Another Passage to India

Written by  //  November 5, 2010  //  National Politics  //  Comments Off on Another Passage to India

Today, Barack Obama embarks on a thirteen hour long flight which will bring him to India. When George W. Bush was in a similar position, the Economist, recommended to him E.M. Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ as in-flight reading to understand the pitfalls that lay ahead. Mr. Obama, given the resounding defeat of the Democrats earlier this week is now hopefully adequately cognizant of pitfalls that lie strewn on his path wherever he goes and doesn’t require a refresher course. So perhaps his time on-board Air Force One may be better spent by re-reading Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography or ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’ to  grasp the fundamental importance of vision and sticking by one’s principles while dealing with people, especially in politics. If his India trip is to be successful, he certainly could do with a few Gandhian lessons.

Taliban, Terror and Tyranny

Obama’s visit and its place in history will be crucially contingent on working with India to secure a peaceful future for South Asia. This would not only mean tackling terror groups sponsored by and based in Pakistan but equally ensuring that the war in Afghanistan comes to a close only at a time when the country is stable and free from continued threats of a Taliban takeover. India has a crucial strategic role to play in both situations. Insofar as Pakistan is concerned, in India, there is considerable apprehension, all of it not entirely without substance, that funds supplied to Pakistan over the years, especially the seemingly inexplicable $2.3 billion package announced recently, will be diverted to sponsoring anti-India activities. Given the Pakistan Army’s anti-India orientation, General Kayani’s stated position of having been trained in a regimen which primarily focused on the potential threats from its larger Eastern neighbour and the close links that continue to subsist between the army and the ISI, India’s concern is understandable. Mr. Obama would be wise to allay these concerns swiftly, ensure that all aid and military support to Pakistan is subject to stringent checks, periodic Congressional reviews and the continuing option of ceasing the outflow should a mismatch be found between its actual use and intended purpose, things that he intuitively seems to believe in. In doing so, not only would he significantly boost his indifferent stock with Delhi, it would perhaps also be a rare chance for him to work together with Republicans, largely India-friendly, in the new-look Congress, and score some domestic brownie points as well.

In Afghanistan, events in the last year have left India sidelined from the international opinion on the issue. With SM Krishna marginalised in a conference in London for suggesting that distinctions within the Taliban were merely superficial and not having been invited to a High Table to discuss Afghanistan in Turkey, India feels a sense of exclusion from international efforts to bring the Afghan crisis to an end, in an area which it feels is within the sphere of its geographical influence. Mr. Obama must realise that having India on-board any solution to the Afghan impasse is a necessity in the long-run. Strategic co-operation following the near-inevitable withdrawal of troops will be crucial if Afghanistan is to remain a stable democracy and not return to lawlessness. India has as much interest as America to stop South Asia being the hotbed of international terror. It is common sense for the two nations to show vision and join hands in this endeavour as early as possible without bickering excessively about marginal differences which will be reduced to irrelevance anyway in the long run.

Countering China

Vision will also be essential for both Mr. Obama and Dr. Manmohan Singh if they are to transform a fledgling strategic relationship into a deeper long-term understanding. The inevitability of China’s climb to the top of the world economic ladder is widely understood. At the same time, its growing political might, signalled by its large-scale investments in the African continent, developing a port in Hambantota in Sri Lanka, assisting Pakistan in building a port in Gwadar which will give it strategic influence in waters in the Middle East, its continued support to South-East Asian governments, most notably the military junta in Burma and most recently its foray into Europe to offer Greece a bailout, must be seen as a sign of things to come. Of course India and China, and the USA and China, independently must maintain friendly bilateral relations. But realpolitik demands that the USA and India, soon-to-be, the second and third largest economies in the world forge a key strategic partnership, increasing their economic and political ties significantly in order to counter the political and economic threat which China poses, a threat which will multiply in the next few decades.

A key area for co-operation which can thus be cemented during Mr. Obama’s visit is in energy. If India is to match China’s growth, it requires energy far in excess of what it possesses. Having signed the CSC at US’ insistence and eligible to take part in nuclear commerce only owing to the George W. Bush’s unstinted efforts, the US would be foolish to allow France and Russia supply most of India’s energy needs. Granted, US suppliers, without a sovereign guarantee have reservations about India’s nuclear liability law. It will be up to Mr. Obama to supply the necessary palliatives, curb the rancour which has thus far surrounded talks between NPCIL and US suppliers, and take the Indo-US nuclear deal to its logical and mutually beneficial conclusion.

Less headline-grabbing but equally crucial can be the announcement of new Indo-US strategic partnerships in development of sub-Saharan Africa. Chinese overtures in this region are well-known and it would not be an exaggeration to say that Africa might well become the new site for a Cold War-like battle for supremacy between China on the one hand and its competitors on the other. India, albeit a smaller player, enjoys a warm rapport with most African nations, a rapport which America can capitalise on and jointly assist in development projects in these nations. The strength of two is always better than one. Especially when that one in question is an aggrandizing China.

Admittedly the gains from Mr. Obama’s trip will be far less newsworthy and eyeball-popping as the startling results of Mr. Bush’s trip four years ago. But Barack Obama is not George W. Bush and should not attempt to be as well when it comes to dealing with India. For he has an opportunity to demonstrate, together with Dr. Singh, his vision for a peaceful South Asia, led by a powerful yet humane India working harmoniously with the United States to balance an increasingly dominant China, which far outstrips significant yet smaller gains such as the nuclear deal.  Articulating such lofty visions in practice will be undoubtedly difficult. But as Mahatma Gandhi showed the world- it can be done. It’s now Obama’s time.

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