Looking back on a Presidential Visit: Obama in India, 2010

January 16, 2011


Notes from November 2010, belatedly blogged, reflect briefly on the three concerns that underpin Indo-US relations, the price of power and human rights as a marker of global ascendance.

It’s been more than two months since President Obama’s visit to India, and my notes remain “unblogged.” The three-days of the visit were good for both sides, arguably, while on either side of the weekend, both sides faced challenges, defeats, controversy and scandal. It’s been a while and the mood of the weekend has dissipated almost totally, but I would like to blog those of my observations that have interest beyond the context of the visit.

A formulaic representation of Indo-US relations

From the itinerary and speeches made during the visit, it would seem that Indo-US relations are underpinned by interface over three elements: democracy, economics and security. Obama’s Parliament speech flagged prosperity, security and democracy as three dimensions of an emerging partnership between the two countries, but it would seem that really two of these still lie in the realm of aspiration.

Democracy is the most stable element of this relationship. In the worst of times, democracy is a shared value (let’s not dispute how well this value is realized in either country, for the moment). “The two largest democracies of the world” is a club to which both India and the US are very happy to belong. Consistent commitment to democratic procedures and values is an important element of both countries’ soft power. The difference between the two is the extent to which the US and India are willing to put their muscle-power behind the promotion of this value. Promotion of democracy is an important element of US foreign policy rhetoric, whereas it is much more muted in India. On the other hand, those whom the US supports in its promotion of democratic often have shady credentials—the subject of other posts and discussions, and India too makes some questionable choices in this regard.

The quest for economic benefit, preferably mutual, is gaining ground in the relationship. There is a growing mutuality of interests between Indian companies seeking to expand and invest in the US or seeking US investment and contracts on the one hand, and US companies who need outside investment to help recover from the recession. The influence these groups wield on either side appears for the moment to outweigh the protests of protectionists on the US side and Indian critics who point out that global capitalism often shortchanges the already disadvantaged. But it does not silence them, and that makes economics a shakier leg than democracy—ironically, because democracy creates space for this opposition and protest.

Security is the weakest of the three elements in this relationship; indeed, security issues often drive a wedge between the US and India. At a very abstract level, there is a great deal of commonality of interest between India and the US: fighting terrorism, keeping parts of the world free of nuclear weapons and supporting international institutions, for instance. However, how each of these interests is perceived and interpreted, and in policy detail, there are significant divergences. On the question of terrorism for instance, it took a 9/11 for the US to acknowledge a problem that India had been speaking about for over a decade, but this has hardly led to shared strategies or learning (or even information). A habit of instinctive distrust characterizes Indian elites’ reading of US strategic policy and impatience with perceived Indian intransigence characterizes the American administration’s dealings with India. Trust and understanding have been growing but at a slow, unsteady pace.

The foundation that democracy provides and the impetus that mutual economic benefit adds are both undermined by differences in strategic views.

The price of power

During President Obama’s visit, three issues—two closely related—became touchstones of the distance between the two countries on strategic matters: Kashmir, terrorism and India’s aspiration to Permanent Membership of the UN Security Council. For two and half days, commentators monitored Obama’s every utterance to see what he would say—would if favour India or would it not?

The President’s formal speeches held no clue. However, at the Mumbai town-hall, in response to student questions, he spoke about jihad and Islam, why Pakistan was important to the US and about US strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It was finally at the press conference with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that President Obama finally spoke directly about Kashmir. Obama stated that it was up to India and Pakistan to work on reducing tensions, and that, “The United States cannot impose a solution to these problems.” In response, Singh asserted, “We are committed to engage Pakistan.  We are committed to resolve all outstanding issues between our two countries, including the word “K”—we’re not afraid of that.  But it is our request that you cannot simultaneously be talking and at the same time the terror machine is as active as ever before.  Once Pakistan moves away from this terror-induced coercion, we will be very happy to engage productively with Pakistan to resolve all outstanding issues.”

The Indian commentariat had to wait until President Obama’s address to the Joint Session of the Indian Parliament, and in the main, he did not disappoint. He reiterated the fact that terrorism now threatens Pakistan and that a stable Pakistan was in everyone’s interests, but he went on to say, “And we’ll continue to insist to Pakistan’s leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders are unacceptable, and that terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks must be brought to justice.” The applause on this statement had barely faded when, after a few more remarks encouraging India-Pakistan dialogue, he said, “That is why I can say today, in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.”

The President was quick to point out, and this was not missed, that power comes at a price. The cues were scattered across his Parliament speech. The reference to the UN Security Council seat tucked within an important rider: Council reform. There was a reference to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Iran (“We can make it clear that even as every nation has the right to peaceful nuclear energy, every nation must also meet its international obligations —- and that includes the Islamic Republic of Iran.”). Obama enlisted India as an ally in the US’ proactive approach to democracy protection: “As the world’s two largest democracies, we must never forget that the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others.” He explicitly stated, speaking about Burma, “And if I can be frank, in international fora, India has often shied away from some of these issues.”

There should have been no surprise here; leadership always comes with responsibility. The space that the non-aligned movement provided for moral leadership without commitment of resources has not just become irrelevant but also ceased to be an option for India as it basks in its gently swelling clout. However, as India braces to make more and more difficult decisions in the face of the new status it claims, what decision-makers need is a more open, more informed and livelier debate in the public sphere. The consensual, legacy, template style of Indian foreign policy decision-making—arguably already changing—is probably going to reach the limits of its efficacy in this new world.

Silence and pecking order

Last year, when I blogged about Hillary Clinton’s feminist foreign policy, I took note of her making gender violence central to human rights-related rhetoric. In Congo, on Sri Lanka, by setting up a special mission on women’s rights, etc., Clinton and the State Department made talking about women’s rights and empowerment an important foreign policy issue.

But during the Presidential visit to India, references to human rights were used to point to shared values and gender was curiously absent from the discussion. Since this is obviously not because these are not live political concerns in India, we can only assume that concern about gender equity assumes greater and lesser gravity along a global pecking order!

To my ever-sensitive Indian readers: No, I am not advocating American sermons to India on this issue, but just pointing out this little anomaly. As Twitter would have us indicate, #justsaying that perhaps the absence of human rights homilies was the true sign of Indian arrival on the global centre-stage.

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