Obama’s India Visit – A Perspective

By R.Swaminathan

President Barack Obama of USA visited India from 6 to 8 November 2010. The factual details of the visit have all been widely reported by the media.

In the weeks before the visit, there was considerable hype generated in the media, leading to certain high expectations. Analysts and commentators in USA tried to tell what policy changes etc. that India should offer, to be able to please the President. Similarly, analysts and commentators in India were freely advising what the President should offer, to retain India’s goodwill and cooperation. Consequently, the assessment of the value of the visit varied from “a stupendous success” to “a non-event”, depending on the colour (rosiest to the darkest) of the perspective of the viewer. Different analysts seemed to have heard and seen only what they wanted to hear and see.

The pre-visit “wish lists” were in the nature of lobbying for certain policies and seemed to ignore the realities of high level visits like President Obama’s to India. Hardly any spontaneous decision would be taken during the visit, except perhaps gestures like dancing with children or trying out local attire. These visits are meticulously planned and all efforts are made to add symbolism to substance. Areas of policy differences are revisited and changes decided upon well in advance. Agreements, Memoranda of Understanding and even significant commercial deals between private entities are hastened or delayed, only to be signed during the visit. The 10-15 billion dollars worth of commercial deals, announced and signed during the President’s stay in Mumbai, were obviously not reached just that day.

US scholars variously demanded that India should be made to sign the NPT; that India should amend the Nuclear Civil Liabilities Act (extinguishing the right of Indian citizens to seek legal remedy) to suit the demands of US companies – ignoring the fact that the India law was discriminatory against US companies and applied uniformly to all suppliers of nuclear equipment and technology; and there was even a suggestion that India should be made to drop the criminal case against the Chairman of Union Carbide relating to the Bhopal tragedy of 1984. On the other hand, Indian commentators listed most issues (not necessarily bilateral for India-US) of concern to India and wanted the US President to address all of them. It is, of course, unrealistic to expect a visiting Head of State to refer to all issues of concern to all the host countries he/she visits during an extended tour of a region.

On specific issues, there has been a considerable amount of adverse comment about the President’s emphasis on business deals and creation of jobs in USA. Some questions were raised as to what India got in return for helping to create 50-54 thousand jobs in USA. It is difficult to see the logic of expecting anything more than the product contracted for, when placing a commercial order on a manufacturer. Indian entities were not doing any special favour to US companies by ordering items which they must have selected after due diligence and intense negotiations. In any case, when economics and trade rule the world, there is nothing wrong in a government or its chief executive promoting international sales by companies located in their countries. There may be some validity if the feeling is expressed that the US Administration perhaps committed a minor public relations goof-up by over-emphasizing the business deals. However, a discerning observer could understand that the effort was aimed at the domestic constituency in the US.

Some Indian analysts have expressed disappointment that the President did not make any meaningful reference to Sino-Indian relations, particularly to the border dispute that  is seen as a threat to the territorial integrity of India. Objectively, one could appreciate that a reference could not have been made without taking a stand. A statement supporting (or guaranteeing) the territorial integrity of a country in a border dispute with its neighbor is fraught with serious implications and will go way beyond mere symbolism.

On Pakistan, the President felt restrained from going beyond stating that safe havens for terrorists were not acceptable and that the terrorists behind the 26/11 Mumbai attack should be punished. He spoke about the strategic importance of Pakistan in the counter-terrorist efforts of USA. If the US could claim such a reservation, I feel that nothing prevented India from openly claiming that working relations with the regimes in Myanmar and Iran were of strategic importance to India.

There have been strong objections to the President “sermonizing” to India about the responsibilities that accompany power and about criticizing Myanmar and Iran. India has been an old hand at “sermonizing” and should not seriously mind being on the receiving end once in a while. Here again, the President was addressing his constituencies elsewhere too. Personally, I see an encouraging level of comfort in the relationship if the visiting President felt that he could make those statements without offending the hosts.

The successes of the visit included the promise to remove organizations like DRDO and ISRO from the Entities List, the easing of the controls on the export of dual-use technology and equipment to India, and increasing cooperation between the security and defense establishments of the two countries. The statement about India’s desire to have a permanent seat in the UN Security Council was a diplomatic gesture devoid of any promise or commitment. In a way, it was mere icing on the cake – though many analysts may feel that the cake was too small.

The other encouraging things are that differences (like on NPT, the Nuclear Civil Liability Act, outsourcing and H-1B visas etc.) were not expressed in public and that there has largely been bipartisan support (in India and USA) to the outcome of the visit.

Overall, the speech-writers had done a very good job and the President was mostly able to press the right buttons in his major speeches and make the Indian audiences fairly happy. India had indicated interest in many areas. While presenting the menu of what can be offered, President Obama also indicated the price of each item. What the President has effectively done is to reiterate that there is no free lunch in international relations. If one does not like the price, one does not have to order the item.

In conclusion, my overall assessment is that the visit avoided the risk of being worse, and perhaps could not have been much better.

[This brief note was prepared to initiate a discussion at the interaction organized by the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation on 27 November 2010. The author can be contacted at [email protected]]


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SAAG

SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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