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That Elephant In The Middle Of The Room

Change isn’t all that easy to come by, as Obama finds at home. Can the India trip provide another historic moment for him, and us?

That Elephant In The Middle Of The Room
Mohd. Jaffer/Snaps India
That Elephant In The Middle Of The Room

Twenty-one months ago, a fresh-faced senator from Illinois caught the world’s imagination, riding a historic election victory to become the first black president of the United States of America. Barack Obama had then rocked America’s political firmament with his stirring oration and message of hope. His victory sent a frisson all the way from Kansas to Kenya. Expectations soared. Obama had, after all, promised change; a change we could believe in.

But ballooning expectations often engender disappointment. A week before he wings his way to India, Obama finds his Democratic Party facing defeat in November’s mid-term elections that could cost it control of the House of Representatives, perhaps even the Senate. Always a fighter, Obama has embarked on a last-minute hectic campaign to shore up the party’s fortunes.

Missing from his campaign, though, is that magical word, change. On the satirical fake news programme The Daily Show, Obama was asked this week by liberal host Jon Stewart about disenchantment among his supporters. “When we promised during the campaign ‘change you can believe in’, it wasn’t change you can believe in in 18 months,” Obama said. It’s “‘Yes we can’, given certain conditions,” Stewart said. Obama replied, “It’s ‘Yes we can’, but it’s not gonna happen overnight.”

Even in the time between the election victory and stepping into office, the president and his team sought to downplay his campaign rhetoric. America then was mired in wars and faced record unemployment. The situation hasn’t improved substantially—US troops remain in Afghanistan and Iraq and unemployment numbers in some states are in the double digits. The president has, quite understandably, focused on domestic issues. He fought a ferocious battle against Republicans to push through healthcare and financial regulatory reforms, but has also perhaps alienated them for the rest of his term. His attempts to fuel job growth has prompted some to accuse him of protectionism. They have chosen to ignore his campaign promise, also reiterated to Outlook two years ago, of offering tax incentives to companies for creating jobs in the US.

“The actions of Indians at home, abroad will determine which path India takes.”
George Perkovich, Carnegie Foundation

Away from home, Obama’s speech in Cairo in June 2009 was meant to be a balm to the pain of Muslims, hate targets after the global violence perpetrated by a band of Islamists. The speech was hailed for its inherent humanity, fanning expectations worldwide. Says Scott Atran, an American anthropologist who has studied terrorist groups, “That speech provided great hope. But since then, there has been no movement, no follow-up.” No wonder, says Atran, Obama now often figures near the bottom in polls in the Muslim world on popular leaders. While releasing the findings of an Arab public opinion poll this summer, Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution said that a lack of progress on Israel-Palestinian peace is the main reason for the significant dent in Obama’s approval ratings. “This is the prism through which Arabs view the US,” he says.

His declining popularity in the Arab world makes it ironical that a small section of Americans still believe their president is Muslim, despite the White House’s attempts to scotch this rumour. There were reports (stoutly denied by the White House) that Amritsar was dropped from Obama’s India yatra as he feared the image of his visit to the Golden Temple, with his head covered by a mandatory kerchief, would reinforce the erroneous belief about his faith. This problem is thought to be particularly acute as many Americans think Sikhs are Muslim.

In India, though, Obama continues to command tremendous appeal, even though many feel Indo-US relations have stalled under his administration. A report by a bipartisan group, which included Bush administration officials R. Nicholas Burns and Richard Armitage, echoed this sentiment and recommended a “bold leap” forward. “Past projects remain incomplete, few new ideas have been embraced by both sides, and the forward momentum that characterised recent cooperation has subsided,” declared a Center for a New American Security (CNAS) report, ‘Natural Allies: A Blueprint for the Future of US-India Relations’. Says Richard Fontaine, who’s one of the authors of the CNAS report, “The report is not a criticism of Obama or his administration but rather an acknowledgement that the overall relationship has plateaued and needs to be rejuvenated.”

However, US officials insist India is among Obama’s top priorities. They cite facts in support of their assertion—the Obama administration’s first state dinner was in honour of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and the president is visiting India in his first term in office, unlike his two immediate predecessors—George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Even Fontaine insists, “These steps have created the potential for an important, even historic, next step in the relationship, should both sides seize an ambitious, substantive agenda. The question is, what will that agenda look like?”

Sumit Ganguly, visiting Fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, isn’t convinced that the Obama administration has managed to grasp the significance of a strategic partnership with India. “That said, India, for its part, is also at fault,” Ganguly says, pointing out that New Delhi has furnished a veritable laundry list of wishes and demands to the US but has failed to spell out what it could do for the Americans. Ganguly explains, “Unless policymakers in New Delhi can proffer a set of viable options for the consideration of the administration I fear the significance of the strategic partnership will be quite limited,” he added.

Countering the criticism of those who accuse Obama of not doing enough to enhance US-India relations, George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says in his report, ‘Toward Realistic US-India Relations’, “Pundits of this persuasion...complain that Obama’s team has tried too hard to cooperate with China in addressing regional and global challenges and has not done enough to bolster India.” In reality, Perkovich adds, the US can only contribute marginally to India’s success or failure. “The actions of Indians at home and abroad will determine which path India takes.”

In these days of soaring unemployment here, it’s perhaps time to tweak that popular phrase to say, ask not what the US has done for India, but what India has done for the US.

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