How Obama Won Over India

Stroking India’s Ego

For Obama, it was a strikingly successful visit to flaunt major US job-creation gains and cast a spell on India by pandering to its craving for international recognition and status, says Brahma Chellaney

The Economic Times, November 12, 2010

Barack Obama, the charmer, won over India. The US president enthralled Indians by declaring that “in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed UN Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.” He comforted them by saying he will “continue to insist to Pakistan’s leaders that terrorist safe-havens within their borders are unacceptable, and that the terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks be brought to justice.” He flattered them by recalling India’s “treasured past,” its invention of the digit ‘zero’ and its civilization that “has been shaping the world for thousands of years.” And he delighted them by labelling the US-India relationship “the defining partnership of the 21st century.” Mahatma Gandhi found mention in almost all his speeches, to the extent that he linked his rise as president to “Gandhi and the message he shared with America and the world.”


Obama came as a salesman for his country, bagging multibillion-dollar deals and laying the ground for more big contracts, yet the visit will be remembered for his public diplomacy in seeking to elevate his host nation to “its rightful place in the world.” A year earlier, Obama had stroked India’s collective ego by inviting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for his presidency’s first state dinner, leading to the joke that while China gets a deferential America and Pakistan secures billions of dollars in US aid periodically, India is easily won over with a sumptuous dinner and nice compliments.

India actually has exposed its main weakness for long — a craving for international recognition and status. While some states have been able to surmount their colonial legacies, India remains hobbled by a subaltern mindset. It attaches greater value to receiving external recognition and approbation than to the pursuit of resolute, goal-oriented statecraft. It is thus particularly vulnerable to seduction by praise. Other powers play to that weakness through pleasing but empty gestures or statements amounting to little more than ego massage.

In fact, Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, openly played to India’s ego and to Pakistan’s longing for security while unveiling his momentous decision to sell F-16s to Islamabad in March 2005. The same day his administration patronizingly offered to help make India a “major world power in the 21st century.” The Indian elation that greeted the offer helped obscure the larger implications of the F-16 decision.

That decision marked the beginning of a major US rearming of Pakistan with largely India-centric weapon systems. Such lethal supply to Islamabad has continued to date even as the US has emerged as the single largest arms seller to India since 2008. Indian diplomacy has not only failed to persuade Washington to stop arming a terror-exporting Pakistan, but also has put up with the US building parallel intelligence-sharing, defence-cooperation and strategic relationships with Islamabad and New Delhi.

US policy effectively has moved from hyphenation to parallelism. The new approach involves following separate parallel tracks with India and Pakistan, thereby allowing the US to push its interests better. That approach also permits the US to prop up the Pakistani state without causing a crisis with India, with Obama pledging more than $10 billion in aid to Islamabad since last year.

In New Delhi, Obama, “the great communicator,” not only pandered to India’s love of flattery, but also exploited its itch to join every club, including those that were formed to target it. He dangled the prospect of India’s admission — “in a phased manner” after the “evolution” of new membership criteria — to four US-led, technology-control cartels. The capstone of his outreach, however, came when he dangled another carrot — helping India “in the years ahead” to secure a permanent place on the UN Security Council.

That dangling proved the shortest and surest way to India’s heart. The loud applause in Parliament and the national euphoria that greeted that statement helped block out the caveats that Obama had slipped in. Like a schoolmaster lecturing a pupil, Obama told India that if it wanted to make the grade as a candidate for a UNSC permanent seat in the years ahead, it needed to do more, including sharing “increased responsibility” and helping strengthen international norms.

Merely acknowledging India’s claim to a permanent seat costs the US nothing, other than displeasing Pakistan. The US long ago acknowledged Japan’s right to UNSC permanent membership, but that hasn’t brought Tokyo closer to that goal. In truth, Washington has yet to endorse any proposal for UNSC enlargement that can be put to vote. In fact, no existing permanent member favours enlargement in reality (as opposed to rhetoric). And it is doubtful that new veto-holding permanent members will ever be added to an institution that emerged from the ruins of a world war. But that has not stopped India from chasing dreams.

Another area where Obama used beguiling words to thrill his hosts was on US technology controls, to the extent that Dr. Singh prematurely thanked him for his “decision” to “lift” those controls. Far from agreeing to free India from the rigours of such trade curbs, the US has merely committed itself to a continued step-by-step liberalization of its export controls, in sync with Indian actions and concessions. If any decision was announced, it was the US plan to remove some more Indian entities from its blacklist, the “Entity List.” While a welcome move, the removal does not automatically entitle those entities to import high technology because of the broader controls that remain in place against India.


Obama’s visit will undoubtedly strengthen an already-warming bilateral relationship whose geostrategic direction is clearly set — towards closer collaboration. While it is too much to expect a congruence of US and Indian national-security objectives in all spheres, the two countries are likely to deepen their cooperation in areas where their interests converge. Having been nonaligned, India is set to become multi-aligned, while tilting more towards Washington, even as it preserves the core element of nonalignment — strategic autonomy. Obama, for his part, will be remembered for using his power of oratory to recast himself as India’s friend in the same class as Bush. He came with very little to deliver and more to take, yet cast a spell on India.


(c) Economic Times, 2010.


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