Like the many unsolicited emails I get daily, I shared a set of photo-shopped caricatures of President Obama, superimposed on the photographs of Indian leaders like Sonia Gandhi, Lallu Prasad Yadav, and Mayawati to a bunch of friends, commenting that photo-shopping makes life interesting.
A good American friend, who does not much care for the current President, responded immediately, saying “You are welcome to him. Keep him in India. Most appropriate place for him would be the temple where they let the rats run free, he would fit right in. (Unless you know of a nice Indian snake-farm, that would also be appropriate).”
Needless to say, blue blooded Republicans, in their current mood, would take him to task for being unkind to Indian snakes!
But let us change tracks here.
One lasting impression of Mr. Obama’s visit would be a snapshot of Obama leaning forward to shake the hands of many smiling students of St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai. It was a moment of simple joy for him and for them as well – happy smiles writ large on all faces. It must have been a great moment for him – away from all political intrigue and pressures, away from the sting of the last election results, being in the midst of sincere young men and women genuinely pleased to be in his presence …
Ordinary Indians are perhaps a bit simple but instinctively excellent at welcoming foreign visitors. Be it heads of state, international cricket players, or most others in the wide spectrum in between. The treatment is very flattering and can go to one’s head. Indians believe in “Atithi Devo Bhav”, an age old Sanskrit dictum which says a visiting guest is (should be treated like) God.
So if my American friend instinctively came to the conclusion that Indians ought to put Obama in some temple or shrine, I’d say well observed! What he does not know of course is that Indians do it to all visitors, party affiliations notwithstanding.
It will be some time before the euphoria dies down, and the net of the visit becomes known.
As far as the politics of the visit is concerned, Mr. Obama sure pressed a lot of the right buttons while speaking to the Indian Parliament. Indians across the board loved his speech. I read it, liked it, and thought that it was a great mix of sincerity and manipulation – had never heard him earlier talking about anything for so long. The state of the Union address was something I had slept through, perhaps due to a jet lag.
I think there was a lot of palatable rhetoric but little substance in the speech. But a good speech it certainly was for the given audience.
In the lead-up to the visit, Pakistani spokesmen have been busy warning the US President through their media not to “give away” undeserved things to India. Like Indians, ordinary Pakistanis too seem to be suckers for symbolism, and imagine a lot of things that may not be related to reality. This audience has been brought up on anti-India rhetoric, and that mindset needs to be perpetuated from the perspective of the establishment in that country.
In reality, unlike George W. Bush, Obama has not given away anything special to India – except perhaps some vague expectations of outcomes on Indian wish lists, without any active commitment or time tables. Whatever little was actually conceded to the Indian government was in terms of relaxing a few USG export regulations, something that had to be done any way if the many opportunities for exports to India were to be cashed on.
For the US, in the immediate term the visit resulted in some 15-20 billion in export contracts and 40-60 thousand new jobs. But that could merely be a tip of the iceberg. To achieve the full export potential, the regulatory barriers need to be removed, particularly some that are a litmus test for India about American sincerity in building an economic partnership. It does not cost the US money to remove them, for they are essentially policy-based constraints imposed by a Super Power on the rest of the world and are intended to control it. Other western countries do not impose such constraints although their goods can be even more expensive and perhaps not as sophisticated. At any rate, relaxing the USG trade constraints in the Indian context is not likely to threaten anything that America cherishes nor does it create a new reality that America has not already acknowledged.
I am not sure that India got anything substantial and significant from the visit. In that sense, Obama has been a successful American businessman on a spectacular business trip.
One can notice a few short phrases in his speech before the Indian Parliament that should be music to Pakistani ears. Only, most journalists in Pakistan (or even in India), have not yet come to analyze the speech to that level of detail. But give them some more time. At the present moment, there seems to be only some gloom in the Pakistani press based on the erroneous assumption that Obama has harmed their national interest and favored India. Yet over the past many years, it is Pakistan which has been getting hard cash and arms for free for the nuisance value they have been using. The margins on the proposed export deals sold to India would perhaps pay for a lot of the American military aid to Pakistan.
Even George W in his new book is candid about how former President General Musharraf and other Pakistani Generals misled him from the reality of Pakistani duplicity in the Global War on Terror. But this admission is again intended for the ordinary American audience. I do believe American moves are typically well calculated. They are not based on middle class morality, but are based on hard considered and well calculated trade-offs and sometimes represent a choice between the lesser of multiple evils.
General Kayani, the present de facto ruler of Pakistan, continues to play the same game effectively, and seems to be able to easily manipulate the American decision makers as did Musharraf. These military guided policies are neither constructive nor good for the ordinary Pakistanis either in the intermediate term or the long term, but perhaps Pakistani authorities feel compelled under the circumstances to focus only on very short term gains.
The real solution is to jettison the anti-India policies and to work together to build a future. But that takes a lot of hard work and patience. Then again there are mountains of assiduously built public opinions that would need to be overcome on both sides of the border. The history of Muslims having ruled India in the past perhaps also comes in the way of accepting that there may be something Pakistan can learn from India or the other way around.
Pakistan has already lost a lot of time since independence on non-productive pursuits. While India sent its best brains to the London School of Economics upon independence, Pakistanis sent their sharper brains to the military academy at Sandhurst. The results over sixty years are there for all to see.
The Indian Government in the meantime has already taken some positive steps after seeing off Mr. Obama. They have sacked the chief minister of Maharashtra and another key central government official after being accused of corruption. That too is the tip of another iceberg.