By Swapan Dasgupta
In the normal course, President George W. Bush should have addressed a joint session of the India Parliament. Thanks to the vagaries of UPA-1 and the cussedness of a Communist Speaker of the Lok Sabha, he had to settle for an address to a select gathering at Purana Qila. As one of the 500 or so Indians who attended this function, I was struck by the fact that, among the MPs present, there were more representatives from the BJP than the Congress.
President Bush may have been among the most disliked occupants of the White House, but India was one of the few places that remained consistently attached to him. The support cut across party lines and embraced the entire centre ground of politics. Like Richard Nixon in China, India believed President Bush was a genuine friend, a man who regarded us a force for the good.
In terms of mass adulation, President Barack Obama is head and shoulders above his predecessor. Regardless of his recent electoral setback in the Congressional elections, Obama still enjoys a spectacular goodwill that will be evident when he addresses Parliament. It is interesting, for example, that the Communist MPs will not boycott his address.
The paradox is that Obama's personal popularity is interspersed with profound misgivings of his foreign policy priorities. On paper, Obama still does the right thing: he hosted a state banquet for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2009 and is spending an inordinately long time (by White House standards) in India. Yet, whereas the less demonstrative Bush was felt to be appreciative of India's concerns and tried to accommodate them, Obama is seen to be emotionally disconnected from India.
This disconnect is temperamental. President Bill Clinton was compelled by law to impose harsh sanctions on India after the Pokhran-II blasts in 1998. Some of these restrictions are still in place. Yet, it was always felt that Clinton empathised with India in a way a only a non-inhaling pot taster could. He exuded genuine warmth and India responded with generous enthusiasm.
Intellectually, Obama is razor sharp. That is his real problem. In viewing India intellectually rather than emotionally as Clinton and Bush did, he hasn't really been able to get under its skin. Almost every think tank report from the US on the future of Indo-US bilateral ties refer to an impression that an emerging partnership is suffering from both neglect and miscommunication.
Perhaps it's a failing born from the difficulties the US is facing at home. For the first time since the Depression of the 1930s, the US is confronted by a struggling economy. With 90 per cent of American voters believing that the country is in a bad way economically, the US President doesn't have the elbow room to maintain the autonomy of foreign policy. In the past, a visiting US President would have taken exceptional care to flatter the host country and arrive with a bagful of goodies to distribute. Obama's concern is not so much what he can give to India but what he can take back.
This may explain why, instead of grand visionary objectives such as the Indo-US nuclear deal, he has made the creation and protection of US jobs his priority. It has been estimated that his India wish list, if fulfilled, will either create or save nearly 100,000 jobs, at home and do much to improve his approval ratings.
The problem is that a visiting salesman (if that is indeed what visiting US presidents have been reduced to) is treated with suspicion by an India that hasn't got over the belief that trade with the West is inherently unequal and involves India being short-changed. It is part of India's Third World inheritance that it regards imports as bad and exports as good. The US, by this simplistic notion, should be buying Indian goods and services and not vice versa.
Actually, the US's domestic difficulties present India with great opportunities that can only be availed if our own priorities are redefined. Opening up retail trade (perhaps in a phased way), permitting greater foreign direct investments in financial services (such as insurance) and liberating education from the bondage of a purely national approach will not lead to the loss of India's soul, any more than the availability of foreign TV programmes destroys Indian culture. It will improve India's strategic integration with the world markets and ultimately help the globalising zeal of Indian corporates.
The question is: what can the US offer in return? Free trade may be an ideological statement but it is also the subject of some hard bargaining. India has a few political demands from the US. These include support for a permanent membership of the US Security Council, protection of Indian interests in Afghanistan, a tacit repudiation of last year's infamous G-2 declaration with China, lifting of restrictions on technology transfers and robust cooperation in counter-terrorism. Some of these are easy to accommodate while others are potentially more complicated. But if India can get some short-term accommodation and couple it with some long-term assurances, it will be possible to break the present bilateral logjam.
It matters little to India if Obama grasps the meaning of India or not. In a diverse world, we must cut deals with both India lovers and with those for whom India is just another country and another market. Obama falls into the latter category.