Obama visit short on substance
“Throughout my life, I have always looked to Mahatma Gandhi as an inspiration, because he embodies the kind of transformational change that can be made when ordinary people come together to do extraordinary things,” Obama told this correspondent when he was just a Democratic senator from Illinois running on a message of change for the highest office in the USA.
Obama’s abiding interest in Gandhi is reflected in his itinerary while in India. Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive in Mumbai on November 6. Their stay there will be marked by a visit to the Gandhi museum. In New Delhi, they will pay their respects to the Father of the Nation at Raj Ghat.
Obama’s trip is the first in many years by an American President to India in his first term. His two immediate predecessors — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — visited India in their second terms in office. Clinton’s visit, which took place in the twilight of his presidency, was high on symbolism. It was the first visit by an American President to India in more than two decades. Jimmy Carter was the last to visit India in January 1978.
Bush’s visit, on the other hand, was loaded with substance. His administration removed perhaps the biggest thorn in the US-India relationship by offering New Delhi a civil-nuclear agreement. The comparisons are inevitable. Will Obama’s visit be Clinton 2.0, with symbolism trumping substance, or Bush 2.0? Much will depend on what the President packs in his VIP luggage.For it to count as a success as far as substance goes, Obama will need to pack some deliverables.
While there is no equivalent of a relationship-boosting nuclear deal on the horizon, New Delhi has been dropping heavy hints for a US endorsement of its bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Also, the continued presence of Indian companies on an Entities List has been viewed as an obstacle to US-India trade as the transfer of sensitive high-technology to these blacklisted firms is prohibited under US law. The Obama administration is conducting a review of the US export control regime and this is one area where India may find something to cheer when Obama visits.
Back in America, it is the state of the economy and the high rate of unemployment that has dominated the political discourse. While Obama’s references to Bangalore in the outsourcing debate and promises of tax incentives to firms that create jobs in the U.S. have been viewed by some in India as the beginning of protectionism, others see in the President’s comments a purely political compulsion to favour job creation in a sagging economy.
“I see it has political pandering on the eve of the November elections,” said Sumit Ganguly, a visiting fellow at Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. “I think that the President is far too intelligent a man to believe that U.S. economic woes are a direct result of outsourcing,” he added.
The U.S. is a key trading partner for India. The total trade for the period of January to July this year stood at $27.96 billion. Two-way trade in services has also shown a steady growth. Indian companies are present in 35 of the 50 US states and have done their bit to boost the U.S. economy and create jobs.
About 239 Indian firms have invested $21 billion in the U.S. through 267 acquisitions between 2004 and 2009. These have been spread over manufacturing, IT, biotechnology, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and telecommunications. In fact, many Americans are unaware of the extent of such activity. An Indian official recalled how she received a confused look when she congratulated a friend who had purchased a Jaguar for buying an ‘Indian’ car. Jaguar was acquired by Tata in 2008.
The U.S.-India relationship has been eclipsed by the Obama administration’s preoccupation with a recession at home, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and international crises that span Pakistan, Iran and North Korea. Candidates from Obama’s Democratic Party face the prospect of humiliating defeats in mid-term elections on Tuesday. The outcome of that vote could see the Democrats losing control of the House of Representatives and perhaps even the Senate.
The fact that Obama’s visit to India takes place in this backdrop explains the lack of American media attention to the trip. But U.S. officials insist India is a priority for the President. Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, described India as an “indispensable partner in the 21st century.”
In a town riven by partisan politics, the importance of the U.S. relationship with India is one issue politicians on both sides of the aisle agree on. Successive U.S. administrations - Republican as well as Democratic - have sought to nurture this relationship. William Burns, Under Secretary of state for political affairs, said the “U.S.-India partnership for a number of years has been a genuine bipartisan priority in Washington -- the same is true in India.” He added, “Over the last decade through three administrations of both of our parties and two Indian governments of different parties, we’ve transformed the relationship.”
A vibrant and influential Indian-American community also deserves much credit for strengthening the bonds that hold the U.S.-India relationship together.Some analysts say the problem lies not in the USA but in India where divergent political views are forced together in a coalition government. Richard Fontaine, senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, says U.S. domestic politics are not a drag on the relationship. In fact, he added, “I see broad bipartisan support for a strong U.S.-India relationship.”
In India, on the other hand, Fontaine said the confluence of domestic politics that produced a nuclear liability law that is viewed in Washington as an obstacle to nuclear commerce is a "real problem."
At the end of the day, personal chemistry plays a large part in determining the success of any relationship. U.S. and Indian officials say Obama has gone out of his way to build a strong personal relationship with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh - the President frequently turns to the Prime Minister for advice on matters concerning the global economy. He even hosted his administration’s first state dinner for Manmohan Singh last November. In his toast at that dinner, Obama raised his glass to realising “all the triumphs and achievements that await us.” Many here in Washington believe the President’s visit to India will be one such triumph.
What India expects
New Delhi has been dropping heavy hints for a US endorsement of its bid
for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. l
The Obama administration is conducting a review of the US export
control regime and this is one area where India may find something to
l The Obama administration is conducting a review of the US export control regime and this is one area where India may find something to cheer.
What eclipses the ties
The US-India relationship has been eclipsed by the Obama
administration’s preoccupation with a recession at home, wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq and international crises that span Pakistan, Iran
and North Korea.
The US-India relationship has been eclipsed by the Obama administration’s preoccupation with a recession at home, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and international crises that span Pakistan, Iran and North Korea.
Past presidential visits
Dwight D. Eisenhower (December 1959) Richard Nixon (July 1969) Jimmy Carter (January 1978) Bill Clinton (March 2000) George Bush (March 2006)
Dwight D. Eisenhower (December 1959)
Richard Nixon (July 1969)
Jimmy Carter (January 1978)
Bill Clinton (March 2000)
George Bush (March 2006)