What Obama presidency means for India

By Manish Chand, IANS,

New Delhi : With Democrat Barack Obama winning the White House, India is hopeful that its multi-faceted ties with the US, revolutionised by a landmark nuclear deal during the Bush tenure, will acquire new force.

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“The real strategic partnership between India and the US will begin with a new government in Washington and New Delhi next year,” Lalit Mansingh, former ambassador of India to the US, told IANS soon after it became clear that Obama had rewritten American history by becoming the first African American to win the White House.

Trade and investment, defence and agriculture – all those areas which were sidetracked by nuclear deal would now come to the fore, said Mansingh.

“Indians should celebrate change in the political structure of the US. Obama’s presidency begins a new chapter in America’s political history, a new chapter in America’s engagement with the world and a great opportunity for India to combat terrorism in its region,” said Chintamani Mahapatra, professor of American studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“I visualise a very bright future for India-US relations. He would be the first Democratic president in the White House after Bill Clinton who began the path-breaking turnaround in India-US ties during his visit to India in 2000. He will build upon that legacy,” Mahapatra told IANS.

Less than a fortnight ago, the 47-year-old Obama had promised in an exclusive interview to IANS to make strong strategic partnership with India a “top priority” of his presidency and described New Delhi as “a natural strategic partner” for Washington in the 21st century. Obama, who liked to keep Mahatma Gandhi’s portrait in his Senate office, is also known among Indian Americans for his fondness for Indian dal.

Experts and diplomats see Obama’s promise to restore America’s moral standing in the world, especially in the Muslim world, that was damaged by military intervention in Iraq and his more nuanced policy on combating terrorism working to the advantage of India in the region. This will deflect some of the hostility the US attracts among India’s 140 million Muslims.

“Bush was more muscular in his approach to what he called the Global War on Terror. Obama is likely to broaden the alliance against terror and use a combination of diplomacy and force that may be better suited for India’s interests in the region,” said Mahapatra.

Agreed Mansingh: “Obama believes in exercising smart power. Obama will be less inclined to use military force.”

The 94-page Democratic Party document entitled “Renewing America’s Promise” adopted at its convention in Denver eschews using the phrase “Global War on Terror” and focuses on ending the war in Iraq, stablising Afghanistan and “combating violent extremism”.

Obama has, in fact, accused Pakistan of misusing funds for the war against terror and allegedly using it to fund militancy against India – remarks which were hailed in India’s diplomatic and strategic circles.

With the global financial crisis affecting emerging economies like India, Obama’s advocacy of a stricter oversight on the financial institutions and greater state interventionism also inspires greater confidence in this country, said Mahapatra.

Not all are so enthusiastic about the Obama presidency in India though. The diplomatic establishment and strategic circles are treading cautiously, especially after Obama’s recent remarks on Kashmir, which they see as a throwback to American postures 10 years ago.

In an interview to MSNBC last week, Obama had said: “We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants.”

“It is ill-advised and outdated and reflects his advisers have not kept up with the times,” said Arundhati Ghose, a former Indian diplomat who represented India in the UN, while advising a wait and watch policy towards the Obama administration.

K. Subrahmanyam, however, counseled that India should not overreact. “Obama is a flexible intellectual. Let’s wait and watch”.

Another issue that is causing concern in India is Obama’s incentives to American companies who don’t outsource jobs. “This is certainly going to affect us if Obama’s policies turn protectionist. Given the financial meltdown, there is a greater likelihood of protectionism,” Ghosh told IANS.

Mansingh also sees a potential pitfall in Obama’s strong views on non-proliferation and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. “India will be under enormous pressure to sign the CTBT,” pointed out Mansingh. Ghose, however, thinks India need not worry much on this count as the nuclear deal has been sealed and New Delhi will not mind coming on board after the US and China does so.