Sweet Short Significant

In his first two-day visit to India, Barack Obama can mark a paradigm shift in relations between the two large democracies in the world
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

Two years ago, Senator Barack Obama stood at Berlin's Victory Column and in his persuasive voice delivered his well-crafted speech in front of an awestruck audience of 2,00,000 Germans. Obama spoke not only to Germany and Europe, but he reached out to the world. In his candid admission, the United States of America was "part of what has gone wrong in our world". 

He was just the leader a beleaguered world was eagerly, anxiously, waiting for.

Since he became the president in January 2009, Obama is being judged against his own vision that he unveiled during his extraordinary political journey to the top. His call for change endorsed vociferously by his supporters with a battle cry - "yes we can" - has become muted. The dark and brutal legacy of his predecessor, George W Bush, has circumscribed his movements and limited his choices for change. Worse, his Rightwing opponents, re-packaged as Tea Party, are holding him responsible for all the mess that has a different vintage altogether.

The debilitating economic meltdown of 2008, for instance. Triggered by the profligate policies of an unilateral, obsessive, undemocratic Bush, and the manner in which he waged wars in different parts of the world, the meltdown was catastrophic. Iraq was ravaged. Middle-class America was savaged. Many lost their jobs, suffered the ignominy of being rendered homeless due to foreclosures of their houses that acquired epidemic proportions.

Obama had a difficult task. To save the economy, he had to bail out the over-leveraged perpetrators of the crisis - the Wall Street - and also find ways to rescue those who were losing jobs and hope. To ensure that his economic policies succeed, he had to live up to his campaign promise to withdraw troops from Iraq and end the war in Afghanistan after the threats from Al-Qaida and Taliban had been neutered. For the young professor of law, this was too much to do in his first term. Worse, the not-so-subtle racism of the Republicans trashed his every move. He was criticised for his 'revolutionary' health reform policies enlarging his government, BP oil spill and snow blizzards and rain in New York.

Life for the first black president of USA has not been easy.

And it shows. Although he remains athletic and sprightly, he has greyed. So when he emerges out of his slick United States Air Force 1 on November 8 in Delhi, he would not only carry the burden of ensuring that the Democrats do not get routed in the elections, but he would also be under pressure to make his first trip to India a big success.

The Indian government enjoyed the warmth displayed by Bush towards India. Not only did Bush explicitly de-hyphenate India from Pakistan, he offered a path-breaking civilian nuclear deal to India. While most Indians did not really care too much about the nuclear deal, what gave them immense satisfaction was the fact that finally the US had dumped Pakistan in their favour. India's economy and its growing global profile got precedence over old Cold War calculations. The US government may have collaborated with the Pakistani leadership after 9/11 to fight against Taliban and Al-Qaida, but the content of their relationship had changed. India no longer felt threatened by this relationship. After 50 years, India was able to rid itself of the belief that the US found Islamabad more valuable.

Obama respected India's sentiments when he nominated his Ambassador for Af-Pak, rather than including India in his mandate. Also, he decided to make Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the first state guest to the White House.

There will be a slew of defence deals and other agreements that are going to be lined up for signing when Obama shows up in Delhi. But what will be the game-changer for India would be the reiteration that the partnership between the two largest democracies would really mean recognising Pakistan as the epicenter of instability in the region. Documents leaked by Wikileaks and now Bob Woodward's book, Obama's War, emphasise a position held by New Delhi all along that whether it is the Mumbai attack of 2008 or turmoil in Kashmir, there is an imprimatur of Pakistani intelligence. India would hope that Obama would be cognisant of the games played by a failing state to de-legitimise a secular democracy by trying to raise the Kashmir issue - something that Pakistan wants.

India would also want Obama to take a more nuanced approach on China, lest it deepens the suspicion between the two neighbours. A tough order, but Obama can do it.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2010

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