In India, Obama searches for big gesture

In India, Obama searches for big gesture

Washington: US President Barack Obama will be looking for a way to prove his love for India during a visit, as he tries to end suspicions in the world’s largest democracy that his interest lies elsewhere.

Obama, smarting from an election defeat at home, starts a four-nation Asian tour on Saturday in India, whose relations with the United States have rapidly warmed in the past decade.

Obama has described India as one of the few global partners for the United States and last year honored Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with the pomp of Obama’s first White House state dinner.

But many Indians have been uneasy about Obama’s early efforts to build bridges with fellow Asian giant China and to assist India’s historic rival Pakistan. Obama got off on the wrong foot with New Delhi before his inauguration by musing about mediating over divided Kashmir.

However, US presidents have proven they can quickly break the ice in India. Bill Clinton is remembered fondly there for his amiable visit in 2000, just two years after sharp exchanges over New Delhi’s nuclear tests.

George W. Bush also faced doubts due to his wartime partnership with Pakistan but quickly earned admirers in New Delhi by working to build an alliance, symbolized in a landmark deal on civil nuclear cooperation.

Robert Blackwill, who served as US ambassador to New Delhi under Bush, said Obama should use a speech before parliament to pledge support for one of India’s top goals - a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC).

Such a declaration “would get them on their feet with rapturous applause," said Blackwill, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If he uses more equivocal language, of course the Indian scribes will take it apart.

“I don’t have any doubt that the president is going to wow the Indian masses," Blackwill added, noting Obama’s famed eloquence during his presidential campaign.

A study for the Center for a New American Security led by Richard Armitage and Nicholas Burns, both senior diplomats under Bush, called for the United States to explicitly support India’s global aims, including a UN seat.

The study also said the United States should ease export controls to allow India to buy high-end military equipment, encourage a greater Indian role in Afghanistan and look for ways to cooperate on fighting climate change.

Pakistan has repeatedly rejected an Indian role in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has put a priority on improving uneasy ties with Pakistan, recently announcing a new military package.

Burns, now a professor at Harvard University, recognized the need to cooperate with Pakistan but said the United States should reject Islamabad’s complaints about India’s aid to Afghanistan.

“I kind of worry that sometimes our extreme, acute focus on that short-term interest with Pakistan might crowd out the longer-term interest in building a strategic partnership with India," Burns said.

Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Obama had a “historic opportunity" to demonstrate US support for India’s ambitions.

Tellis acknowledged that many Indians saw a drift in US ties but said the change was “ironically a function of India’s success."

“Consequently, it has not received the attention that is understandably showered on the Obama administration’s worst headaches," Tellis added.

India enjoys support across the partisan divide in Washington, a striking change from the Cold War era, when many US politicians were suspicious of New Delhi’s coziness with the Soviet Union.

However, George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, offered a contrarian view and said the United States needed to be more “realistic" about ties with India.

Perkovich said US-Indian interests diverged over key areas, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. He predicted an India on the Security Council would be frequently at odds with the United States, pointing to New Delhi’s reluctance to get tough on Myanmar and Sudan over human rights.

“India and the United States share the virtue of being democracies, but this may be more its own reward than a source of abiding friendship or useful cooperation," he said.