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.

Great Expectations, Or The Limits Of Summit Diplomacy

November 7, 2010


President Obama is spending the weekend in India. What can we realistically expect from summit meetings?


India celebrates Diwali with the Obamas this weekend. Among the commentariat, expectations have risen like Diwali expenditure and fallen like bank balances!

Will the American President lend support to India’s claim for permanent membership of the UN Security Council? Will he condemn Pakistan for its part in facilitating this environment of insecurity in South Asia? Will he stand on Indian soil and criticize outsourcing? The touchy Indian political class took anticipatory umbrage, so that when the President arrived, they could hit the ground running with their critiques.

President Obama’s election campaign and victory captured the imagination of people all over the world. That would have been reason enough to look forward to his visit. Place it in the context of an interdependence that has deepened in the last three decades through the movement of people, goods, ideas and popular culture, and it acquires even greater interest.

That India and the US have been groping their way through the dark to a closer friendship is not news to anyone reading this blog. This, however, has been the most obstacle-ridden track of a multi-dimensional relationship. The obstacles have been rooted in distrust that is decades old, in different political and decision-making styles and in different readings of the world. If India is anxious about the US’ relationship with Pakistan and about being (seen as) as a pushover, the US is concerned that nothing should interfere with its campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq and that the growing constituency of the unemployed should find satisfaction in all policy spheres. Because neither side fully appreciates the other’s concerns, they are even harder to overcome, except through a sustained, prolonged engagement.

No democratic leader can overturn the direction of her country’s foreign policy unilaterally; without a popular or institutional base of support, no such u-turn is likely to be lasting. So why do we pay so much attention to Presidential and Prime Ministerial visits? Why do we debate whether our high expectations are justified or should be lowered?

This is being written on the second morning of the Obama visit to India. President Obama began his visit with a stop at the 26/11 memorial at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. Speaking to survivors briefly, he spoke of their courage and humanity, nodded to the rescue forces and said that the US and India were united in their quest to secure their citizens. He did not mention Pakistan. He did not list counter-terrorism measures. He did not specify punitive action. But it was the presidential equivalent of a condolence visit. Was it the time and place for any of these topics?

After a lingering stop at Mani Bhavan, Mahatma Gandhi’s former residence, President Obama addressed a conference of Indian and American businesspersons. He articulated American concerns even as he made a positive assessment of the prospects and benefits of Indo-US trade and collaboration. He spoke about mutual perceptions and misperceptions as well, and made announcements of deals that would benefit the US economy and also of measures that would benefit Indian companies. But the fact that he spoke about outsourcing as a concern to Americans, rankled.

The question is: What should we expect from visiting Presidents and Prime Ministers? An eminent retired Indian diplomat once mocked the scholarly tendency to give a great deal of importance to joint declarations and summit statements. He regaled us with tales that underscored the cosmetic quality of these speeches. The point he was making was that summit visits are icing, not cake.

The luggage of the visiting leader includes the concerns of the people that she represents—and it should. In the age of instant communication and simultaneous broadcasts, the audience for any speech made abroad is in large part the audience at home. It is that part of the audience that votes and to which the leader is accountable. Inevitable, even desirable, that the visitor’s speeches should reflect their mandate to her.

Travelling heads of government move along a tightly scripted itinerary—of destinations, interactions, speeches and agreements—from which they cannot depart. This script is a product of processes that are internal to their country’s political and administrative systems and that reflect the history of the two (or more) countries’ interactions. Yes, they occasionally flout protocol and court accidentally-on-purpose photo opportunities, but that simply reinforces the existence of a script. The same holds true of the host country’s leadership.

So if everyone at the summit is really a puppet on multiple strings, then what is the point of the meeting? What has genuine impact on foreign policy? Perhaps it is simply communication. “I will come over and tell you what’s on my mind, and you can tell me what’s on yours.” And in settings created especially for such conversations, we will pretend to listen to each other.

For the rest of us, what makes the difference between a run-of-the-mill, ritual summit and a summit we remember for years? It’s what the state department now labels “public diplomacy.” On the second morning of the Obama visit, it’s easy to predict the images that will linger: the Obamas at the 26/11 memorial; signing the guest book at Mani Bhavan, and at a Diwali celebration with school kids. It’s the president leading a professorial interaction with college students. It’s not going to be the business conference or even his speech in Parliament. Once the commentariat class moves on, we will likely forget those. The moments in which the elected representatives of one people reach out to befriend another people, leave abiding memories. That’s the lesson for diplomats and journalists alike.

