In The News

In India: Much Euphoria, Some Concern

January 28, 2009

In India, a country whose organising principle is that of a casteless and classless society, Barack Obama’s taking office as the 44th U.S. President has struck a resonating chord. Caste and class still dominate domestic politics here, and there is widespread recognition that America has again shown the way, and the increasing number of democratic countries pledged to multi-culturalism and plurality look to America to continue to set the example. Indians’ collective elation was expressed recently in a leading Indian newspaper: “…in the fact of Obama’s presidency alone, the souls of a people long oppressed find utterance, to use Jawaharlal Nehru’s words for India.” This American milestone is replete with promise, but equally fraught with dangers. We wait to see the way that this develops, now that Obama is in office. But the common journey of India and the United States to try to close the gaps within our societies, provides a new under-pinning for India-US relations for the future. The struggle to build a multi-cultural society of equals is an uphill one and there is much to learn from one other.

President Obama’s world view, articulated in his Inaugural Address, is a positive and forward-looking one. He has defined a United States that is willing to work with other countries as equal partners to diffuse and surmount the crises which currently beset the globe. In addressing U.S. policy towards the Islamic world, he sought to reverse the extreme animosity generated in the Bush years. His actions in the Middle East, particularly with Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will be carefully monitored to see if they go beyond rhetoric.

Where India is concerned, however, President Obama starts with two negatives: the fall-out of the Mumbai terror attack and the growing, negative impact of the U.S. financial crisis on the Indian economy. U.S.-India bilateral relations peaked with the Bush Administration-brokered nuclear deal, but terrorism and the economy can rock it. There is only so much India can do alone to alleviate the economic situation. India must be part of a global solution, which starts in the U.S. Soon after the Mumbai attack — and before President Obama took office — it became evident that the U.S. and the international community would have to play an important role in putting pressure on Pakistan to deliver on its pledges to effectively eliminate the terror infrastructure in that country. The Mumbai attack brought with it an international dimension: terrorists targeted U.S., UK and Israeli nationals. This was consistent with the efforts of groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, and a departure from earlier terrorist attacks India had seen – it could not be seen through the prism of Kashmir alone.

Fortunately, the terrorists did not succeed in many of their objectives: no hostages were taken; the heritage Taj did not crumble like the World Trade Center; Mumbai’s financial and commercial hub did not stop; Hindu-Muslim tension did not rise; and finally, India did not mobilise its troops on its Pakistan border as in 2002. India understands that Pakistan’s disparate and contradictory statements represent the frustration and disconnect between the elected government and the Pakistan army (and its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, or ISI). Yet, in India, there is considerable apprehension that the U.S. may fall for Pakistan’s claim that tension with India would mean a lessening of its commitment to the U.S. war in Afghanistan. This could become the touch-stone of the way India will see President Obama’s policy in South Asia.

Current wisdom would seem to hold that security in South Asia depends on Pakistan. The appointment of Richard Holbrooke as Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan adds to Indians’ fears that Kashmir will enter the matrix of U.S. policy towards South Asia. The Bush Administration’s policy of conducting separate relations with India and Pakistan – and eliminating the Clinton Administration’s practice of dealing with the two countries jointly – was a major success for India. The Obama Administration’s stock in India could rise or fall on this single approach.

But none of this takes away from the fact that successive U.S. administrations have shared with governments in India a common adherence to democratic norms and ideas, and consistent dialogue. Obama’s Presidency is undoubtedly a testing time for the India-U.S. relationship. As another Indian national daily put it: “Obama gives a great nation some of its self-confidence and self-esteem back. If he tackles the economy successfully, he will also give them tangible hope. It won’t be easy, but he is someone who will have longer honeymoon and be given a bigger chance by his people.”

Ambassador Rajendra Abhyankar was the Indian Secretary of External Affairs from 2001-2004 and has served as the Indian Ambassador to the EU, Belgium and Luxemburg, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Syria, and Cyprus. He was also the Consul General of India in San Francisco, California. He currently serves as The Asia Foundation’s Director of India Programs. He can be reached at rabhyankar@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Rajendra Abhyankar

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