Belittling India

From Bush love to Obama autograph


Brahma Chellaney

Covert magazine, April 15-30, 2009


West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has said he has “great respect” for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh but differs “with his policies, particularly his special love for America.” The way Singh rode roughshod over national institutions, including Parliament, and rammed the controversial Indo-U.S. nuclear deal down the country’s throat did create an impression, however specious, that he was beholden to Washington. In fact, Singh has made not a single statement on the deal — not even to Parliament — even since the much-vaunted deal came to fruition in October 2008.


That silence has to do with the fact that the conditions and riders the U.S. Congress attached while ratifying the deal demolished the solemn assurances Singh had made to Parliament. What may be even more painful for Singh is that the geopolitical advantages the deal was trumpeted to help usher in — including greater U.S. support for India vis-à-vis China and Pakistan — have been belied by the events since, especially the change of administration in Washington. Consequently, as Singh’s term in office ends, there isn’t much of a legacy he can boast of.


Actually, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya would have been more accurate had he referred to Singh’s “special love” for the U.S. president, whoever the incumbent. That personal foible has been highlighted both by Singh’s April 2 meeting with Barack Obama in London, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, and by his September 25, 2008 joint news conference at the White House with George W. Bush. In London, to the surprise of the Americans present, Singh began his bilateral meeting by asking for Obama’s autograph for his daughter on a book authored by Obama. Addressing Obama, Singh quoted his daughter as saying: “I would cherish [it] if you could get Mr. Obama to autograph the book.” Singh went on to tell Obama: “You are much loved and respected in India.”


Later that day, when Obama was asked straightforwardly at a news conference what “America is doing to help India tackle terrorism emanating from Pakistan,” he began by calling Singh “a wonderful man” and then disclosed that he and Singh had discussed terrorism “not simply in terms of terrorism emanating from Pakistan… But we spoke about it more broadly…” Here is Obama showering Pakistan with billions of dollars in additional U.S. aid. But Singh, rather than focus on the Pakistani-scripted terror attacks in India, discusses the terrorism challenge “more broadly,” and indeed begins his meeting by seeking Obama’s autograph for his daughter. What happens if Obama’s Pakistan gamble doesn’t pay off?


Now consider Singh’s September 25, 2008 news conference with Bush. Singh started by reading a prepared statement. Almost every paragraph in that ended with a schmaltzy tribute to Bush:


·                           “And the last four-and-a-half years that I have been prime minister I have been the recipient of your generosity, your affection, your friendship. It means a lot to me and to the people of India.”


·                           “In these last four-and-a-half years, there has been a massive transformation of India-United States relations. And Mr. President, you have played a most-important role in making all this happen.”


·                           “And when history is written I think it will be recorded that President George W. Bush made an historic goal in bringing our two democracies closer to each other.” 


·                           “And when this restrictive regime ends I think a great deal of credit will go to President Bush. And for this I am very grateful to you, Mr. President.” 


·                           “So, Mr. President, this may be my last visit to you during your presidency, and let me say, Thank you very much. The people of India deeply love you…”


               This will go down in history easily as the most-fawning statement ever made by an Indian prime minister about a foreign leader. America and India, the world’s most-powerful and most-populous democracies, need to build close strategic ties, founded on shared political values and mutual respect and understanding. Singh’s record, however, shows he was unable to pursue such an objective without conducting himself in a manner belittling India, even if inadvertently.


(c) Covert, 2009.

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