For New Delhi, Obama visit is bitter-sweet

For New Delhi, Obama visit is bitter-sweet

Before Barack Obama’s maiden visit to India, the pundits predicted he would not do right by the country. After the visit, the same “nattering nabobs of negativity" are claiming he can do no wrong to India. The reality, as always, lies somewhere in between.

One reason for this volte face was that both US and Indian officials played down expectations to such an extent that the visit would have been considered a success even if Obama had just showed up. Instead, he was at his charming and engaging best. In addition, his support for India’s permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and of four multilateral export control regimes; and removing strategic Indian institutions from the so-called “entities-list" were sweet enough to melt even the most cynic skeptic in New Delhi. Predictably, newspaper headlines oozed with heady praise for the President.

However, as the euphoria wears down, New Delhi will realize that the road to great power status is paved with formidable hurdles. For instance, while the US is willing to back India’s membership of the various export control regimes (which until recently New Delhi had labelled as discriminatory cartels), many other members of these regimes, particularly the Nuclear Suppliers Group, are likely to be more hostile; many of them were opposed to the Indo-US nuclear deal, and will still try to keep India out. It will take all of Washington’s persuasion and New Delhi’s charms to convince these middle powers.

Similarly, although the US support for India’s permanent membership of UNSC provides a boost to New Delhi’s campaign, it by no means guarantees entry into the exalted club. China, which has still to fully endorse New Delhi’s case, might also use its powerful veto to keep India out.

Besides, even the joint statement notes that India’s case is being supported on the grounds that its presence will make the UN (and the Security Council) more “efficient, effective, credible and legitimate". While India’s presence will no doubt enhance UNSC’s legitimacy, it will have to show that it can also contribute to making the UN more efficient, effective and credible. This will be particularly difficult in the 2011-12 period, when India will be an elected member of UNSC.

For instance, in January, Sudan will undergo a referendum that will likely lead to the partition of the country. Given India’s own aversion to referenda and its bitter experience of partition, how would New Delhi seek to enforce the results of this referendum while continuing to oppose calls related to Kashmir?

Similarly, many of India’s neighbouring countries—Afghanistan, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka—are either already under UNSC scrutiny or are likely to be over the next couple of years. Given that India has significant strategic interests in all of them, which might differ from the interests of the other UNSC members, how will New Delhi balance its national interests with its international responsibility?

If India secures the former at the risk of the latter, it would weaken New Delhi’s case for a permanent seat.

This was apparent in the instance of Brazil, which opposed the US-sponsored resolution on Iran and lost Washington’s support.

The toughest case is Iran. While India has accepted (in a joint statement) the “need for Iran to take constructive and immediate steps to meet its obligations to the IAEA and the UN Security Council", New Delhi has still to fulfil its own obligations under UNSC resolution 1172, which relates to its nuclear tests in 1998.

India’s defiance of this resolution will weaken its and UNSC’s credibility to enforce similar resolutions on Iran and other nations.

As Oscar Wilde noted, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it." India might suffer the latter.

W Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight

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