Having lost control of the House of Representatives and with his Senate majority dramatically truncated, President Barack Obama has every reason to view his India visit as a small consolation prize. The visit, the outcome of a bipartisan recognition of India’s growing importance, may not initially have been viewed by the White House as an overriding priority. However, once the trip was finalized, it did its bit to ensure it was a spectacular success.
The India visit was never a foreign policy ‘challenge’ in the same way as an engagement with either China or a West Asian country would be. Indians may flatter themselves into believing that their country occupies a major mind space among American policymakers but the reality is that India is an also-ran. It is important but not that important.
Putting India in the B-group of foreign policy priorities didn’t amount to undermining its exalted self-image. In a world where leaders of the big and regional powers love being crisis junkies, India presented no significant opportunities — and hasn’t done so since the decision was taken in 1999 to digest a nuclear South Asia. Pakistan occupied disproportionate attention in the United States of America because of its proximity to Afghanistan and its role in nurturing jihadi terror. It was, in short, a constant headache. India, by contrast, rarely grabbed the headlines or drained US coffers. It was recognized for its potential.
The former president, Bill Clinton, had charmed his way into the hearts of Indians by initiating a meaningful process of post-Pokhran engagement that included the none-too-subtle pressures on the National Democratic Alliance government to sign the comprehensive test ban treaty. George W. Bush was never a natural in the complex business of winning hearts and minds, but he surprised everyone by batting vigorously for a country that combined its love for the idea of America with distaste for its overbearing political style. In the words of a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Bush did more for India than he did for any NATO ally, including the United Kingdom… (His administration) offered more and asked less of India than it did of any country, save perhaps Israel.”
It is a tribute to the Bush administration that it raised bilateral relations with India to the levels of the United Kingdom and Israel without that shift being caught on radar. More important, this surreptitious ‘special relationship’ wasn’t sufficiently appreciated within India. It is worth recalling how close the Indo-US nuclear deal came to being scuttled between 2007 and 2008 by the democratic process in India. Equally, it is unlikely that the Indo-US understanding would have passed muster at the nuclear suppliers group had it not been for the personal telephone calls to world leaders by Bush.
For President Obama, who didn’t have any prior relationship with India, Bush was always a difficult act to follow. Never mind outpacing his predecessor in India, Obama had to first allay a long list of misgivings. These included his campaign remarks on Kashmir, his apparent disinterest in the war on terror in Afghanistan, his infamous G-2 declaration with China over the future of South Asia, his antipathy to outsourcing and his perceived emotional detachment from India’s soft power appeal. Obama’s visit to India was preceded by just too many question marks against his name.
There was another problem that went beyond Obama. Like China, India is also accustomed to seeing itself as another Middle Kingdom. But there is one crucial difference: whereas China peppers its nationalism with a high degree of arrogance, India’s nationalism is accompanied by incredibly low self-esteem. Indians expect foreigners to genuflect at the altar of their ancient and living civilization and to respect national sovereignty by shunning gratuitous advice. At the same time, the Indian version of an ‘equal relationship’ with a big power has invariably been accompanied by the question: what can you do for us? For historical reasons, not least the legacy of inefficient socialism, Indians have been ill at ease with the notion of reciprocity. The visit of a foreign leader is accompanied by speculation of what goodies for the host nation he is carrying; the same theme does not pursue the visit of an Indian leader overseas.
Set against this backdrop, the Obama visit yielded mixed, but on the whole positive, results. Like any consummate politician, he played to the galleries by telling Indian members of parliament what a great country India is — a time-tested formula calculated to win the hearts of a country anxious for gushing testimonials. Unable to match his predecessor in big ticket initiatives, he honed in on the one issue that has become a national consensus: support for India’s claim to permanent membership of a refashioned United Nations security council. He coupled this with three significant steps on the neighbourhood. There was, first, a forthright assertion of the US’s unwillingness to allow Pakistan to function as a safe haven for jihadi terrorists, notably the Lashkar-e-Toiba. Secondly, there was the guarded statement of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, regarding an agreement on unspecified joint Indo-US ventures in Afghanistan and President Obama’s assurance that the US would not abandon Afghanistan to extremist forces. Reading between the lines, this may amount to US acceptance of India as a stakeholder in the future of Afghanistan, something that is calculated to make Pakistan see red. Finally, the promise in the joint statement to “deepen existing regular strategic consultations on developments in East Asia” was diplomatspeak for a mutual willingness to evolve a common understanding of the challenge posed by China.
More than any US expectation of India toeing Uncle Sam’s line on Iran and Myanmar, it is the unstated wariness of a resurgent China that constitutes the link between the India policy of Bush and Obama. It is the uncertainty over how much China’s rise will change the rules of global engagement that has resulted in a convergence between Washington and Delhi, a convergence that has also been brought about by high expectations in the West of what India can bring to the economics table.
There was an understandable prickliness in some of the domestic reactions to Obama’s suggestion that he was in India to either create or save some 50,000 or so jobs in the US. In an India where some of the old taboos against imports persist in the political class, this candid pronouncement seemed to confirm sloganeering prejudices of US ‘neo-imperialism’. That Obama was putting down reciprocal terms for India’s easy access to US markets and the lifting of restrictions on high technology may have seemed strange to those who can’t get over the fact that India has outgrown the Third World and the bitter memories of the ship-to-mouth PL-480 syndrome.
Ironically, it was the US president’s lack of familiarity with the specificities of India (he was distinctly unfamiliar pronouncing Panchatantra and Swami Vivekananda) that allowed him to approach the subject so clinically. As far as he was concerned, India was a rising power and didn’t warrant the condescension that comes with a special show of generosity. India, to him, was no longer emerging; it had emerged.
For the Indian middle classes, the Obama visit was a potentially liberating experience. It suggested that the time for playing exclusively by national rules was over. To be seated at the high table, India has to now play by the rules of the high and mighty. There is, after all, no such thing as a free lunch.