Obama’s India Visit

November 1, 2010 at 8:05 am | Posted in Political Economy | Leave a comment
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Projections that the Republicans will make substantial gains in the midterm elections add significance to President Barack Obama’s visit to India during the Diwali weekend. The visit was to focus on two issues: the economy and geopolitics.


To underline the importance of economics and to tap into India’s growing market, President Obama–unlike the four other US presidents who have visited India–will begin his visit in Mumbai, the country’s business capital and will spend more time there than in New Delhi. He is also bringing with him a bevy of some 250 CEOs of US corporations as the US seeks increased access to Indian markets not only for the large transnational corporations but also for small- and medium-scale enterprises. Reflecting domestic US concerns about outsourcing jobs to India, unlike his immediate two predecessors, President Obama will not travel to the information technology centers of Hyderabad and Bangalore. And, because so many in the US continue to believe that their president is a Muslim, despite all evidence to the contrary, President Obama has also eschewed a visit to the holiest of Sikh gurdwaras–the Golden Temple in Amritsar–as he would have to cover his head and this may be construed by the rabid right-wing in the United States as him being Muslim!


While Indian capitalists bristle at allegations that they use unfair trade practices to take jobs away from Americans and resent restrictions placed on the employees they can send to the US, they are also more closely linked to the United States than ever before. For one thing–partly to ensure access to high-level contacts–they have been making substantial donations to US universities. Ratan Tata donated $50 million to Cornell University in 2008 and followed it up with a $50 million donation to the Harvard Business School last month–the largest international private donation in the institution’s 102-year history. Several other Indian industrialists–Nandan Nilekani, Anand Mahindra. N. R. Narayana Murthy, among others–have made substantial donations to US universities–and strikingly none to more cash-strapped Indian institutions of higher learning.

Apart from seeking access to US policy makers, these donations reflect close family relationships with US universities–many of the industrialists and their children have studied in the universities that are now the recipients of their largesse. Indeed, most Indian middle- and upper-class families have relatives now living in the US, most of them working in the software, financial, and engineering sectors and fully supportive of US policies. Perhaps the most indicative sign of the growing influence of US “soft” power was the recruitment of Washington Redskins cheerleaders to provide a model for Indian cheer leaders in that most un-American game: cricket (though cricket was once the preferred bat-and-ball game among colonists in what is now the US!). And shamefully, India was only one of three countries–the others being Israel and the United States–where there was popular support for the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

This congruence of strategic interests gains added significance in the light of likely Republican gains in the US midterm elections. Many Republicans have expressed their opposition to ‘nation-building’ exercises in Afghanistan and yet a resolution to the ongoing problems in Afghanistan continues to be elusive. Just last week, a joint raid on opium producing facilities by NATO, the Russians, and the Afghan Interior Ministry’s Counter-Narcotics Police Sensitive Investigative Unit and National Interdictive Unit was denounced by President Hamid Karzai as “a blatant violation of Afghanistan’s sovereignty.”

Leaving aside, Karzai’s chutzpah, India is an obvious partner to the US in Afghanistan: it is already the largest regional donor to Afghanistan and is eager to increase its role there to gain “strategic depth” against Pakistan and to emerge as a regional power. Republican opposition to foreign aid also provides an opportunity for India to step up its aid to Africa and show that it is more than a regional power–that its tentacles spread beyond the South Asian region. Of course, it is deeply ironic that the Indian government is stepping in to provide aid to Africa when not only do many Indian states fall below many African states in the Global Hunger Index but many Indian companies are now buying land or leasing land in Africa to export crops back to India. Surely, for sheer immorality, exporting food from an chronically food-deficient continent cannot be beaten. But such ironies are lost on the policy-making establishments!

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For the Indian government, partnership with the United States is essential for India’s emergence as a global power–though what that says about the nature of its ‘global power’ if such status depends on another (the US) is never discussed! For the United States, given its enduring difficulties in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a continued economic downturn at home, India provides a counterweight to China. President Obama had come to office seeking a strategic partnership with China and last year, in his first visit to Asia after assuming office, his speech on Asian Security in Tokyo did not even mention India–a factor which probably led to him having Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as guest for his first state dinner at the White House.

Since then, increasing difficulties with China, and China’s assertive stance towards its neighbors and a brief stoppage in the export of rare earths to Japan, the US, and increasing Chinese incursions into the Indian Ocean have shifted US foreign policy perceptions. Hence, it is now willing to sell advanced weaponry to India to cement ties between the two countries and of course to boost the US domestic economy.While the Indian political leadership welcomes these initiatives, what they would most like to see is unambiguous and strong US support for a seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. This is unlikely, though President Obama may sponsor India’s membership in the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG) formed by an angry US administration in 1974 after India’s first ‘peaceful’ nuclear explosion to deny India dual-use nuclear technology.


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