Special Report: Feminist Flashpoints in East Asia

November 19, 2009


A cursory review reveals that sexual violence is a common issue that is salient domestically as well as in the international politics of the region. One of the real challenges though appears to be expanding the space for political activism among women.


As President Obama travels through East Asia, he provides South Asian feminist scholars with an opportunity to look east and review those issues that have been contentious for women’s rights activists. Each of the President’s stopovers has its own feminist flashpoints that are either consequences of society’s engagement with the outside world or that have consequences for that engagement.

The movement of people is one of the main sources of concern for Japanese feminists. Women’s immigration from other parts of Asia into Japan when legal is largely in the “entertainment” category, with most immigrants working as bar hostesses, in factories, as commercial sex workers or waitresses. International marriages through brokers are known; along with the old pattern of Japanese wife/ non-Japanese husband now there are also Japanese men who seek non-Japanese but Asian wives either for more control in the marriage or for sham marriages that cover up and facilitate exploitation. (See Vera Mackie’s Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003 for more.)

The Japanese also have to confront their status both as perpetrators and victims on the question of wartime sexual exploitation. If the use of “comfort women” during Japan’s mid-20th century occupation of Korea is a history Japan has to live down at minimum and apologize and compensate for at best, then Japan’s own experience with the US presence in Okinawa has been similar. Either way, women have simply been the spoils of militarization, not uniquely in East Asia but here this issue has acquired both feminist and nationalist resonance.

Singaporean women’s organizations have to walk a tightrope, calling attention to social inequities without criticizing the state; placing the blame on culture without blaming religion; being political by virtue of working on political questions, but all the while abjuring politics. Reproductive rights have been one arena of activism, but in insider-for-self-correction mode rather than as dissent or critique of the state’s agenda. Many women from other parts of Asia come to Singapore to undertake jobs as domestic workers. Their status and their rights become political issues in their countries of origin, but in my admittedly cursory search, it was not clear how much their presence registered with the local women’s movement. (Lenore Lyons has written a great deal on the women’s movement in Singapore.)

Shanghai is now one of Asia’s showpiece cities; Beijing is one of its oldest capitals. Through much of the twentieth century, women activists were as focused on nation-building and social modernization issues as their male colleagues. State feminism under the People’s Republic did self-consciously address the institutional and many structural issues relating to the status of women. In the public sphere, gender became irrelevant for both men and women in many ways. Since the 1990s, when China has opened up to the world and western feminist writing has been translated and made available, Chinese feminists are now critiquing this same effacement of gender identity and blaming this for the invisibility of women in many spheres.

From a South Asian perspective, what is most interesting is to look at the impact of how China has opened up and grown, on women’s lives, their decision-making frames and freedoms and finally, gendered expectations that they may now face. Given that China’s political opening is yet to equal its economic changes, it is hard to see what the emerging internal critiques and debates are among Chinese feminists. Whatever they are, they matter for international relations for two reasons. One, there are a lot of aspirants to growth along the Chinese model (or should I say, Shanghai model). For them, this could be an early warning of problems they should anticipate and address. Two, insofar as the Shanghai model is identified elsewhere with the replacement by American-style capitalist economics of socialist development models, its failures will be seen as American failures, exported to Asia. It is in US interests to appear introspective and self-critical with regard to socio-economic issues on the home-front.

Two important strands to the women’s activism in Korea appear to be improving working conditions for women and of course, the issue of “comfort women.” As elsewhere, sexual violence—its prevention, protection issues and victim support services—is a priority for most organizations. It was hard to find very descriptive accounts from which I could learn more.

Two issues seem to recur in this region. The first relates to democracy and space in the public sphere for social activism at all: in its absence or where it is strained, how likely is it that activists will prioritize women’s rights over civil rights and political reform agendas? Women are likely, yet again, to have to take a number and wait their turn. The other is that although my post scarcely suggests it, sexual violence is an important rallying point. Reading about Japan, I learned that in some cases, what were originally shelters for refugees were also taking in victims of domestic violence. That to me really underscores the continuum of violence in which most women’s lives play out. And violence in the name of the state—during war, to reinforce state rules, to ensure regime survival—is one stretch on this continuum.

