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Obama wins over Indians but fails at home

delhi Updated: Nov 01, 2010 21:04 IST

US president Barack Obama is facing a storm of voter discontent but in India where he travels three days after this week’s huge congressional elections, he’s already a winner. More than seven out of 10 Indians endorse his leadership, saying they believe he will do the right thing in world affairs, a Pew poll released in late October showed.

Contrast that with his approval ratings at home just as he heads into the critical midterm election. More people disapprove of his job performance (47 per cent) than the number who approve (45 per cent), according to the latest CBS news/New York Times opinion poll.

It’s not just Obama who gets the thumbs-up. Indians are generally well-disposed toward America even when the rest of the world is less inclined to. According to the Pew poll, nearly two-thirds (66 per cent) express a favourable opinion of the US, although this is down from 76 per cent 2009. By contrast, only 51 per cent Indians rate long-time ally Russia favourably, and even fewer feel this way about the EU (36 per cent) or China (34 per cent). Indeed, Indians don’t even share the common belief that the United States has increasingly been acting on its own. Some (83 per cent) said the US takes the interests of countries like India into account when it makes foreign policy decisions — the highest percentage among the 21 nations surveyed outside the US.

Quite extraordinary, the unequivocal vote of confidence in America even though the Obama administration has been more measured toward India than its predecessor; the strategic warmth that marked the Bush years having cooled off a bit. It’s quite possible that Obama’s trip this week may turn out to be a game changer, but at the moment for every positive aspect of their relationship, you can find another such as trade, climate change where they are on opposite sides.

India, as the Pentagon famously put it not long ago, is neither an adversary nor an ally. It should know; for the last three years as this story notes, the Pentagon has been trying to get a logistical support agreement that will allow US military planes to refuel in India. But politicians have agonised over the decision, worried that it will drive the country deeper into America’s embrace, even though ordinary Indians may not share those misgivings.

America’s popularity in India is in stark contrast to its standing in next door Pakistan, a close ally where it is spending $7.5 billion in civilian aid, not to mention a $2 billion military package approved last week. A similar poll on attitudes in Pakistan conducted by Pew in July found that despite the billions of dollars in civil and military aid, the United States had a serious image problem there. Nearly 60 per cent of those polled in Pakistan described the US as an enemy, while just 11 per cent saw it as a partner. Obama, barely two years in office, is already deeply unpopular. Only 8 per cent of Pakistanis thought that he will do the right thing in world affairs, his lowest rating among the 22 nations that Pew surveyed.

US engagement with Pakistan has been far longer and deeper than India. It’s now virtually involved in an undeclared war against al Qaeda and the Taliban inside Pakistan that most people there see as a blatant violation of its rights as a sovereign nation. The results of the survey, in that sense, cannot be compared with India. But some people, at some point, may start asking if its really worth America’s while to invest in Pakistan when it only seems to turn the country further against it.

At a recent hearing to confirm the new US envoy to Pakistan, Republican senator James Risch asked if there was any sense of appreciation in Pakistan of the amount of money and effort the United States had invested in the country to pull it back from the brink. He said that the United States, deep in debt, was sacrificing its own children’s future by borrowing to invest in Pakistani infrastructure so that country returned to the straight and narrow, and not flirt with militancy.