Obama’s visit to India has regional rumblings

Loaded with trappings befitting Indian royalty in the halcyon days of the British Raj President Obama descended on the Indian soil like a Roman emperor. The pomp surrounding the president was unmistakable. A fleet of cargo planes, hundreds of entourage, eager-beaver journalists and media lights in tow by droves. The paraphernalia was of royal vintage to the delight of the hosts and obvious consternation of the neighbours of India watching every move of Obama with hawk eyes.

That Obama visiting India couldn’t be other than an event of seminal interest and curiosity to the world, let alone those inhabiting India’s huge periphery, was never in doubt. After all it wasn’t an everyday occurrence for the president of the world’s most powerful democracy visiting its largest.

The advance media billing sat fully in sync with the careful choreography of the visit. The point rubbed in with zest was that Obama was embarking on an Asian visit of which the jewel in the crown was going to be the visit to India-his longest sojourn in any country in nearly two years of his presidency. The message barely buried between the lines was loud and clear; the length of the president’s stay in India signaled the importance attached to world’s largest democracy by its most powerful.

However, even the most meticulous planning in the world can go wrong and get buffeted. Obama's Indian visit did, precisely, and that too on the most crucial element of timing of it.

Those planning the visit-and it was done months in advance-were either overly optimistic about Obama’s party-in-power, the Democrats, doing well at the mid-term elections of November, or they were totally nonchalant about its fallout on the president.

Be that as it may, it was a much-diminished-in-stature President Obama that stepped down on the Indian soil following the mid-term elections of November 2, in which his Democratic Party were administered a stiff thrashing by the American electorate. In the eyes of his snowballing detractors, Obama has been cut to size with the voters telling him that he no longer enjoyed the Olympian heights he did barely two years ago.

Or was it, as Obama’s increasingly dwindling number of admirers and advocates in US and abroad contended, a deliberate act of getting-away from a Washington where space for Obama had suddenly shrunk? After all, what could be a more soothing balm for a president whose wings had been rudely clipped by the electorate than to be feted like royalty in a country of such prolific charms and engrossing diversities as India?

India’s over-awed neighbours, like next-door Pakistan, may derive scant comfort, if they will, from the development that it was a down-sized Obama visiting India. But it doesn’t take into account the fact that despite losing control of the House of Representatives-the lower house of Congress-to rival Republicans, Obama is still in charge of the White House and the nation. He may have a tall order on his hands, in the wake of the buffeting his Democrats have received at the mid-term polls, in dealing with a rejuvenated Republicans who had long been baying for his blood. But despite the carefully calibrated system of checks-and-balances woven into US political culture by its founding fathers the president, any president, still has tremendous reserve power tucked under his belt. The Republicans have had such raw power before and made a hash of it. So there’s no guarantee that they wouldn’t be making fools of themselves with so much power vested in them by the American people. In that case, Obama will have lots of openings available to him to exploit the Republicans’ mistakes and faux pas and gain the upper hand two years hence at the 2012 presidential contest.

But Obama’s anticipated woes in dealing with a resurgent Republican cabal determined to undo him should have hardly any implications for India. US-India relations have, for years, enjoyed what’s described in congressional parlance as bi-partisan support, just the way America’s formidable relationship with Israel is. After all, it was under a Republican George W. Bush that India was elevated to the level of a long-term ally and accorded the privilege of sharing civil nuclear technology with US-a privilege denied a front-line ally like Pakistan in the war against terror.

It doesn’t take a seasoned and grizzled political pundit, or a crystal ball-gazer for that matter, to understand why India has been put on such a high pedestal in Washington’s priorities in Asia. The clue to this puzzle, if at all, is China. India may be second only to China in the pace of economic progress and development befitting a country of huge resources, land mass and population. US, with dwindling economic fortunes see in the booming India a vast market of consumers that must be exploited to the hilt.

However, India’s prime importance and relevance to US is in the context of its emerging rivalry with China. All realistic assessments and socio-economic indicators point in the direction of China poised to eclipse US as the world’s leading economic power over the next two decades, at most. But what’s eating into the American policy makers’ minds is fear of China also eclipsing US in military might, which would then constrict standing room for US in Asia-the future dynamo of power in the world.

That’s where India gains in US esteem. With resources matching China’s, if not outshining it, India has the potential to rival China for dominance and influence-peddling in a region which is so crucial to US because of its geo-strategic importance.

In the balance for US, India has a greater potential for rivalling China because of its well-established democratic roots, an element missing from the Chinese equation.

India’s unmatched democratic credentials in the region of South and South-east Asia have received a further boost in Washington since 9/11 because of its secular moorings. This is another factor more conspicuous by its absence in the political culture of next-door Pakistan, which has not only been unable to hone its democratic roots-if there are any-but has been defaced with the stigma of militancy, terrorism and religious fanaticism in the post-9/11 perception of US.

