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India Cautiously Welcomes Obama’s Election

Indian tribal organisation activists from Jarkhand state light fireworks and hold up portraits of US president-elect Barack Obama as they celebrate in front of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Ranchi on November 5, 2008. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
by Stephanie Valera
5 November 2008

by Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

NEW YORK, November 5, 2008 - India is among the few dozen countries,
largely clustered in Asia and Africa, where sentiment in favor of the
United States actually rose during the administration of George W.
Bush. Nonetheless, more Indians favor the election of Barack Obama to
the Oval Office than they do John McCain, though by a slim margin. What
explains this seeming contradiction?

At the
heart of the Bush administration’s success with India was a belief that
India was a nation whose rise was beneficial to US interests. This led
President George W. Bush to seek to adjust the international order to
India’s benefit, most notably by negotiating an exemption from the
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty for India.
The net result was a closer Indo-US relationship and a positive view of
Bush that overrode the president’s less popular actions such as
invading Iraq.

However, Obama’s election—the success of a
member of a non-white minority in the world’s oldest democratic
polity—has seized the imagination of many Indians. He is exhorted in
the media and among the intellectual classes. Among the most fervent
supporters of Obama in the US have been the nearly three million-strong
Indian-American community. “You can’t swing a dead cat in the Obama
camp without hitting an Indian-American,” said an Obama advisor.

the run up to the election, many Indians could not believe that an
African-American would ever be chosen to reside in the White House. His
election inevitably enhanced the standing of the US as a land of
genuine opportunity, a nation whose multicultural credentials were as
great if not better than polyglot and polyethnic India.

greatest skepticism about an Obama presidency lies among the Indian
strategic elite. Sensibly enough, they are focused on the promotion of
India’s economic and political interests in the wider world. They found
an ally in that cause in Bush. Whatever Obama’s ethnic credentials, New
Delhi has detected in his statements reason to believe he will be less
supportive than Bush.

First, India is wary
that any Democratic administration will include the same proponents of
nuclear nonproliferation who opposed Bush’s exemption for India. Obama
has publicly said he intends to push for a comprehensive test ban
treaty, a treaty that India opposes because it feels its own nuclear
deterrent remains incomplete.

Second, Obama
has attacked the outsourcing of service jobs to places like India and
the offshoring of manufacturing jobs to Asia as a whole. His advisors
have also indicated they will seek to incorporate social provisions,
like labor standards, in future international trade negotiations.
Though candidates tend to rollback from protectionist stances once they
come to power, the Democrats’ control of both houses of Congress may
not give Obama that leeway.

Third, a Democratic
administration has said it will put climate change at the forefront of
its global policy concerns. If the focus is about mitigating carbon
production through technological means, there will be few concerns.
However, if the policy slips into more coercive measures such as carbon
tariffs and the like, the result is likely to convert climate change
into an energy security struggle. It will also pit the big carbon
emitters of the future, like India and China, against present polluters
like the United States and Europe.

conversations with a few Obama advisors and his own speeches indicate
that Washington’s number one security concern in the coming years will
be Afghanistan and Pakistan. “Iraq is yesterday’s problem,” said one
advisor to an Indian audience several weeks ago.

the heart of that problem, say Obama advisors, is the growing neurosis
of the Pakistani regime. Islamabad is full of with internal strife and
prone to seeing conspiracies against it that include virtually all of
its neighbors and often the US. How can we ease that concern, is the
buzz in Washington these days. One element in such a policy of
reassurance, repeatedly said by Obama and most recently in a television
interview, is to “try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they
[Pakistan] can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with
those militants.”

This is a sensible goal, and
one Indian leaders will acknowledge as in their country’s interest.
However, any Kashmir peace process that is seen to be a consequence of
US pressure is politically dead on arrival in India. Kashmir is a
diplomatic minefield. One misstep by the new Obama administration could
result in a deep freeze of the Indo-US relationship for a few years.

the indicators are that the new Obama administration will seek to
restore an international status quo that preceded the Bush presidency.
This includes a restoration of ties with Europe, tightening the nuclear
nonproliferation regime and possibly a restoration of China as the
centerpiece of the US policy in Asia. If so, the question for India
will be whether this will be accomplished by reducing the international
space that New Delhi gained under Bush.

If so,
there is a strong likelihood that one area in which an Obama
administration will fail to gain traction is advancing the Indo-US
relationship in areas outside the strictly economic.


Pramit Pal Chaudhuri is the senior editor of the Hindustan Times and a member of the Asia Society International Council.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Asia Society