Later this week the country will play host to US President Barack Obama on what will be his first visit to India and, in fact, South Asia. He will be the third serving US president to visit India in a decade. That is significant considering that an equal number of US presidential visits had been spaced out over the first five decades of India’s independence, and also if we keep in mind a single factoid: The US is still the most powerful country in the world, both militarily and economically. The Obama visit should, in the normal course, have bowled us over. However, it has not. It may not be such a bad thing as it tamps down expectations, but the context in which this has emerged has the potential to play spoiler.
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Except for the paranoid security arrangements and a visibly upset Pakistani establishment (miffed at having been left out of the presidential itinerary, but content that its sulking enabled it to tap another generous US sop, $2 billion (Rs 8,900 crore today), even though a section of the government continues to abet and foster terror networks), a sense of excitement is missing from the Obama visit.
When Bill Clinton visited the country, India fell in love with him, before and after; this was despite the fact that he was a lame duck president then. Even when George W. Bush, the president everyone loved to loathe, came visiting, there was considerable excitement—the Indian Communists spewed vitriol, forcing a diplomatic slight upon Bush by denying him a joint address to Parliament, while the government was excited about how the relationship was being taken to an entirely new level with the inking of an agreement to take forward Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s pet project: the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal.
The hazard that pre-set visits pose is that often the context in which they are ordained is never what it actually turns out to be. Not only has the global economy worsened, so have unemployment levels in the US. Faced with plunging personal popularity ahead of a crucial mid-term election and with a wary eye on his own re-election, Obama’s actions have reflected self-preservation.
Hence the decision to retreat from Afghanistan under the guise of an “Af-Pak” policy, steady attacks on outsourcing of US jobs and increasing belligerence on China. All of them, except the last, have contributed to spoiling the context of the US president’s visit. The setting of a deadline for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan sent out two signals, neither of which would be appreciated by the Indian establishment. One, it signalled that the US was throwing in the towel in a battle that it had initiated nearly 10 years ago. Second, the US withdrawal means that the Taliban and its original co-sponsor, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), were guaranteed a second shot at spreading anarchy in a country ravaged by war for three decades. Worse, it meant that India, which had a tenuous hold in a strategically important country (considering it has the longest border with Pakistan) by funding big-ticket development projects, will, as a consequence of the US action, be inevitably ejected.
The verbal attacks on outsourcing ahead of the mid-term polls due on Tuesday, 2 November, although addressed at US citizens battling rising unemployment, have also made India uneasy. After all, what kind of friend is Obama if he has to target India’s most iconic export, especially since his predecessor had the courage to stand up against such political attacks. One fallout of this has been on the totalization agreement between the two countries that would have ensured repatriation of social security benefits contributed by Indian workers in the US. At the moment, they forfeit this sum, which some estimate runs into several billion dollars. (Imagine discussing a payout for the very same workforce that allegedly took away American jobs.)
If this was not enough, the handlers on both sides have, by publicly discussing Obama’s schedule, worsened the visit’s context. Now we know that the US President dropped India’s software capital from his itinerary to avoid being “Bangalored” and similarly opted out of Amritsar as he didn’t want his actions mistaken (stemming from the killer combination of blatant ignorance and bias) back home from having to cover his head while entering the Golden Temple.
If there is one common ground between India and the US that is apparent, it is the antipathy towards an increasingly belligerent China. Unfortunately, it is for all the wrong reasons: India’s problems with China are not the same as that of the US.
Over the last month or so, the world has been trying to force a very unlikely match-up between the two Asian adversaries. The upping of the ante in recent weeks by India has only lent this perception greater credibility. So far, India has been wise to step away from any direct confrontation; it is, despite what some sections may claim, just not in China’s league. More importantly, let the West and the US fight their own battles; India’s domestic challenges are too compelling and cannot afford any external distractions.
With expectations at rock bottom, it only follows that the two countries will end up sharing some good news with the rest of the world.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org