A Tight Embrace

Pres. Barack Obama’s state visit to India in November 2010 bookends a 50-year historical chapter in the six U.S. presidential visits to India that began with Pres. Dwight Eisenhower in 1959. Signaling a transformation in the relationship from that of benefactor-beneficiary to one of peers, Pres. Obama said in a rousing speech to the joint session of the Indian Parliament: “It is my firm belief that the relationship between the United States and India — bound by our shared interests and our shared values — will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century. This is the partnership I’ve come here to build. This is the vision that our nations can realize together.”

U.S. President Barack Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama being received by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Smt. Gursharan Kaur, on their arrival ,at Palam Air Force Station in New Delhi.

He exhorted Indians to recognize what even after a decade of super-charged economic growth eludes them: “India is not simply emerging; India has emerged.” In symbolic recognition of that reality — and it was symbolic — Obama sprung a dramatic surprise, one that Indians most craved, but which was so tightly hidden until his speech to the Indian Parliament that it uncorked wild jubilation — U.S. support for Indian aspirations for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat, “I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.”

First Lady Michelle Obama’s dance moves with Indian children may have tantalized and endeared, but Obama’s endorsement of India’s demand for a permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council had virtually every Indian whooping, no matter that it was a mostly empty commitment — a good applause line. Not only do the other five current permanent members have to agree on expanding the Council (and support from China for India’s bid is a long shot by any measure), so must a majority of the U.N. General Assembly, where any reform of its aging international architecture is bound to run up against competing regional demands. At the very least, any prospect of India securing a permanent Security Council seat is years, even decades, away — if it is ever realized.

Indeed, it is unclear just how far the United States itself is prepared to go. At a briefing for U.S. journalists in New Delhi, hours before Pres. Obama’s speech to the Indian Parliament, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes were noticeably vague on how many other countries the U.S. would support for permanent membership and whether it envisages giving them veto powers, which the current five permanent members enjoy. Said Rhodes: “We’re not getting into the — right now, what we’re doing today, is, again, expressing our support for a permanent membership within a reformed Security Council. But the details of that, again, has to take place and has to be hashed out through the process in New York.”

The elusiveness of the permanent Security Council seat notwithstanding, the elevation of the U.S.-Indian partnership during the Obama visit jumpstarts a new chapter for India on the global stage. Undersecretary Burns exulted, “I think in many respects this visit is about cementing one of the most important bilateral partnerships that the United States has in the world today.”

Barack Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama playing floral tributes,
at the Samadhi of Mahatma Gandhi, at Rajghat, Delhi on Nov. 8, 2010.

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah captured the immediate practical implications of the dramatic shift in the relationship: “Our development relationship has already evolved and will continue to evolve tremendously from a traditional partnership where a donor provides resources and technical expertise to really a peer-to-peer partnership where we explore real technical cooperations and look for those opportunities where Indian innovators and scientists and entrepreneurs can create solutions that apply all around the world….. So the first thing is this shift to real technical cooperation and instead of thinking of it as a traditional development partnership, looking at how we can work together to solve global problems.”

On the security side, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake said: “One of the criticisms in the past of this has been that the United States sometimes regarded India more as a target than a partner in nonproliferation, and I think that the steps the President announced in the course of this visit show definitively that we now see India as a partner in the global nonproliferation space.”

U.S. President Barack Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama interacting with the school children of traditional artisans who  carried out renovation works at Humayun Tomb during their visit at Humayun Tomb, in New Delhi on Nov. 7, 2010.

Among the benefits for India during the visit was a loosening in restrictions on dual-use technologies and support for India’s membership in multilateral nuclear regimes.

The evolving U.S.-Indian partnership is driven by converging global realities. The economic ascendancy of India and China is occurring just as the United States is entering what is likely to be a prolonged period of economic decline. The global economic crisis has accelerated the diffusion of global power away from the U.S.-European axis to the emerging economies of Brazil, China, India, Russia, etc. In the immediate term, China has emerged as the most powerful economic driver and because it, unlike India, harbors global and regional power ambitions, it poses the greatest challenge to the existing order dominated by the United States.

Pres. Obama’s embrace of an “indispensable” and “truly global partnership” with India, for all his platitudes about Mahatma Gandhi, Indian democracy and its free market economy, is driven by the crass political imperative of checking China’s global ascendancy, especially diluting its growing clout in Asia. That impetus drives what Burns identified as “Our deep strategic interest in India’s rise” and Pres. Obama’s Indian calculus. As he told the U.S.-India Business Council: “We don’t simply welcome your rise as a nation and people, we ardently support it. We want to invest in it.”

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama dance with children at the Diwali candle lighting and performance at Holy Name High School in Mumbai, India, Nov. 7, 2010.

U.S. investment in India’s rising global stature comes at a price, of course, and Pres. Obama candidly outlined the United States expectations in return, couched again in the lofty rhetoric that “with increased power comes increased responsibility.” The United States wants a more activist and supportive Indian role in international affairs, something the country has traditionally eschewed. Specifically, the United States wants Indian support in implementing U.N. sanctions against Iran, promoting nuclear non-proliferation and condemning human rights abuses in Mynamar, for example.

