On the day Obama arrives in New Delhi, the question you are most likely to hear is, can/will this presidential visit also be a game-changer like the last two (Clinton and Bush)? You will also mostly get scepticism and doubt by way of answers.
That he is bringing not a big idea but mere platitudes. That he is too weak to deliver a cartful of goodies to his country’s latest strategic ally. That he is coming not so much as the most powerful leader in the world, but mostly as a seeker of jobs for his recession-hit people.
All three are probably right. But is it all good, or bad for India?
Could it be that this visit won’t be a game-changer because there is no need to materially alter the relationship as it has been re-set in the past 15 years? This visit, then, would be further evidence that the game of our bilateral relationship has already changed. Therefore, it is about cementing and celebrating that remarkable shift rather than search for unnecessary new paradigms.
Clinton convinced us after 37 years (since Kennedy, 1963) that Americans could be our friends. By declaring that the map of the subcontinent can no longer be redrawn in blood he also sanctified the LoC as a nearly de-facto border. Bush followed by seeking India as a strategic partner in the war against terror and backing his commitment by delivering to India an unprecedented single-country exemption from such a water-tight regime of multilateral treaty restrictions. These moves were game-changers. These were made between two different sets of governments in the 1998-2008 decade, thereby also acquiring a genuinely bipartisan seal of approval in both democracies. Our engagement with the US from thereon, should be, and is about consummating the gains from this. That is what this Obama visit should, and hopefully will, be about.
Meanwhile, we have to get over our terminal disease of trivialising issues, and undermining our own new status in a world where balance of power has been altered by not just the end of the Cold War, but also the Great Recession of 2008.
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The first marked the end of one super power, the second left the remaining super-power greatly diminished, its people living with pessimism, fear and ideological polarisation not experienced by two generations. Obama lands in New Delhi as the leader of that America.
The visit already had a near-false start as we let a trivial issue of outsourcing and visa fees dominate the build-up. As also, Obama’s candid view on India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council. The first is a matter of run-of-the-mill trade negotiations. It’s an aside but relevant today: in Washington in 1987, Reagan picked up a cashew from the table, and reminded Rajiv Gandhi that it had come from India, and when would his country start buying Californian almonds.
From squabbling over serious, strategic differences and insecurities, our relationship has matured so much we now only argue over whether our intelligence people share all the information they have, or only 80-90 per cent (as with Headley). On arms supplies, nobody goes neurotic with every new shipment to Pakistan and we talk, instead, about what we can buy, and only if the terms are better than offers from Europe, Israel and Russia. And on trade, instead of arguing over sundry tree nuts, we are negotiating tens of billions of dollars in trade.
Indian and American leaders have invested three decades in de-hyphenating our relationship. That achieved, the logical next step should be a relationship of equality, of give-and-take, rather than giver-and-taker. By continuing to harp on jobs and exports, Obama is underlining the changed nature of of our relationship. Our challenge now is to grow a confident belief in this new equal status where we need to give as we take. That is the challenge of this new relationship, as also its great opportunity.
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