In the week of President Barack Obama’s brief but fairly meaningful visit to India and his warm embrace of the India-United States strategic partnership, it's tempting to see him and his predecessor, George W. Bush, as similar to John Godfrey Saxe’s wise men of Hindustan.
In his well-known work “The Blind Men and the Elephant: A Hindoo Fable,” the 19th century American poet retold an Indian parable about six wise but visually-challenged men describing the same elephant. Each man touched a different part of the beast – a tusk, the tail, the trunk and so on – and drew a conclusion correct from his individual experience. None of the six men offered a full and accurate description of an elephant.
Obama, like Bush before him, committed himself to a wide-ranging partnership with India, with economic and strategic, regional and global implications. Even so, each man chose to define the elephant in his own way: Bush had alluded to a compelling contest for supremacy in Asia and the containment of China, viewing evangelical promotion of democracy as a shared enterprise. Obama, self-identifying as the liberal internationalist rather than neo-con, couched the partnership in terms of an economic compact, the vast untapped potential of bilateral trade, the resolve of fellow democracies to stand up for common ideals and human rights. In effect, the two men described the same goal.
It was a happy but anticlimactic conclusion to a visit that had aroused only limited expectations among Obama’s hosts. The president had come with baggage. Bush’s affinity for India had made him one of the most popular American presidents in the country’s history. He received a standing ovation from New Delhi’s strategic establishment when he delivered a speech in winter of 2009 during only his second post-presidency visit abroad. It was a thanksgiving tour to a country that hadn’t forgotten his advocacy and delivery of freedom from a three-decade nuclear trade moratorium. That game-changing deal allowed India to engage in civil nuclear commerce without dismantling its nuclear weapons and signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
When Obama took office, there was scepticism in India. Despite the chemistry between him and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – both are seen as reserved, intellectual politicians, without a taste for the cunning and street fighting public life often requires – almost nothing Obama proposed sounded appealing to New Delhi. There was suspicion on several counts: Afghanistan and the trajectory and timetable of the war; Kashmir and possible US intervention; Obama’s rhetoric against outsourcing. Even on nuclear non-proliferation, Obama’s instincts were not comforting. Bush had sought to distinguish between “good” proliferators and “bad” proliferators, putting India in the former category. Influential Democrats did not appreciate the nuance.
Yet, in the end none of this mattered. Obama gave the Indians both what they wanted and what they wanted to hear. Some of his words were symbolic. He asked Pakistan to act against terror sanctuaries and bring to justice those responsible for the Mumbai massacre of November 26, 2008. He also put US weight behind India’s candidacy for a permanent seat in a restructured United Nations Security Council at some unspecified future date.
Considered pragmatically, neither is a cast-iron guarantee. Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex is not answerable to anything – persuasion, love and charity, strong words, coercion, nothing. As for the Security Council seat, China remains India’s most formidable obstacle. UN reform is in any case multi-layered and will unfold in the coming decades rather than months.
The meat of the visit lay elsewhere. Obama furthered the logic of Bush’s “nuclear deal” and offered to remove Indian organizations from the US Department of Commerce’s Entity List, names of persons or organizations subject to specific license requirements for the export or transfer of sensitive items – as well as relax export control regulations that denied India access to dual-use technology. In a sense, he rolled back the last rug of the Cold War.
Driven by the fear of high unemployment at home, Obama also sought new markets for America. He flew out with the strong indication of purchase orders from the Indian military for its ambitious hardware upgrade program, which could create thousands of jobs in the US. The president reported with satisfaction that deals between Indian and US companies, such as GE and Boeing, concluded during his visit would by themselves create more than 50,000 American jobs.
Initial headlines were about Obama subtly ducking the hard questions on Pakistan’s terror complex and pushing this as a transactional summit. The details offered greater complexity. The Singh-Obama joint statement spoke of a “global strategic partnership for the 21st century” and of a need to “deepen existing regular strategic consultations on developments in East Asia” as well as “pursue joint development projects with the Afghan government.” Along with the unilateral nomination of India for a permanent slot at the Security Council, this implied Obama’s willingness to annoy China, Pakistan and the European Union as he went about courting South Asia’s lumbering giant. For a man whose diplomacy has been marked by calibration, caution and care, it was almost reckless behavior.
What does it add up to? It's now apparent that the strategic espousal of India, the quest to make it a great power, is a genuine bipartisan project in the US. This is one element of the Bush legacy that Obama has not repudiated and has seen no reason to repudiate. For all the polemics, even the outsourcing debate is a non-starter. India’s IT-enabled services industry is high profile, but scarcely critical to India’s economy or, on the other hand, to American job losses. China and the East Asian economies, with their stripping of US manufacturing, have done much greater damage to blue-collar America.
For its part, India has a greater stake in the US and its recovery than ever before. In recent months, New Delhi had watched the loss of nerve and strategic paralysis in Washington, DC, with apprehension. In conceding short-term manoeuvrability to China, Singh’s foreign-policy advisers have often argued, the Obama administration has both given Beijing an overstated idea of its power as well as come dangerously close to legitimising an alternative to the liberal democracy-free market template.
The Obama visit served to dismiss such alarmism. However, for India much work remains. The US president revealed the contours of a new grand bargain: access to American technology for access to Indian markets. This poses a twofold challenge for Singh: He needs to open up India’s economy to foreign capital in areas as far apart as financial services and retail. He also must undertake policy reform – in labour and land-use laws, for example, or speed of industrial licensing – to optimise absorptive capacities for the high-tech that will be available.
This is not easy, given the opposition to the Indian prime minister’s preferred pace of economic change not just within the Indian polity but even within his own party, the Congress. Nevertheless, Obama’s – and America’s – hand of friendship is incumbent upon India sustaining and improving on its current high growth rates. Should that cease to be a given, so will the “global strategic partnership for the 21st century.” President Obama was too polite to say it bluntly; even so, the message could not have been lost on Prime Minister Singh.
Ashok Malik is a senior journalist and columnist in New Delhi. He writes for a variety of Indian and foreign publications on, primarily, India’s political economy and foreign policy, and their increasing intersection. He has just finished a paper for the Sydney-based Lowy Institute on business and civil society influences on Indian foreign policy. Rights:Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization YaleGlobal Online