President Obama, can you better Bush?



About a month ago, I had accompanied the ambassador of a foreign mission in New Delhi on a trip to a north Indian city on his personal invitation. I was seated with him in his car, as we drove along a glinting highway. We were constantly talking. Our banter focused on foreign relations, India’s meteoric rise and the economy, etc.

I asked the ambassador whether the world really shared our own perception of being a world power-in-waiting. In other words, what exactly do people in the US or Europe or elsewhere make of us?

Much to my satisfaction, the ambassador said the world indeed recognized India as a rapidly emerging power. But there is a problem, he said. India does not realize how much it can bargain diplomatically with its economic power, which China effectively does.

If a country China was dealing with will not yield to its demands, China would punch that country right in its nose and say, “give it or lose your market for good”. That’s what India fails to do, he said. We can’t assert ourselves.

I think the ambassador’s observations could not have been more relevant than now, when President Obama is visiting India.

After a widely expected drubbing in the US mid-terms, the American president has minced no words about his upcoming mission: to open up markets in Asian countries, such as India, for American business.

The goal is to get jobs faster, get the lives of middle-class Americans up and running faster and get the US economy moving again.

The US unemployment rate — the percentage of that country’s labour force without jobs — is 9.6%. Its lousy economy is struggling at mere 2%, while India’s growth rate is clocking 8%.

The American middle-class has not yet found its confidence back. Indians, on the other hand, are consuming tones of culturally auspicious gold and splurging handsomely on fireworks on the occasion of the Hindu festival Diwali — a sign of its prosperity.

So, what should we be doing? We should simply be negotiating from a position of strength.

A decade ago, India had no global company worth its name. Today, the Tata group earns half of its revenue from business abroad. There is no overall threat to the Indian economy as on date, save for a slightly high inflation.

When I say all this, I take away nothing from the fact that India and US share a great strategic interest, have common interest and goals. Both countries have come closer in newer ways that shape their respective destinies.

In the 50s, when India did not produce enough food to meet domestic demands, the US provided India with free as well as subsidized grains through the PL 480 regime. (PL 480 derives from the Public Law 480, also known as the Food for Peace Program, which is the US’ concessional food aid programme.)

I do not share the view among some that President Obama is here to mine for only jobs and to take away as much as he can for his country’s floundering economy. Business is never a zero-sum game. By definition, business is always bilateral.

For Muslims who are still uneasy about America, it is important to remember that India’s embrace of the US is not about selling its soul. It is about gaining in stature, internationally, and forging a mutually beneficial future.

I also do not agree with a section of the media and the Opposition for criticizing President Obama’s speech at the Taj in Mumbai for not mentioning Pakistan. Such criticism appears to me nothing but unproductive quibbling about details.

The US president is not here to badmouth Pakistan, though he did mention that country and terror emanating from its soil during an interaction session with Mumbai students. Diplomacy is not about loud-mouthed rhetoric but silent progress.

The transformation that the US’ relationship with New Delhi has undergone is a great turn-round from what it used to be during the Cold-War era. Now is the time to ambitiously turn that partnership to even more substantive interlock. President Obama must pick up from where his predecessor George Bush left.

However, let us not forget that the US desperately needs vast markets, such as India’s, which will buy its weapons, its processed foods, its technologies and products. Indian businesses are lapping up their competitors, acquiring global and US rivals menacingly. India itself remains a captive market of a billion-plus people, next only to China.

Addressing a press conference on November 3, immediately after his speech on the US mid-term election results, Obama hit upon the home truth. He said: “And we should be able to agree now that it makes no sense for China to have better rail systems than us and Singapore having better airports than us. And we just learned that China now has the fastest supercomputer on Earth. That used to be us.” Click for full text

Note the last sentence in the above quote: “That used to be us.” First, the Americans conceded manufacturing. Then, they gave away brain-intensive jobs. Now, Bangalore has better jobs than Boston. India has smartly turned itself into the world’s back-office. Americans want India to open up its retail, insurance and banking markets. On the foreign policy front, the US can only bank on India to counterweight China.

Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of state, and Nicholas Burns, former under secretary of state for political affairs — who both serve on the Center for a New American Security — commissioned recent paper which stated that US should support India’s permanent membership in an enlarged United Nations Security Council.

Truth be told, the US is eyeing rich pickings from India. Therefore, India ought to pull off some smart deals and build on gains, such as the nuclear deal.

Let’s open up our markets for the US in return for tightening the screws on Pakistan, cracking down on terror emanating from it and limiting US military aid to that country.

India should munificently roll out its markets but push for a permanent seat in the Security Council. We must get the US to work harder for our national interests if we are to work for theirs. India’s economic surge should be at the heart of its foreign policy. And we must get President Obama to make Indo-US relationship a truly special one.

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