Whispers Behind the Welcome

Indians are looking forward to Obama's arrival, but worry that he won't live up to Bush's legacy of substantive engagement.

Indians are looking forward to Obama's arrival, but worry that he won't live up to Bush's legacy of substantive engagement.

On the face of it, Barack Obama has much to look forward to when he visits India this weekend. His poll numbers at home may be at a low ebb, and his party may have been shellacked in Tuesday’s midterm elections. But the U.S. president remains popular in the world’s largest democracy, if not his own. According to the Pew Research Center, three out of four Indians say they have confidence in Obama (only two out of five Americans said the same in a July Washington Post-ABC News poll). The president will likely receive rapturous applause when he addresses India’s Parliament, an honor denied to President George W. Bush on his visit in 2006. One of New Delhi’s best known restaurants promises to unveil its much-anticipated "Obama platter," and the president’s hotel in Mumbai is keeping a $11,250 bottle of Scotch handy, just in case.

But among India’s commentariat, the lack of enthusiasm in the run-up to the president’s visit is palpable. Some are disappointed by Obama’s decision not to visit Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The White House blames this on a packed schedule, but the popular view in India suggests a president fearful of covering his head with a cloth, as custom demands, lest he bolster the persistent myth in red-state America that he is a Muslim. According to one prominent commentator,  TV anchor and columnist Barkha Dutt, Obama’s presidency has traveled from "audacity to anxiety."

Nor are Indians thrilled by what many see as the United States’ pampering of Pakistan, which received a $2 billion injection of military aid last month. A spate of newspaper stories and op-eds have suggested that Washington did not pass on intelligence about the Pakistani-American Lashkar-e-Taiba operative David Headley that could have helped prevent the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, which killed 166 people. Against this backdrop, Indians are bristling in advance at the thought of being asked to make nice with their Western neighbor. "Do we ask [the Americans] to kiss and make up with Osama bin Laden?" the widely read columnist Vir Sanghvi asked.

On Afghanistan, Obama’s decision to announce the withdrawal of U.S. troops beginning in July 2011 and to back negotiations with elements of the Taliban hasn’t earned him many friends in New Delhi. Simply put, Indians worry that they’ll be left to bear the brunt of resurgent Pakistan-backed radical Islam in the region.

The United States and India’s economic relationship is strained as well. On paper, the two countries are fast becoming close friends: Counting both goods and services, the United States is India’s top business partner, with trade between the countries more than tripling between 2002 and 2008 from $19 billion to $66 billion, a whisker ahead of India’s trade with China. But Indians are still smarting over an immigration bill passed by the U.S. Congress in August that makes work visas more expensive for software professionals, who are the symbol of India’s economic rise. Not surprisingly, the president won’t be visiting Bangalore, India’s software capital. According to the Times of India, the (private) American organizers of a business summit for the president in Mumbai upset Indian CEOs by asking whether their companies were involved in outsourcing, a politically sensitive subject in job-starved America. Some detect a snub in Obama’s perceived eagerness to keep a distance from anything that might play poorly with voters back home.

Americans may be oblivious to these slights, but Indians are not — the country’s rambunctious media follows the ups and downs of the bilateral relationship in microscopic detail. This means that an obscure State Department official in Washington can be a household name in New Delhi and the most trivial diplomatic incident — say, the president choosing not to visit one of several places scouted by his advance team — can become front-page news. The facts don’t necessarily get in the way of a juicy story: Last month, several newspapers carried a report (untrue, as it turned out) that first lady Michelle Obama would create traffic snarls and tar India’s image by visiting with prostitutes in Mumbai’s infamous red-light district.

New Delhi’s strategic community also harbors nostalgia for the Bush years, when the former president made India a centerpiece of his foreign policy in Asia. Bush championed an unprecedented civil nuclear deal with New Delhi, a high-profile vote of confidence in a rising Asian power. The Obama administration may claim a broader agenda — one that includes an enhanced role for India in Africa and Afghanistan and in shaping the international rules that govern space, cyberspace, and maritime affairs — but it has offered no big-ticket diplomatic items that ignite Indian imaginations as the nuclear deal did. It also lacks the rhetorical ambition of the Bush policy, which then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005 as an effort "to help India become a major world power in the 21st century."

As the pro-India argument goes, the United States may not see eye to eye with India as often as it does with traditional allies. Among other things, the two countries differ on climate change, global trade liberalization, and the best way to contain Iran’s nuclear program. But the rise of a stable, multireligious, English-speaking democracy between the badlands of the Islamic world and authoritarian China is nonetheless in America’s interest. This places the United States in the unfamiliar position of cultivating a relationship of equals with a sometimes prickly partner rather than naturally assuming a dominant role.

But India is just as conflicted as the United States. New Delhi is still in the process of shedding the suspicion of the West that long defined its foreign policy, oscillating between seeking America’s embrace and fretting about being suffocated by it. The nuclear deal is a case in point. New Delhi was happy to have Washington do the heavy lifting to carve out an India-shaped exception in the global nuclear non proliferation order. But it chafes at U.S. pressure to amend a tough nuclear liability law that allegedly hurts American firms by giving state-backed French and Russian companies the inside track on commercial contracts.

In the long view, however, it’s silly to read too much into a season of peevish punditry. Thanks to India’s membership in the G-20 and its election to a two-year term on the U.N. Security Council beginning in January, India and the United States will have more sustained, high-level contact with each other than ever. India accounts for the largest number of foreign students in the United States, and 2.5 million people of Indian origin now call America home. According to the Pew poll, two-thirds of Indians feel positively toward the United States, among the highest such figure in Asia, and the feeling is mutual: A Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll says Americans feel nearly as warmly toward India as toward long-term allies South Korea and Israel.

And though Indians may complain about U.S. military aid to Pakistan, the fact is that the United States now conducts more military exercises with India than with any other country. With purchases of military transport planes from Lockheed Martin, maritime reconnaissance planes from Boeing, and early-warning aircraft from Northrop Grumman, as well as a possible $12 billion fighter-jet order, India is quickly emerging as a major buyer of American defense equipment. Senior Obama administration officials have suggested that the president will ease curbs on high-tech exports to India. And U.S. backing for India’s longstanding effort to secure a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council might also be in the cards.

Odds are, then, that with hindsight Obama, like his predecessor, will be remembered for doing his bit for a burgeoning relationship. And that’s not counting the Obama platter.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola