Saturday 6 November 2010

An Obama defeat not bad news for India (PO)

M D Nalapat

Over the past month, a troupe of Obama backers have descended on India, seeking to soften opinion in the country ahead of President Obama’s visit. The English-language media in India, both print as well as television, have given continuos coverage of such non-events as former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott discussing issues centering around the braid theme of “what India can do for the US”. Apart from a few retired diplomats and civil servants, as well as the participants themselves, there has been no viewer interest in such fare. Then why air on television or print so many such “debates and discussions” featuring an army of retired (but hoping for re-employment) Clinton-era officials and their Indian clones? In large part, such coverage is a tribute to the public diplomacy skills of the huge US embassy in New Delhi, that networks intensively with not only the journalists working in these media outlets but ( much more crucially) the proprietors. Getting the US ambassador over to dinner is a social coup for Delhi’s glamorous society ladies, and all of Timothy Roemer’s charm and gift of the gab are being put to good use in a context where the Obama administration has been largely hostile to India.

This columnist visits the Information Technology (IT) hubs of Bangalore and Hyderabad often, and in both there is anger at the shabby way in which Indian IT professionals are being treated in matters of visa and entry into the US. These days, visa interviews for software professionals has turned nasty, with the (normally polite) consular officials clearly under instructions from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discourage Indians from going on work assignments to the US. Interestingly, the Republican Party has turned to Indian-Americans, especially in the conservative south. Some years ago, India-born Bobby Jindal became the Governor opr Louisiana, defeating his Democratic Party opponent despite the fact that she belonged to the (Caucasian) majority. Now, another Indian-American, Nikki Randhawa, has been elected the Governor of South Carolina, defeating her Democrat rival in a campaign marked by numerous personal attacks on her. Both Nikki and Bobby have married within their communities, and that fact has not stood in the way of conservative white voters overwhelmingly preferring them to white Democratic opponents who have near-total backing from local African-American communities. Although it is not considered politically correct to mention this, it is a reality that several African-Americans resent the economic success of the Indian-American community. This is unfortunate, for India has been a consistent backer of racial equality, being for long the only non-Communist country to give assistance to the African National Congress while Nelson Mandela was in jail. Within the African-American community, leaders such as Martin Luther King have been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, and they in turn have inspired many Indians, including this columnist, who once wrote a short biography of Dr King in his mother tongue, Malayalam. By his numerous negative actions on India, President Obama seems to be reacting more as a sectional leader than as the elected head of the entire American people, which is perhaps one reason why his party has suffered so badly in the 2010 polls, just two years after he was elected as the first African-American President of the US. In this respect, Obama;s election has put his country on a higher moral plane than India, which has yet to see a Muslim Prime Minister emerge, despite having been free for 63 years.

The reality is that the Democratic Party has usually been negative for India, and the Obama administration is no exception. The reason for this is that the Democratic Party has outsourced its strategic planning to Europe. Whether it was Harry Truman or Bill Clinton, the ideas and policies put forward by their advisors were “Made for Europe”, if not always “Made in Europe”. Then and now, the Europeans are uneasy at the steady loss of power to rising powers in Asia, and seek to use the US to constrain such powers or to box them in so as to serve the interests of a world in which Europe still remains the dominant force. By such an attitude, they are in fact driving the Asian powers closer to each other, for example India and China. Although newspaper columns in both countries are filled with negative news about the other, the reality is that there are several common geopolitical currents between India and China. Should - as expected - Barack Obama return from his India visit without announcing any major breakthroughs in technology exchange, a door would be opened for China, whose own Premier Wen Jiabao comes to India next month on what is believed to be the most important visit by a Chinese premier since Zhou Enlai came in 1960,only to be rebuffed by Jawaharlal Nehru. Wen may come with a basket of suggested policies designed to vastly increase the interaction between India and China (which is already nearing the $60 billion level this year).The reality is that India can offer China jobs and economic success, the same way as it can the US. This is the single biggest card that the Manmohan Singh government can play, although it is ironic that it has done all it could to restrict growth. The UPA government has introduced high taxes and has become a synonym for corruption. The most recent anti-growth action of the authorities has been a further rise in the Reserve Bank of India’s interest rate. The RBI has for years sought to reduce the rate of growth in India, because the bureaucrats in control are comfortable only with a “bullock cart pace” rather than the Ferrari speed that India can achieve with better governance. Each new regulation generates millions of dollars of bribes, so it is no wonder that they are multiplying, even faster than the assets of politicians and bureaucrats.

President Obama has been weakened by the electoral defeat of the Democratic Party. He is coming to an India where the Sonia Gandhi-led government is in trouble on the issue of corruption. The “Ancient Mariner” tasked by the 78-year old Manmohan Singh to get to the bottom of the $9 billion Commonwealth Games scandal seems to have disappeared into his study. The very fact that a long-retired civil servant (who at his best was not known for actually being able to bring wrongdoers to heel) was entrusted with this task, rather than a Special Investigation Team comprising of the country’s best police and financial investigatorss, has convinced the public that the Manmohan Singh government is indulging in an eyewash, and that it has zero intention of bringing the wrongdoers to justice. Once the 90 days given to the hapless “Chief Investigator” Shunglu expires in two months time, there is likely to be a national outcry against the PM himself. There is no point in being honest personally, if he cannot at the same time ensure honesty in his team.

The Commonwealth Games have been helpful, in that the international attention given to the many scandals indulged in by its organizers forced a normally docile Indian media into action. And now that the media has begun giving corruption the same prominence that it once bestowed to beauty queens, the public reaction has been such that media moguls are finding it difficult to retreat, despite strong pressure from VVIPs to desist from any more revelations. The most recent has been the outing of a scandal in Mumbai that involves a building that was meant to house those widowed by the 1999 Kargil conflict. Instead of these unfortunates, the flats in “Adarsh Building” (constructed on Defense land) were given away to top generals, admirals, officials and politicians at a price that is about 15% of the market value. Among the beneficiaries is Lt-Gen Vij, the army commander under whose watch Commando Pervez Musharraf was able to occupy several dozen Indian-built bunkers during the 1998 winter, without the sleeping Lt-General bothering to interrupt his afternoon nap for a day during the two months that this occupation of Indian positions took place. Although the Kargil was used by the Vajpayee government as a successful vote-getter (after all, the positions were later taken back),the reality is that Kargil represents a huge failure on the part of the Indian army, a lapse for which only a few juniors got punished and the top brass escaped. The reason of course was the compulsion of the Vajpayee government to declare the Kargil operation a great success, glossing over the fact that the top brass was asleep while the commando infiltration was taking place. This columnist has very few kind thoughts for General Musharraf, who once complained about him to the then editor of the Times of India, Dileep Padgaonkar (with the perhaps coincidental result that from then onwards, his reports stopped appearing in the Times of India). However, it must be admitted that Kargil was a bold stroke, and one that very nearly succeeded.

Now that the India-friendly Republican Party has once again established its control over the US House of Representatives (and the charismatic Illeana Ross-Lehtinen become the new Foreign Relations Committee chairperson), Delhi will have more friends in Washington than it had during the period when the Democratic Party was all-powerful. The Obama team are known in Delhi for making demand after demand of India, in exchange for increased business and other links that they have done their best to oppose. Strobe Talbott is known for his Euro-centric view of the world, one in which India figures only as a subsidiary power. While the US-friendly Manmohan Singh can be expected to give President Obama a warm welcome, the truth is that unless he surprises everybody by outlining an equal - repeat equal - 21st century partnership between the US and India, nothing much will change between India and the US on a visit that is costing the US taxpayer $200 million a day.

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