A palpable lack of democratic tradition and a rapidly evolving culture of violence and terrorism is the Achilles’ heel of Pakistan. A more dismaying element is that there’s obviously little soul-searching and self-accountability in the Pakistani society for these debilitating outcroppings that have very nearly made Pakistan into a pariah in the comity of nations.

But in the strictly South Asian context Pakistan has an axe to grind with Washington. The policy makers in Islamabad fume at the obvious and blatant disparity that has been informing US policies in South Asia. Islamabad’s main grouse is that whereas Pakistan has stuck its neck out to fight America’s war on terror on its own territory-and lost more men in uniform in the process than the total number of casualties suffered by US and its NATO allies in Afghanistan in the period since that country was invaded on the heels of 9/11-Pakistan has received little reward for its services.

Pakistan’ case that it has been meted out a step-motherly treatment, despite its front-line-ally status in the ongoing war against terror, is not without some merit. The Pakistanis argue that when US was engaged in the Cold War against Russia, it was bracketed in a hyphenated balance with India, which was an ally of Russia while Pakistan was tied with US in at least two defence pacts. US would do nothing that could disturb its delicate and fragile equation with India even if that balancing act was at the cost of relations with an allied Pakistan.

But since 9/11, the Pakistanis argue, India has been put on a pedestal by Washington that’s beyond Pakistan’s reach. On the other hand, Washington’s relationship with Islamabad is now hyphenated with Kabul. It’s an Af-Pak strategy that Washington has been pursuing, vis-à-vis its obligations in the sensitive, prickly-hedge-region where US has been waging the longest war of its history for the past 9 years.

Two major sticking points in relations with Washington as far as Islamabad is concerned, are Washington’s point-blank refusal to accord Pakistan the status given to India in the transfer of civil nuclear technology, and Washington stone-walling any effort by Islamabad to rope it into a middle-man’s role in its dispute with India over Kashmir.

That Obama has conspicuously been insensitive to Pakistan’s concerns on both these counts is something on which the Pakistanis can cite readily available examples.

Obama waxed eloquent during his election campaign on the need to improve relations between India and Pakistan by removing the cancer of the long-festering Kashmir dispute. His articulation raised expectations in spades in Pakistan. He whetted the Pakistani appetite further when early in his presidency he named veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke as his special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan with responsibility for Kashmir, too. But a swift backlash from Delhi saw Holbrooke denuded of his Kashmir assignment and confined only to Af-Pak. The Pakistanis have never stopped resenting that move.

At the high-visibility strategic dialogue between Pakistan and US in Washington last month, Pakistan again beseeched Obama to intercede with India on Kashmir, especially in the context of the latest round of bloody confrontation between the Kashmiris and Delhi. But Washington wouldn’t budge. The message from the White House is that Kashmir is no doubt sensitive but India and Pakistan should try to settle the dispute by themselves; Washington would play no role in it, period. End of the dialogue.

Pakistan’s efforts to get matching-with-India nuclear deal from Washington have likewise been stymied. Pakistan should forget about being at par with India on the nuclear deal, is the message conveyed to Islamabad between the lines.

This short-changing of Pakistan by Obama and his team of advisers-who otherwise continue to breathe down its neck to ‘do still more’ on Afghanistan and the Taliban-can’t be lost on the Pakistanis. They have every justification to conclude that they are merely being used to pull the US chestnut out of the fire in Afghanistan and that, as on many occasions in the past, they will be abandoned to the mercy of an aggressive and robust India the moment Pakistan’s utility is over.

There’s absolutely no sympathy or sensitivity in Washington, as inferred in Islamabad, for the incremental price Pakistan is paying for its gratuitous role of a front-line ally in the long war on terror. In only this calendar year there have been more than 300 suicide bomb attacks in Pakistan, from its one end to another, killing and maiming thousands of innocent civilians. On the contrary-and to the utter disgust of the Pakistanis-the harping from Washington is relentlessly the same: ‘Pakistan should do more.’

However, the ultimate insult to Pakistan was the announcement in Washington-while the strategic dialogue with the Pakistan side was on-of President Obama’s forthcoming visit to India. Pakistan was told, if not in so many words, that it should be wait for its turn to play host to Obama some other time.

Washington’s double-standard in dealing with India and Pakistan is bound to add further to resentment of the Pakistanis who already regard-according to various opinion polls-US as the greatest threat to Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

So Obama, while feasting on traditional Indian hospitality in his lavish and regal visit to India, mustn’t forget the hackles his doings have raised in next-door Pakistan, and will continue to raise as long as there is this perception in Pakistan that its much-hyped ‘alliance’ with Washington has limited shelf-life while India-US partnership is something of longevity and permanence.

Perceptions-fact-based or otherwise-have a tendency of morphing into right or wrong policies. Islamabad’s perception of being treated like a client state by the Americans can only feed its old angst of being encircled and left to the whims of a dominant India. The Pakistanis have not, to date, reconciled to playing second fiddle to India and will be least inclined to give in under pressure from a power whose intentions and plans for South Asia are coming under increasing suspicion by them.