It’s easy to be down on the Obama visit. After all, the Republicans have just seized control of the House of Representatives after an electoral upheaval of mammoth proportions. The president is being blamed for the public hostility towards his Democratic Party and Republican leaders have sworn that their mission is to ensure that Barack Obama remains a one-term president.
Then, there are the specifics of the visit. Judging by the things Obama said in Washington just before his departure to India, he is focussing on bringing jobs to America, where unemployment hovers just below 10%. And Indian industry has become so obsessed with America’s opposition to outsourcing that TV discussions have taken on an almost surreal air — as though Obama is an American trade official and India’s interests begin and end with the health of the call-centre industry.
There is also the Pakistan problem. No matter what we say or how anguished we are, there is no doubt that the CIA continues to work closely with the ISI. Washington knows that Islamabad is — at the very least — unwilling to act against those who spread terror in India. And yet, the administration continues to refer to Pakistan as an ally in the war on terror (or whatever they are calling it this week) and America persists in funnelling billions of dollars worth of arms and other aid to Islamabad.
And yet, even though I concede that all of these objections are entirely valid, I remain resolutely optimistic.
The truth is that America and India are, to use AB Vajpayee’s famous phrase, natural allies. It isn’t just all that stuff about the world’s two largest democracies. It is also the hard reality of geo-politics. In the long run, the biggest challenge to America comes from China. If the US is to contain that threat, then it needs the support of the other emerging power in Asia. India represents America’s best hope of balancing out China’s influence and of creating a real rival to Beijing’s global ambitions.
That is the long-term reality.
It wasn’t always so. If you contrast the attitude of Bill Clinton during his first term when he virtually ignored India to the warmth he directed towards us during his second term in the White House then you get some idea of when the change occurred. Some time towards the end of the 90s, America recognised two things. One: that China was going to be a much bigger threat than had been previously believed. And two: that India had finally got its act together.
Since then, presidents have come and gone. Clinton was followed by George Bush. And Bush was followed by Obama. It is entirely possible that two years from now America will have a new president. But no matter who sits in the Oval Office, the logic of the America-India partnership is unassailable. So, it doesn’t really matter whether Obama is a one-term president or whether he succeeds in winning the next election. This relationship is not about individuals. Vajpayee was the prime minister who forged our relationship with Clinton and then, Bush. But Manmohan Singh was able to take the engagement forward almost effortlessly because it is our two countries that are the real allies, not the various individuals who lead them at different points in history. That said, there are two irritants to the relationship.
But one is short-term. And the other is medium-term at best. The short-term problem is a reflection of the economic mess that America now finds itself in. While the US economy appears to be reviving, employment has yet to pick up. In the circumstances, all American politicians have no choice but to fall back on the protectionist rhetoric they keep asking the rest of the world to eschew. They will prevent cheap imports from flooding the market so that American factories continue to flourish and American jobs are safe. They will prevent jobs from being outsourced to Bangalore and other Indian cities so that no American is ever Bangalored. And so on.
Obviously, such policies are not in India’s interests. And inevitably, they will adversely impact sectors of our economy. But here’s the good part: they make little difference to the Indian economy as a whole and they are, almost by definition, a short-term phenomenon. When the American economy looks up, the protectionist rhetoric will fade and this irritant will be removed.
The medium-term irritant is Pakistan. Because Pakistan is, by itself, a country of no great consequence, it’s cunningly sold itself to America as a route to other more consequential places. During the Cold War, it offered America bases from which spy planes could keep a watch on the Soviet Union and became part of an anti-Communist alliance. In 1971, it became Henry Kissinger’s entry point for China. In the 80s, it became an aircraft-carrier for the Americans to use in their war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
And now, Pakistan is trading its proximity to Afghanistan for favours from Washington. The Americans can’t fight al-Qaeda in Afghanistan without going through Pakistan. They need the ISI. They need the Pakistan Army. And Pakistan continues to exploit this dependence to its own advantage.
No matter how much we complain about Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism directed at India or protest that America does not share all the information it gets about Pakistani terrorists with us (i.e. the Headley affair), this is not going to change. As long as America is in Afghanistan, Pakistan is going to remain important. And in the area of terrorism, India’s interests are going to have to take a backseat to America’s partnership with the Pakistan army and the ISI for its Afghan adventure.
The good news is that this is not a long-term phenomenon. America’s Afghan mission won’t end in the next year or so. But equally, it’s unlikely to last long into this decade. And once Washington loses interest in Afghanistan, Pakistan ceases to be of any relevance.
So, let’s not get too distracted by Obama’s plummeting popularity. Let’s not confuse the short-term performance of the call-centre industry with India’s long-term interests. And let’s recognise that the American engagement with Pakistan — no matter how irritating it may seem to Indians — is necessarily time-bound.
Let’s look, instead, to the future; to a future where America and India remain natural allies, united by the pragmatism of geo-political dependence. And, of course, by a shared belief in democracy and liberal values.
The Obama visit is not about outsourcing, about Pakistan or about the president’s own popularity. It is one more step down the road in formulating an alliance between two great countries that will endure into the future.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)