States are bound by international convention to do business with other states. What this means is that when any head of state comes calling, s/he must meet and confer with whatever regime is in power. A strident discourse on human rights and democracy usually becomes background noise as a summit plays out—that’s diplomacy. But where then is the space for women’s rights issues to be raised and discussed in the international arena? Will we have seen something new in the course of President Obama’s international excursions this time and in coming months?

Special Report: Defining Asia

November 15, 2009


As President Obama travels from “Asian summits” at the Asia-Pacific Economic (APEC) forum and the U.S.-ASEAN summit, the Asia Security Initiative blog investigates what we mean by Asia.  Today, three views from India.  In this post, Swarna Rajagopalan asks “What is Asia?”


So, Is President Obama Really Going to Asia?

This week, President Obama is visiting Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul. Five cities of global importance that happen to be located in Asia. East Asia, to be precise. We can go back and forth on Singapore, which is located in Southeast Asia but really, to most Asians is like Europe.

A few weeks ago, I wrote from New Delhi about the great distances within my subcontinent-sized country. Today, I look at Obama’s itinerary and reflect on the size of this continent about which several of us have been blogging for the last six months or more. What is Asia? What does it mean to say something or someone is Asian? A landmass, a continent that embraces 4-5-6 civilizations with spillover along all its geographical frontiers can scarcely be imagined so easily, let alone a policy agenda or diplomatic platform evolved for its ‘teeming billions.’

Most people from this continent find the American conflation of ‘Asia’ with ‘East’ or ‘Pacific’ Asia a little annoying. But it’s a hangover from the times not a lifetime ago, when world maps were colour-coded by colonizer and where regions were named according to their distance from Europe (Near East, Far East, Middle East). Equally, the terms West Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia have little resonance for people from the regions, who usually resent being lumped with others into a category—but at least they are geographically somewhat precise. And they take cognizance of distance, diversity and difference of interest.

President Obama is visiting Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and Seoul. Really, he is visiting East Asia. Far away from the realities of people in Tehran. In Sharjah. In Kandy. In Paro. In Almaty. In Chennai, for that matter. He cannot go everywhere, that’s fine; but let’s understand that his visit has different kinds and different levels of significance for all these people.

President Obama’s discussions will mostly be on bilateral issues. However, since most of these capitals belong to the same one or two regional security complexes, some issues will be discussed more than once and from more than one perspective. But they will still be East Asian issues from East Asian perspectives. And many of them will have neither relevance nor interest to people in other parts of Asia.

Moreover, when the President stops over at the APEC Forum, he will still not be talking with Asia’s leaders. He will be talking with leaders of states around the Pacific and then one or two others. The composition of APEC is not an accident of history; there was a conscious decision to keep a good part of Asia out of the organization.

But APEC is made of many important global players and when they speak they will speak about matters of global importance to a global audience. They will not, however speak for most of Asia and they will certainly not speak to most of Asia’s pressing economic, political and security problems.

Perhaps American interests would be best served if policymakers could start to disaggregate ‘Asia’ and ‘Asian’ in their minds, taking real cognizance of the mind-boggling range of identities and interests here. Hyping this visit as an Asian excursion overstates the reach of this itinerary or any diplomatic agenda the President could possibly have.

International relations scholars like summit diplomacy and the high table of international politics because so much else that we study is abstract, intangible and as we now like to say, ‘constructed:’ constructed by law like the state, constructed by polemics like the nation or constructed by scholars like anarchy and neorealism. But the real value of summit meetings can only be decided on a case by case basis. Perhaps the Obama visit will bring something fresh, something bold to the international politics of East Asia; but until we see that it does, let the buyer beware …

Two reactions from India to Obama’s Cairo speech

June 11, 2009


Responses by two leading Indian commentators who happen to be Muslim.


M.J.Akbar is a leading Indian journalist, editor and author. Arif Mohammed Khan has been in politics for decades and served in the Union government.

M.J. Akbar, Reaching out to a Brotherhood, Khaleej Times, June 8, 2009.

Arif Mohammed Khan, Not a Monolithic Community, Outlookindia.com, June 10, 2009.