As a rising power, India may have no option but to become a more active and decisive player in world affairs. But it is not likely to want to walk quite in lockstep with the United States, however tightly Prime Minister Singh wrapped his arms around Obama’s waist at their joint press conference.  

 Unafraid of the K-Word

At the joint press conference by Pres. Barack Obama and Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh in New Delhi at which just four questions were permitted,
Indian journalists protested after a Washington Post reporter fired off
two questions. But when Obama avoided responding to the second question
directed to Prime Minister Singh on whether the United States should
refer to Pakistan as a terrorist state, a subject Pres. Obama had
studiously avoided during his visit (prompting one Indian cartoonist to
quip — “Hear No K, See No K, Speak No K), the Indian journalists heckled
Obama to answer the question.

Obama joked: “Oh, well, I was instructed to only take one question. It
looks like the Indian and the American press are collaborating. That’s
not the kind of partnership we were looking for.” He promised to address
the issue in his speech in Parliament later in the day. And he did, to
rousing applause: “We’ll continue to insist to Pakistan’s leaders that
terrorist safe havens within their borders are unacceptable, and that
terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks must be brought to justice.”

Surprisingly, the normally staid Singh played on the Indian media’s
criticism of Pres. Obama’s failure to take on Pakistan publicly during
the India visit, “including the word ‘K’ — we’re not afraid of that.”

 The $2 Billion Right-Wing Lie

U.S. President Barack Obama and The First Lady Michelle Obama arrive, at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, in Mumbai

The right wing attack machine went into
high gear in denouncing Pres. Barack Obama’s “Asian junket,” peddling a
wild rumor that it was costing taxpayers $200 million a day or $2
billion for the 10-day trip. The rumor was fanned by conservative radio
host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News host Glenn Beck, who added “We have 34
warships — have you seen this?” The notion that 10 percent of the U.S.
Navy had been deployed for the trip was dismissed as “absurd” and
“comical” by a Pentagon spokesman. noted that the $200
million figure was higher than the daily costs of the Afghan war, which
are estimated at $190 million a day. The White House dismissed the rumor
as “a long trip from reality,” which is “not even close to being true.”

costs of presidential visits are not publicly disclosed and a major
component of the costs covering security are classified. However, a
General Accounting Office report on former Pres. Bill Clinton’s 12-day
trip to Africa in 1998 calculated the costs for aircrafts, hotels,
travel expenses, etc — but excluding security — at $42.8 million or $3.8
million daily. The costs for Obama’s trip are believed to be in line
with other recent presidential overseas trips.

But the right wing never lets facts cloud its aim at a good target.

 Dancing Queen Rocks

Until Pres. Barack Obama’s dramatic announcement


endorsing India’s aspirations for a United Nations Security Council
permanent seat swept Indians off their feet, it was Michelle Obama who
won over Indian hearts. In an article titled “Dancing Queen Rocks
India,” The Times of India gushed, “Twice in two days the First Lady
demonstrated in Mumbai that she could swing to desi beats with the best
of them, pulling off matkas and jhatkas like a seasoned performer.”

 U.S. Presidential Visits to India


Just six U.S. Presidents have
visited India in the past half-century, half of them in the last decade.
Non-aligned India was viewed through the prism of the Cold War by the
United States and perceived as closer to the Soviet Union until its
collapse. Pres. Bill Clinton’s was the first post-Cold War era visit and
he charmed his hosts. Pres. George W Bush endeared himself by striking a
nuclear deal with India and he remains hugely popular in the country.

magazine was wary of the prospects for Pres. Obama’s visit, noting:
“With two diverging agendas, it is unlikely that this visit will end
with a dramatic announcement, as President George W. Bush’s did in 2006
with the civilian nuclear-energy deal. Without something to show for
this trip, the U.S. may lose ground with India, its largest ally in
dealing with Pakistan and China. Still, the White House has the
advantage of low expectations. There is a widespread perception within
the Indian foreign policy establishment that Obama is not as friendly
toward India as Bush was.”

The surprise endorsement of India’s
Security Council ambitions, however, has many analysts rating Obama’s
visit as the most substantive and successful of U.S. presidential
visits. But then the last visit always is.

1959    Pres Dwight Eisenhower
1969    Richard Nixon
1978    Jimmy Carter
2000    Bill Clinton
2006    George Bush
2010    Barack Obama
 Fastest Growing Market
U.S. companies are salivating at the
opportunities awaiting them in India’s dynamic markets. The Economic
Times editorialized: “For five decades after Independence, Indians
looked up to the rest of the world for aid, technology and capital. Now,
the world looks upon India as a dynamic creator of jobs and income


In a speech to the U.S.-India Business Council,
Pres. Obama said: “As we look to India today, the United States sees the
opportunity to sell our exports in one of the fastest growing markets
in the world. For America, this is a jobs strategy. There is no reason
this nation can’t be one of our top trading partners.”

Trade between
the two countries stood at $60 billion in 2009, one-seventh of the $434
billion annual trade between the United States and China. But it is
growing rapidly, rising nearly fives times during this decade. India is
also a growing investor in the U.S., with $26 billion in foreign direct
investment during the past five years.

During Pres. Obama’s visit,
Indian corporations signed $14.9 billion in deals with U.S. companies,
leading to the creation of 53,000 U.S. jobs, according to the White

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