Facebook Badge

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Indo US Ties Nosedive

Obama Has No Time for India

US President Barack Obama has sent a huge message to India. He visited every major country in Asia: Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, China, and South Korea but could not find time to include India in his itinerary. In Beijing, he acquiesced in a joint communiqué that covered a lot of ground. What struck home in India were media reports focused on a passing reference that urged China to ensure peace and stability in South Asia. It is probably true that what Obama meant was to tell the Chinese to refrain from arming Pakistan.

Nevertheless, the statement was a measure of Obama’s inexperience in dealing with India’s prickly sensibilities, especially with regard to China. India has never forgotten the humiliating backstab in 1962 when the Chinese army attacked India; nor has it come to terms with China’s dubious role at the International Atomic Energy Agency conference to approve the all-important waiver that was necessary for the fruition of the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. Plus India treads warily of the Chinese fifth column, the CPM, which did all it could to scupper the deal; every thinking Indian believes that Prakash Karat and company were acting at Beijing’s behest. More recent, the Indian government has had to deal with Beijing’s aggressive stance on Arunachal Pradesh, the northeastern state that it calls southern Tibet.

It is becoming clear to those of us who champion Indo-US relations that Obama really has no time for India. He’s from Chicago, where I lived for the best part of the 1970s and 1980s. And India is not big in the Chicago political mindset. As such, India is not in his list of priorities.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is scheduled to visit Washington later this month. In a patronizing way, the White House has billed it as the first state visit of any world leader. But that’s meaningless. Every major leader has visited the US and met Obama. The “state visit” business is a piece of diplomatic fluff. It is very clear India is very low in the Obama scheme of things.

Nobody is more pained about the Obama administration’s cavalier attitude to India than those of us who have fought for all these years for a closer Indo-US relationship. Manmohan Singh put his government on the line for the civilian nuclear deal. Not just that, the Indian electorate voted his government back to office with an increased majority.

The Obama administration’s Asia policy puts the Singh government in jeopardy; it fought long-held anti-American mindsets to align with America. This is further underlined by the changed Indian positions on world trade and global warming that are now more in line with Washington’s thinking. As a huge supporter of better and more intense Indo-US relations, I am troubled by this president’s neglect of India; it feeds into the knee-jerk anti-US mindset of the establishment.

As such we are headed for a period of rocky relations with the US government. It happened under Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. It was a different India then. Today it is among the world’s fastest growing economies that is raising millions of people out of poverty. Obama does not seem to realize that. I am now not sure Obama is good for India, even though to many Americans and Europeans, he is Jesus Christ resurrected.

Those of us who support a strategic alliance with the US, including the Prime Minister, feel badly let down. The joint communiqué in Beijing apart, Obama has made protectionist noises about the outsourcing business. Little wonder then that the Indian foreign ministry with its deeply-rooted anti-American mindset issued a truculent statement in response to the communiqué.

Obama’s unthinking approach to relations with India will only embarrass and weaken the growing tribe of opinion leaders who support a strategic alignment with America. Willy nilly, it will strengthen the knee-jerk anti-Americanism that is always at play in India’s foreign policy. “I told you so,” is a refrain that is increasingly louder in Delhi. After the romance with Bill Clinton and George W Bush, pro-American opinion is silenced, not knowing what to expect from Obama and his slick PR machine.

The Prime Minister’s upcoming visit to Washington promises to be just a ceremonial exercise. In the event, it will be all style and no substance. There will be a banquet, many speeches, including a stirring one by Obama. Then it will be over. What does the Indian prime minister have to say to Obama in any case?

To begin with, he could take a firm line on the emergent market for nuclear power plants in India. Given Obama’s faux pas, the Indian government could take the view that American firms that do business with China are not welcome in the nuclear power industry for reasons of national security. After all, China has jut asserted that the northeastern state, Arunachal Pradesh, is part of China. It could do the same with other security-related sectors such as the purchase of aircraft and other military hardware. It could disengage from Afghanistan, where it supports the American development effort. Plus, the Indian delegation could take a hard line on Obama’s view on outsourcing.

Time to play hardball.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009