Obama’s Passage to India

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chat during the State Dinner at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace, in New Delhi, November 8, 2010

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chat during the State Dinner at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace, in New Delhi, November 8, 2010

In his seminal work, Passage to India, the great American poet of the nineteenth century Walt Whitman said “that he sees the passage to India as the event to aid in the melding of ‘land, geographies’.” When President Barack Obama starts his “Passage to India” he will embark on a journey that may enable him to find a place in history.

It’s too early to predict what history will make of Obama. His legacy will largely be determined by how he overcomes two major struggles. The first being the economic recession; the second, the war in Afghanistan. The president can hope to win on both fronts by successfully courting India during his upcoming trip.

The first question is what India can offer that other countries cannot? Being close to Afghanistan, India can offer more tactic support. It has the most to gain from the United States succeeding in Afghanistan. Were the country to descend into chaos once again, it might destabilize India’s immediate neighborhood. It is in India’s national interest to help the United States out of the mess in Afghanistan.

Since 2001, India has contributed $1.2 billion to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, making it the largest regional donor to the country. What more can it do?

India might not hesitate to act as a mediator between Iran and the United States to recreate the atmosphere that existed in the brief interlude between the fall of the Taliban and George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address — in which the president declared Iran part of the “Axis of Evil.” Indian strategic thinkers have pushed their government to accept more demanding global leadership which includes acting as a positive third party mediator in relations between Washington and Tehran. Having Iran on board could solve numerous strategic, logistical and tactical challenges faced by US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan. This could be a real surge.

For that to happen, President Obama needs to reaffirm that India has a place at the high tables of international relations. There needs to be a paradigm shift in the Indo-US relationship. India might not hesitate to take on a greater role internationally if it is recognized legally. India’s leadership moreover would like some assurance from Obama on the expansion of the United Nations Security Council in order to accommodate India as a permanent member.

The George W. Bush Administration came close to agreeing on this and in fact, by providing access to civilian nuclear technology to one of the few countries that isn’t party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, President Bush acknowledged India as a de facto nuclear power which is, in a way, the first step toward permanent UN Security Council membership.

Less recent history shows that Indo-American relations are more troublesome than that though. From the moment India attained independence in 1947, its ties with the United States have been ridden with mistrust. During the Cold War, India refused to side with either ideological camp as part of the nonalignment movement but did sympathize with the Soviet Union whereas the US was portrayed as a capitalistic and imperialistic power.

The fall of the Soviet Empire in the early 1990s provided reason for India and the United States to normalize relations but the 1998 Pokhran Nuclear Test was a major setback. For some time, the United States continued to regard India through the prism of the Cold War moreover. By hyphenating Pakistan and interpreting internal political fractures as an impediment to regional power, India’s role in global affairs was denied. Initially under President Bill Clinton, whose visit to India in March 2000 was a breakthrough for Indo-American relations, and later under President Bush, India become a major player as far as the United States were concerned.

Indian policymakers sympathized with the neoconservative world views held by several of the leading voices in the Bush Administration. The current president’s skepticism of this philosophy has been cause for concern in New Delhi. Although Obama calls himself as Pacific President and can claim a linkage to the Indian Ocean through his Kenyan father, his world view seems to be more influenced by the Boston Harvard Liberal outlook. The Indian administration had never been comfortable with this.

In recent decades, India has always appreciated Republicans more than Democrats. The conservative Ronald Reagan, pragmatic George H.W. Bush and neoconservative George W. Bush never demanded anything more from India and left it to itself. The liberal John F. Kennedy and Ivy League intellectual Bill Clinton on the other hand wanted India either to agree to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation regime or submit to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Even during the American presidential election of 2008, Indian strategic thinkers secretly prayed for John McCain’s victory over Obama considering the troubles of previous Democratic presidencies. Obama should use his trip to alleviate any fears among the Indian political leadership about his commitment to greater India’s role in world affairs.

On the economic front, the questions remains how the United States will extend dominance into the twenty-first century. The long term strategy has to tap the growing entrepreneurial energy that is emerging from India. By actively cooperating with India’s business establishment and attracting the brightest and talented youngsters of the country, the US can retain the best institutes in research and development which should help its investments in pioneering new fields as renewable energies.

If this long term strategy is embedded in the Obama Administration then it can outclass China in the decades to come. This was the approach pursued during the Cold War and it enabled the United States to outsmart the Soviets in terms of science and technology.

Barack Obama will be the sixth American president to visit India and the third Democrat in that office. It was during George W. Bush’s previous visit that the Indo-US civil nuclear deal was signed and sealed. Obama’s trip will matter as a foreign policy achievement ahead of the 2012 presidential election. Personally, Obama will do his best to shed the “Carter Syndrome” of dragging into foreign policy fiasco. The trip will strengthen the strategic partnership initiated during the last administration which elevated India as a core strategic partner to counter the rise of China in the Asia-Pacific and greater part of the world. If Obama manages to mend relations with India it may be considered the “finest hour” of his first term as president in terms of foreign policy.

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