In politics timing and popular mood significantly impact policy and colour the perception. President Barak Obama is coming to India this week. But the visit by the leader of the only superpower in the world has not raised much expectation among Indians, this time. The only hope is that there would not be any new flashpoint, given the whole range of issues on which the perceptions between the two governments diverge today. But most importantly, what is missing is a mutually shared vision that looks convincing!
Obama could not have chosen a worse time to come calling. If his Democratic party loses significant number of seats in the mid-term Congressional election this week, he would have lost a lot of political capital. In the US, this trip to Asia may be seen in the political circles as a way to escape the immediate political fallout, and that might tempt Obama to notch up the rhetoric in order to reestablish his political credentials at home.
This visit was planned a year ago, but even a week is a long time in politics. Today, the political climate in both countries has changed. In India, the Dr Manmohan Singh’s government, which had got reelected in the general election of 2009, there is a sense of political drift, as the ruling coalition has lurched from allegations of corruption and knee-jerk policy formulations. In the US, Obama administration has been unable to convince a lot of Americans about the efficacy of corporate bailouts and economic stimulus in reviving the economy. So it is natural that leaders of both the countries will be more focused on the developments at home, rather than abroad.
Let’s look at the two issues which could have transformed the dynamic between the two sides, and taken the relationship to a really new phase. For the first time, the Indian side has agreed to buy fighter aircrafts from the US, worth $11 billion. And for the first time in decades that the US had agreed to sell offensive military equipments to India. Yet, the Indian government is unable to bell the cat, unsure of the political cost.
Likewise, the US administration is keen that the India’s civil nuclear liability law meets the concerns of the private players. This would have taken the hard fought India-US nuclear deal to a culmination. But in the aftermath of the re-ignition of the controversy over the Bhopal gas leak in 1984, the Indian government is unsure whether to risk further political capital at this moment.
The contrast with the 2006, visit by George W Bush could not be more stark. Bush and Manmohan Singh had staked huge political capital on the India-US nuclear deal. Bush was already becoming unpopular at home because of the direction of the war in Iraq, and there were high decibel protests in India too. Manmohan Singh risked the survival of his government to get the deal signed.
No US president had done so much to accommodate India. And No Indian prime minister had put so much faith in a single piece of Indo-US policy. To this day many Indian policy wonks wonder why and how such a thing came about. This was one rare instance when two political leaders chose to lead from the front, in the face of major opposition to the deal on both sides. But this spark of leadership was underscored by an unusual level of trust and confidence the two leaders seemed to enjoy.
Obama will address the joint session of Indian Parliament during this visit later this week. In 2006, rising political temperature in India meant that Bush did not get the same honour. Bush spoke to a select audience under shadow of the old fort in Delhi. Most Indian’s who heard that speech felt convinced that George W Bush truly believed in India’s democracy. The shared values of democracy, tolerance and pluralism were not mere clichés, but ideals that Bush and Manmohan Singh really believed in, and were convinced that the other truly shared that belief.
Once that kind of relationship is established, almost all political obstacles can be overcome. Manmohan Singh and the Congress party leadership were completely vindicated when the parties that had opposed the new Indo-US camaraderie lost heavily in the 2009 general election. This is why the Indian prime minister had unusually warmly received Bush even after he had demitted office.
Obama had come to the world stage capturing the imagination of the people with his inspiring ‘Yes we can’ theme. Yet, he seems to lack the broad political vision that unites many people for a common purpose. Consequently, Obama, who won promising bipartisanship in domestic affairs, has now polarized the Americans as much as Bush or Bill Clinton. Internationally, Obama’s personal approval rating is still high, but over the past years his charisma has lost a lot of shine.
Obama’s lack of unifying vision could be on display during his maiden trip to India. To his credit, he is the first US leader to come to India so early in his term. If reelected in 2012, Obama may have an opportunity to come to India again, and perhaps he would discover his own vision by then. But this time, it is clear that in two years India and the US have drifted apart on a whole range of issues.
Obama has three key issues on his international agenda – Af-Pak, the Yuan-US dollar exchange rate, and climate change. In none of them the two sides share a common perspective. Either the US administration does not see any significant role for India, as in Af-Pak, or the Indian priorities are different as in climate change.
India is one of the few countries where popular approval of the US has been consistently high right through this decade, ranging from 66 to 75%. There are over 2 million people of Indian origin who have made the US their home. While the proportion of India’s trade with the US has declined, US is the third largest trading partner of India, after China and the EU. The US is by far the largest foreign investor in India.
Needless to say, India still has a long way to go before becoming an attractive economic destination. But Obama’s talk of restricting outsourcing, migration, and trade, in order to help domestic interest groups, has not endeared him to many Indians.
India is one of those few countries where public sentiment on globalization and openness has been consistently high. Yet, today many Indians feel that as they are getting ready to access the world, the US is trying to keep the world out.
Obama wants to build upon the existing economic relationship. Given the grim employment situation in the US, he would like to be seen as a salesman promoting beneficial economic ties. But if the policy environment is relatively stable, economic ties don’t necessarily depend on political unity or strategic convergence. The US was the largest trading partner of India during the cold war, although the two governments were on the different sides. Today, China is India’s largest trading partner although there is a big political divide between the two.
Obama is expected to make some concessions to the export control order that restricts India’s access to sensitive and dual use technologies. Some of India’s defence and space research organizations may get some exemptions. This is something that India had been seeking for a long time. But without the overarching political agenda, this step is likely to get lost among technical discussions. Obama may also indicate the US support for India’s place on the UN Security Council. But this is something that the US may not be able to deliver anytime soon given the geopolitical situation, and China’s position.
When Bill Clinton visited India in 2000, the reception was euphoric. A lot of Indians saw the first visit by an US president after a gap of 20 years, following the economic reforms of the 1990s, as an indication of India’s emergence on the global stage. But in the aftermath of India exploding nuclear devices in 1998, Clinton hardly had any