To understand and grasp the challenges of the momentous election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the US, Mint spoke to Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research. Edited excerpts:
What it means for the US
It is a momentous occasion...in so many ways... I think this makes America after almost a gap of 10 years, or perhaps even longer, feel a little more confident about its ideas. I think in some senses this election will give Americans a lot more confidence, not just about their image abroad, but also about their self-image. Also, he has come into office, as he himself said, at a very, very difficult time. We don’t know quite yet what all his policy preferences are but I think there is a widespread consensus that he is about as intelligent and as articulate a president as the US has ever had in its history. What he will do with it is still an open question. What this is doing, is that it is going to inspire some confidence that he at least has the ability to convene the best and the brightest around him and creatively think his way out of this crisis.
What now? Pratap Bhanu Mehta of Centre for Policy Research says Obama’s victory may not see a drastic change in US foreign policy, except the possibility of dialogue with Iran and Venezuela. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
One of the things it (the victory) has done is send out two very powerful lessons. One is that America still remains in some senses, its political system, an extraordinary land of opportunity. I mean, this really is as extraordinary a story as you can get of mobility and aspirations. I think the second lesson is that often the best way of front-ending the race divide is not by continuously harping on the theme of race, it is by actually going out and imagining an alternative future, going out and using your initiative and creativity. And I think that it is not only going to set a new paradigm in race relations. It is also going to sort of reaffirm that idea that ultimately the idea of a common citizenship is more powerful than that of race or things that divide people.
I think, to be very honest, he’ll have to do rapid multi-tasking. And I think by the time he takes office in January, the financial crisis will actually hit “main street” America. Right now a lot of it is bank solvency and liquidity, but the fact is that you are beginning to have layoffs, you are beginning to have a crisis in the old age pension system. So my own sense is, his priority is going to be how to generate growth, but also radically reform the social security system in the US because that is in an unstated way very much at the heart of not just this crisis but potentially also holds the key to thinking one’s way out of the crisis. And of course the third area is foreign policy… I mean, America is embroiled in Iraq, it is embroiled in Afghanistan, so I don’t think he will have the luxury to choose his priorities. They are all going to press on him simultaneously.
Whether this means dramatic changes in foreign policy
I would suspend judgement on that for the moment. I don’t think their foreign policy is prone to very drastic changes of course despite the rhetoric people often have in their self-presentation. He had made some pronouncements on Kashmir and Afghanistan that are getting a lot of people upset or excited, depending on your point of view. If one just goes by the foreign policy people that he has gathered around him... I am not sure you are going to see as radical or drastic changes in foreign policy as sometimes his rhetoric seems to suggest.
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The only place where I see this shift happening is there is at least the possibility of dialogue with certain world leaders that George W. Bush had declared untouchable. Barack Obama had said early on that he... is not averse to talking to the Iranians. Hugo Chavez is not averse to be talking to him. So there is the possibility of at least some kind of dialogue there.
The only other issue from an Indian point of view, apart from the Pakistan issue, the nuclear issue, is that Democrats are more sympathetic to the non-proliferation lobby, more sympathetic to things like CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) and so forth. And I think India will have to think on what kind of nuclear order it wants. I think so far we have been escaping that question.
Our only concern has been getting exemptions for ourselves. I think we now will have to be much more proactive on what kind of global nuclear order we want.
Whether it means improved India-US relations
Absolutely. Three reasons for saying that. One is, frankly, there was bipartisan consensus for that momentum. We forget that the nuclear deal was supported by both parties and on these kinds of things Congress matters more. Second, the fact remains that despite the downturn, India is going to remain a significant economy. That’s going to be a driver of that relationship
And third, you know, the social and cultural relationships between India and the US are so intimate and driving so many things that its hard to imagine a scenario where relationships will not be improving. Of course, now there is no breakthrough dramatic issue such as the nuclear deal to concentrate on, yet it is going to be a much closer relationship.