilateral ties is best reflected in the strategic sphere says Prof. K.P. Vijayalakshmi, an expert on American affairs in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She says this is the biggest success story of US-India ties. India has already completed the procedure to buy military hardware, including C-130J and P-8I aircraft, worth $2.5 billion.
American official sources said P-8I aircraft would reach the Indian and U.S. navies next February, proving that there is total equality of treatment. Indian Navy is going to be the first customer of this high-end anti-submarine aircraft. The official also said the new level of strategic partnership includes officials of lower ranks, too.
Former U.S. ambassador Frank Wisner said the growing areas of cooperation in the strategic field are a good reminder of how far both sides have travelled in this vital area. He was referring to the days when mutual differences had peaked in the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear tests.
US-India ties, which had gone moribund in late 1990s, today embrace a whopping trade of almost $50 billion. According to Vijayalakshmi and Wisner, Indo-US relation will slowly come to reflect more mature, big power equations where disagreements in certain areas will be balanced by agreements in certain areas. The underlying message of this visit will mostly stay unpronounced. But it is not difficult to see.
On November 29, 2009, Obama announced a “hard and fast 30,000-troop surge” for Afghanistan. In December, Obama and his National Security Council will do the first crucial evaluation of the surge. Obama had announced on that date that in July 2011, U.S. forces would start their pull out. He had said: “I agree we won’t know exactly what to do by December 2010. I will wait until July 2011 to determine only one thing though.” That would be the timeline of withdrawal. The India visit is therefore the regional trip to determine Obama’s larger war doctrine that has been slowly shifting from an armed to a non-armed approach. This aspect, however, is being looked after by the powerful figures of the U.S. Congress. The Kerry-Lugar bill, which explicitly stated that the U.S. was willing to spend taxpayer’s money for the sake of democracy in Pakistan, and initiatives by Congresswoman Nita Lowey, Congressman Howard Berman and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have all proved that they, too, have equally important voices in South Asian affairs that Obama will have to build upon post-2010.
The larger question, however, is how would Obama entice India into the non-proliferation regime given India’s aversion to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Teresita Schaffer, former diplomat and director of the South Asia programme of the Center for Strategic and International Studies of Washington, DC, however, says that as far as the US-India ties in the nuclear field are concerned, they have already taken a solid shape under the civil nuclear agreement. It needs to be seen how Obama builds on the strictures that India has undertaken as part of the civil nuclear agreement.
It is significant that just 10 days before the visit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flew to Japan in search of a trade pact and another civil nuclear agreement. It was with Japan that U.S. Special Trade Representative Mickey Kantor indulged in a serious economic war during the Clinton years of 1990s, while Japan enjoyed excellent strategic partnership with the US. Whether India also follows the same pattern of diplomacy of two steps forward and one step backward can be seen as the relationship matures.
Here comes Obama!
Obama will stay at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai. He will address the US-India Business and Entrepreneurship Summit and pay homage to 26/11 victims. He will receive a formal welcome at Rashtrapati Bhavan on November 7 and address a joint session of Parliament the next day.
Issues on the table
Strategy and politics: Concerns regarding Pakistan using U.S. military aid against India or to support militants, Af-Pak policy and Washington’s exit plans, India’s support in balancing the emerging China and a permanent seat for India on the UN Security Council.
Trade and technology: New Delhi wants the U.S. to withdraw sanctions against nuclear technology exports; Washington wants dilution of the nuclear liability law or exemption for U.S. suppliers. India wants assurances of no further proposals from Obama to limit outsourcing.
Defence: Closer military ties, and a larger pie of India’s $30 billion defence procurement plan for Washington.
Manmohan-Obama bilateral meetings
April 2, 2009: “Wise” and “wonderful” was how Obama described Singh when they met on the sidelines of the G20 summit, the first time since Obama assumed office. Both leaders called for closer bilateral ties.
Nov. 24, 2009: Singh’s U.S. visit had Obama reaffirming U.S. commitment to strengthen cooperation, primarily in the implementation of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Afghanistan and climate change were also topics.
April 12, 2010: Non-proliferation and nuclear security, Afghanistan, food security and poverty reduction were prominent topics in the first of a series of bilateral talks ahead of the Nuclear Security Summit. India’s request for access to 26/11 suspect David Coleman Headley, however, went unanswered, until June.
July 10, 2009: Talked about Pakistan and Hillary Clinton’s visit to India in a quick informal meeting during the outreach meeting of G5 and G8 leaders.
June 28, 2010: Discussed terrorism, global economy and “other areas of mutual concern”. Obama praised Singh saying whenever the Prime Minister spoke, “the whole world listens to him”.