Now that the Obamas have left India, two questions might usefully be asked about the progress of their visit.
The first relates to Obama’s speech in Parliament. Indian officials say they were surprised to hear Obama deliver a sort of endorsement of India’s right to a permanent seat in the Security Council. The President also took a slightly more India-pleasing position on Pakistan during his speech to Parliament than he had earlier in his visit. Moreover, the joint statement issued by India and America at the end of the Obama trip called for Pakistan to take action against the perpetrators of 26/11. This was a big deal in diplomatic terms. It was as though the US was endorsing India’s claim that Pakistan was not doing enough to bring the 26/11 terrorists to justice.
There is no doubt that Obama told us more of what we wanted to hear at the end of his visit than he had at the start. Was this pre-planned? Was he building up to a Big Bang during the Parliament speech while playing down expectations earlier?
Or was there an element of course correction?
Without the benefit of inside information, we cannot say anything with certainty. But it does seem possible that the US President and his party, recognising that the trip was not going well, decided that they did not want it to end in failure. Hence, the attempt to please India and to say the things we wanted to hear.
For anyone with any knowledge of American politics, the idea of course correction is a reasonable one. American politicians are enormously sensitive to public opinion. Their actions are guided by regular opinion-research, by an examination of the media and by consistent monitoring of the Internet. Unlike Indian politicians who tend to make up their minds on policy issues and are reluctant to change course mid-way, American politicians are much more willing to correct the course and to chart a more popular path through a troubled region.
It is not outlandish to imagine the Obama team looking at the response and deciding that the President needed to say something that sounded more substantive. After all, when Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, visited India, he brought the nuclear deal with him. This President had nothing as substantive to offer. Could it be that he decided that India would not be satisfied with a bit of Presidential dancing and required something meatier to regard the trip as a success?
If this was indeed the case, then the Big Bang with which Obama ended his trip makes perfect sense. While much is read into his statement about Pakistan becoming a safe haven for terrorists, you could argue that he was merely re-stating the US position that Al Qaeda and Taliban elements were taking refuge in Pakistan. Similarly, the statement on the Security Council sounded dramatic but offered sufficient wriggle room because of the vagueness of the time frame and the lack of specifics about UN reform. Anyway, the US has already made a similar commitment about a permanent seat to Japan.
But because these statements sounded more dramatic than they may actually turn out to be, Obama ended his trip in a blaze of glory.
If you accept that the answer to the first question about whether there was a course question is yes, then a second question needs to be asked.
Did the media have anything to do with the change of tone in Obama’s statements?
By the end of Obama’s first day in India, sections of the media had got increasingly belligerent. There were complaints that the President was behaving like a travelling salesman and that his real interest was in pleasing the folks back home by promising them more jobs and economic benefits. Obama was not doing enough for India, many people said. Unlike Bush, he had nothing concrete to offer. He was too frightened of antagonising Pakistan to even name the country.
On the second day, when he delivered a long and rambling answer to a school-girl’s question about Pakistan, portraying it as a victim of terror, more voices in the media had joined in the protests. The general feeling was that the Obamas had failed to connect with the Indian people.
It was only on the last day that Obama won over India when he finally expressed some concerns about terrorism emanating from Pakistan and threw in a reference to the Security Council seat, no matter how vague these statements may seem on close examination.
So, here’s my question: did the Indian media actually help our country get what it needed? Did our belligerence serve to push Obama in the right direction? Many wise men complained that the media were needlessly obsessed with Pakistan. But did that obsession actually work to India’s advantage? Did Obama’s advisors, looking at the failure of the media to be impressed by his statements, decide that they had to pump up the volume and add a few more welcome riffs?
I have no idea what the answers to these questions are. But you have to concede that it seems like a plausible scenario. A Presidential visit appears to be in trouble because of negative media commentary and so, the President finally changes course.
In that case, should we stop asking our media to always be responsible and restrained? With an image-conscious US President, the media can often be more effective tools of change than the work of well-meaning diplomats.