President Obama in India – and An Indira Gandhi Moment

By TP Saran

There were headlines in the Indian press to the effect that President Obama was coming job-shopping in India, as he and his wife Michelle went on a charm offensive during the last weekend, starting from Bombay. They were both received with the gracious if not ingratiating generosity of Indians towards those who come from Europe or North America, and they clearly savoured every moment.

Deals of about 10 billion US dollars were agreed upon, and President Obama gloated over the fact that this would lead to the creation of over 50 000 jobs in the US. Earlier in his presidency, he had been critical of jobs being outsourced from Houston to Bangalore, the IT hub of India. Indians in general had not digested his remarks well, but clearly the winds of change have overtaken both countries with an apparent reversal of roles – compared to what had been happening till recently – and if it serves the interest of both countries to maintain this kind of relationship, so much the better.

But it would be well to remember, at this moment, the Iron Lady of India, Mrs Indira Gandhi, when she had gone to America during the presidency of Richard Nixon. At that time he was an India hater and China baiter, and Mrs Gandhi’s plane was made to land in a corner of New York’s airport from where, on walking to the terminal building, she had to pass by stinking urinals. Such was the disdain of official America for India.

Around the same period, she was interviewed by the BBC, and the journalist (probably David Frost), asked her, ‘Mrs Gandhi, as we know there are two superpower blocks in the world today, one leaning to the left and one to the right. Can you tell us which way does India lean?’ Sitting up in her chair, the Iron Lady shot straight from the hip as it were, ‘India,’ she replied, without batting an eyelid, ‘leans neither to the left nor to the right. We stand straight!’

I do not know of any Indian leader in recent Indian history, before or after her, who has been so assertive about India. It may be a long time indeed before India gets another Indira Gandhi moment…

America and Asia

America has always favoured Pakistan in spite of the fact that it has mostly been run by the military, whose role in even the present apparent civilian government is well known. This leaves President Zardari with little leeway. At the beginning of his mandate, and whatever be his reputation in Pakistan, he had tried to ease the relations with India, even willing not to use the first-strike nuclear option.

But the military brass reined him in, and efforts to improve relations between the two countries at official level continue to be stalled because of the covert support given to terrorist networks by the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) which is a government entity. This is a real pity, because the people-to-people contact initiated by ex-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had been doing rather well, and unfortunately has slowed down.

As far as China is concerned, America’s position has always been consistent: don’t scratch the giant’s back. By the twisted logic of bending over backwards that is known as diplomacy, Henry Kissinger led the brigade that would accommodate the communist arch-enemy by according it the honour of Nixon’s visit during the latter’s tenure as President.

That colourful diplomatic device was upped during Bill Clinton’s mandate, when China was accorded MFN: Most Favoured Nation status. The Tianamen Square massacre was no longer of any relevance, and the strident cries for denial/abuse of human rights completely subdued because ‘it’s the economy, stupid!’ During Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent visit to China, the same approach was adopted, that is, no mention of human rights.

Churchill was not wrong when he said that in politics there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests.

* Published in print edition on 12 November 2010

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