The headline, both in international and domestic media, after Day 1 of US PresidentBarack Obama’s visit to India was startling: It talked about how the President had salvaged a trade deal (with the promise of more foreign direct investment by Indian companies) worth $10 billion (Rs 44,300 crore) that would generate 50,000 jobs in the US.
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It is difficult to imagine we are talking here about the US, the world’s largest economy at over $14 trillion, and India, with an economy valued at a little over $1 trillion. At once it tells us several things.
One, if anyone had doubts about the potential underlying the Indian economy, they should stand dispelled.
Second, following up on the previous point, it is an official acknowledgement of the tectonic shift under way in the global economic balance towards the East. A corollary is that the statement exposes the vulnerability of the US and consequently Obama’s politics. Since health insurance in the US is linked to holding a job, any US president is highly vulnerable in a scenario of jobless growth, and every election in a downturn turns on the ability of a candidate to create new jobs; by coming to India, which Obama vilified in the mid-term election for taking away US jobs through outsourcing, and managing a trade deal, the President has managed a kind of coup.
Finally, it is a defining moment in the relationship, which is really less than a decade old after having spent the previous five decades sparring with each other. It has gone from being black and white, as some foreign policy wonks on either side would continue to view it, to being fuzzy in nature. India, powered by its potential and new-found economic muscle, is now being welcomed to the global high table by its primary host. It would, at this point of time, be safe to say that the US needs India more.
Now, the question is whether the Indian foreign establishment sees it similarly, and at the same time recognizes that at the helm of the oldest democracy is one of the most accomplished salesmen in the world. He successfully sold his brand of politics of hope through an audacious thought: Yes, we can (it is another matter that it is coming back to bite him after he soon realized that there is no magic bullet to fix the US economy or that of the world).
Once again, he will, through charm and firmness, leverage his country’s greatest strength, its prowess as the global leader in technology, to wrangle the best deal for his country. However, if India recognizes that the US has its back to the wall, it could press more buttons and gain some more concessions than what has already been proffered.
It will be tempting to expend this political capital to give Pakistan a moral rap on its knuckles for its now proven role in the 26/11 carnage in Mumbai. Beyond mitigating our own sense of outrage it will achieve nothing and instead may actually cause long-term damage.
A statement by the US president on Indian soil about Pakistan is not going to bring the latter to heel; it would need self-realization as a nation—something that can come only from within.
Worse, it will make it next to impossible for India to go back to the negotiating table with Pakistan (and let us not kid ourselves; India’s potential can never be fully realized without negotiating peace and prosperity in South Asia), which is already smarting at having been left way behind in the race for economic stakes and realizes that the only way it can grab unwarranted international attention is through actions by agents coming out of its terror factories.
Even this is on the wane and the world is moving on. Kashmir, for instance, has ceased to grab the international media; something that is bizarre, given the audacious manner in which wave after wave of Kashmiri youth (and not terrorists trained in Pakistan) have come out to engage in stoning the security forces. Throughout this phase, the headlines in the foreign media that were devoted to South Asia were on the floods that devastated Pakistan and its battle to save its border on the north-west from the Taliban.
Also, the probability of Obama succumbing to such pressure is very unlikely. Patently unfair too; something like getting the Indian Prime Minister on a state visit to the US to condemn Iran. So it makes eminent sense to use it to advantage elsewhere. Already Obama has shown the way by offering trade in dual-use technology and lifting embargoes on some Indian institutions engaged in atomic research (something that India has been fighting for in the last three decades) but implicitly linked it to job creation in the US; what’s unsaid is that he expects more from India.
So, clearly, the relationship between the two countries is at a defining moment at which both countries have a chance to walk abreast. The onus is as much on India and it would be prudent to recall (as done by Capital Calculus earlier in the context of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s state visit to the US last year) Albert Camus’ immortal words on true friendship:
“Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow; don’t walk behind me, I may not lead; walk beside me, and just be my friend.”
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.