Barack Obama’s visit to India is unlike any previous US presidential visit. From Dwight Eisenhower onwards, several presidents came to India. They all began the odyssey in the capital city of New Delhi with a visit to the Gandhi memorial.
President Obama, who arrived on Saturday on a three-day visit — his longest trip so far to any country — landed first not in New Delhi, but in Mumbai, the bustling commercial capital, which stopped in its tracks to facilitate his safe passage.
Ostensibly Mumbai was given the honour to demonstrate US solidarity with the victims of the multiple terror attack on the city on November 26, 2008. The president’s first stop was at the Taj hotel, where the terrorists who arrived by sea from Pakistan had mowed down many Indians and foreigners.
The choice of Mumbai as the starting point was appropriate for another reason too. For Obama, who was accompanied by the chief executive officers of more than 200 US corporations, came as CEO of USA Inc. and was looking for business which will help his country’s economy, which is yet to recover from the impact of the meltdown.
Thanks to the work done in advance behind the scenes by government and company officials of the two countries, within hours of arrival he was able to announce the conclusion of 20 deals under which Indian firms will buy American goods worth $10 billion. These deals will help create more than 50,000 jobs, he said. As the day wore on, the size of US business deals rose to $15 billion.
Obama noted that India and the US are the world’s largest democracies. Yet, he pointed out, India ranked only 12th among America’s trading partners and there was vast scope for improving the position. Evidently upgrading economic ties is a key element in his vision of Indo-US relationship, which, he said, was going to be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.
Captains of Indian industry, who are looking for new opportunities in the US, were quite pleased with what Obama said. More Indo-US trade will mean more jobs in this country too, they reckoned.
However, some sections of the Indian establishment were sorely disappointed and they made no attempt to hide their feelings. Commentators on live television shows noted that while reiterating US commitment to fight the scourge of terrorism Obama made no mention of Pakistan, from where the Mumbai attackers had come. A spokesman of the Bharatiya Janata Party echoed the sentiments.
The Indian critics, who are obsessed with Pakistan, were not impressed by US analysts’ explanation that ordinarily visiting presidents to not refer to third countries in public statements.
All sections in India have generally viewed relations with the US in the context of politics, and attached little value to economic and strategic considerations.
From Jawaharlal Nehru onwards, most Indian prime ministers began their official tenure with visits to the US and optimistic calculations about improved relations with that country. But the post-war US administrations, caught in the logics of the cold war, looked upon India’s policy of non-alignment with suspicion if not outright hostility.
Ritual reiteration of the natural affinity between the largest democracies proved inadequate to forge close relations. Richard Nixon’s instant dislike of Indira Gandhi led to a deterioration in the relationship and she signed a 25-year friendship with the then Soviet Union to make sure that was a reliable ally close by as she helped Pakistan’s geographically separated eastern province to emerge as independent Bangladesh.
With the cold war a thing of the past, Bill Clinton and George Bush made attempts to improve relations with India. However, the complexities of the South Asian situation limited progress.
Obama has taken two significant steps which hold out the possibility of a break with the past. One is keeping Pakistan out of the itinerary of the current tour. Previously US presidents had combined visits to the two countries. The other is shifting of the focus from politics to economics.
Political issues cannot, of course, be wished away. Obama simply kept them aside to be taken up before winding up the visit in New Delhi.
The Obama approach is based on a realistic appraisal of the changes in the global scenario. He indicated as much when he called for breaking out of stereotypes and coming to terms with current realities. It remains to be seen whether India is ready to go along the new path. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 8, 2010.