Not all that gung-ho
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Not all that gung-ho

During his visit, Barack Obama may allow New Delhi to sidestep certain thorny issues. However, those can't be wished away forever, says Ashok Malik.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 16:45 IST

American presidents (or politicians for that matter) with an abiding interest in India are few and far between. Broadly, these Indophiles come in two types. First, there are those enchanted by India's exotica, its potential as a society and the essential idealism of its democratic experiment.

In various forms Franklin Roosevelt (before Independence), John F Kennedy and Bill Clinton represent this category. Second, there are those - most recently and most saliently George W Bush - who see India as an inevitable strategic partner, with increasing congruence in the three 'T's: trade, technology and terrorism.

As President Barack Obama prepares to fly to Mumbai, it is worth noting he belongs to neither school. He is not a grand strategist and, certainly, India is not a compelling element in his geopolitical matrix. Neither is he a scholar of India, or one with family connections. Even Jimmy Carter, the president the Indian establishment often compares him to, had a mother who spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Maharashtra.

While not putting him in either of the traditional boxes, it is equally important not to see Obama in bipolar, 'yes/no' terms. He is a complex man with a life history that would have sounded implausible if a novelist had invented it. His approach to India is likewise. At a personal level, people who have worked with him say he is fond of India and the Indians he has met. He respects Manmohan Singh as a sober, thinking man's leader. (At a high table the other members of which include Silvio Berlusconi, it is not difficult to see why Obama is drawn to Singh.)

However, more than almost any White House resident in recent years, Obama's diplomacy is a captive of domestic politics. His individual biography and perceived vulnerabilities have added to his sense of siege. As such India faces an unusual situation where an American president backs down from visiting the Golden Temple lest his voters mistake him as Muslim, shies away from Bangalore because it's a centre for outsourcing, and has his team vetting Indian businessmen, wanting to meet only those who create - or at least don't take away - jobs in the United States. Some of those reports may be media exaggeration but there have been too many of them to be dismissed. It explains why the build-up to the Obama visit has been relatively tepid and left ordinary people scratching their heads.

To be fair, it's not just a question of personal preferences but also professional priorities. Obama identifies his as a problem-solving presidency, and India is simply not problem enough. In the past decade, New Delhi's principal constituencies in the US have been the department of defence and American business. Neither institution is Obama's natural ally. Finally, the residual scepticism about rushing into a deeper engagement with India has resurfaced - it had been buried under Bush's political weight - and has found a patient listener in Obama.

In the 1960s or 1980s, the State Department was wary of India because it was in love with Pakistan. Today, it is wary of India because it is in fear and apprehension of Pakistan. If the price to secure some incremental (though disingenuous) Pakistani cooperation in the fight against terrorism or the medium-term withdrawal from Afghanistan is to go slow on a blockbuster strategic alliance with India, then so be it. For better or worse, Obama finds that advice sensible.

This has left its imprint on preparations for the visit. Unlike his trips to Turkey, Egypt or (spectacularly unsuccessfully) China, Obama does not see landing in India as a statement. Unlike Bush or Clinton, he does not consider it an investment for his legacy.

He is attempting a nuts-and-bolts, transactional summit. India will probably be offered substantial concessions in terms of access to dual-use technology and lifting of export controls - in itself a historic gain - but with the expectation of defence orders and enhanced space for American retail, agricultural products and so on.

Yet, it does not become India to moan and groan. Despite the distrust between Obama's political council and the Indian foreign office on the future course in Afghanistan, despite the angularities from Amritsar to outsourcing, despite the big picture about the visit being that it has no big picture, the India-US relationship is still surging. It cannot stop growing; it is only that at certain times, in certain dimensions it may grow less quickly.

That apart, while the Americans are not talking 21st century grand strategy, is India ready for a genuine conversation in the first place? Two years after the nuclear deal, is there any greater sense of what political goals India wants to accomplish with its increasing economic heft? The State Department's criticism that India makes demands - on the nuclear deal, on export controls, on the Security Council seat - without addressing questions of responsibility and delineating New Delhi's strategic blueprint is not inaccurate. For his own reasons, Obama could allow India to sidestep those issues in November. Nevertheless, they can't be wished away forever. Someday, some US president will raise them.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator n The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Oct 31, 2010 22:07 IST