Obama and India: A Chance to Redeem Democracy

An Indian family watch television at home in Amritsar on November 5, 2008, as US President-elect Barack Obama addresses his election night victory rally. (Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)

by Mira Kamdar

According to a Gallup poll released days before the US presidential election on October 28, 52 percent of citizens around the world believed it mattered to their country who was elected, and an overwhelming majority favored Obama over McCain. India stood out as being the country most indifferent to the US presidential outcome. When asked if it made a difference who was elected president of the United States, an astounding 87 percent of Indians polled said it did not. Let’s hope they aren’t right.

President-elect Barack Obama will have to deal with disasters on many fronts as his administration takes over the reins of government. India, one might assume, presumably, will not be one of them. If there is one relationship the Bush administration is seen to have handled successfully, it is the one with India.

This impression is no accident. An extremely powerful lobbying effort included millions of dollars spent to support passage of what is seen as the crowning achievement of the Bush administration in the arena of foreign policy: the US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. Senator Barack Obama voted for the nuclear deal, as did Senator Joe Biden, one of its champions as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The deal was hotly contested in India and nearly brought down the government.

In the heady first months after it came to power, the Bush administration laid out a bold new vision for the United States which gave India, a rising Asian democracy on China’s border, proximate to the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean and to the epicenter of Islamist terrorism, a starring role. The argument to India was basically: You need us to realize your ambition to become a major world power, we share a concern over China’s rise and Islamist terrorism, so let’s work together.

What’s wrong with this? First, it views China, India’s and the United States’ largest trading partner, primarily as a threat. Second, it places the foundation of the US-India relationship on strategic ambition and the enhancement of each other’s military reach—India’s $5 billion accounts for an astonishing 20 percent of the 2007 record-breaking $24.8 billion in U.S. arms sales. Third, while it is true that the United States and India face terrorist threats, both democracies have erred shamefully in their approach to dealing with them: the United States with the Patriot Act, the invasion of Iraq, the mishandling of Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo; India with the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) passed after September 11 by the BJP or Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, most of whose features, such as a overly vague definition of what constitutes terrorist or unlawful acts, the preservation of immunity from prosecution of law-enforcement or government agents, and an expansion of wire-tapping of Indian citizens’s calls remained in effect after the Congress-led government repealed it in 2004. Obama alert: The BJP may well win India’s national elections next spring, and has pledged to bring back POTA or something more draconian.

The Singh government has further indulged, in the face of an alarming rise in terrorist attacks, in a heavy-handed response to suspected Islamist terrorists who are hauled off on flimsy evidence and often killed before they can be convicted of any crime. Meanwhile, a commission the government charged with investigating the state-condoned massacres of Muslim citizens in Gujarat in 2002 issued a whitewashed report absolving the perpetrators of any wrongdoing. The result has been the disturbing new development of home-grown terrorism by deeply disaffected Indian Muslims. This sort of behavior, unbecoming of either democracy, has had terrible consequences for the moral credibility of democracy, for security in India, and for regional security in South Asia.

The Obama administration could make as bold a break with the Bush administration’s policy toward India as the Bush administration did with its predecessor by refocusing the relationship on tackling the sources of real insecurity, a break that could go far toward redeeming the badly tarnished name of democracy itself in the wake of the Bush debacle. A new Obama vision of the US-India relationship would focus on global warming and the collapse of industrial agriculture, the widening gap between rich and poor, the conventional and nuclear arms race in Asia, and the intensification of ethnic and religious conflict. President Obama must shift the fundamental basis of the US-India relationship away from a strategic partnership based primarily on a military notion of security toward a holistic notion of human security in which military force plays an appropriate but not a defining role.

The elements of a new Obama vision for the US-India relationship would be: an emergency joint task force to fast-track the development of scalable, small-producer driven, sustainable solutions to meet India’s and the world’s burgeoning energy, water, and food needs, including prioritizing clean-coal, alternative-energy technologies, green architecture, public transportation, and solar agriculture; the inclusion of environmental and labor protections in all bilateral trade agreements; a partnership for the elimination of nuclear weapons within a set time frame in which the United States must take a leadership role; a vigorous new commitment to the protection of the rights and freedoms of all citizens and residents and a zero-tolerance policy toward any state collusion with or tolerance of ethnic cleansing, torture, summary detention, citizen surveillance, or other insults to democracy.

A McCain presidency would have offered no hope for a radical break with the military swaggering and crony capitalism of the Bush years on which the bilateral relationship between the United States and India was based as much as the rest of its foreign policy. An Obama presidency does. For the future of the people of the world’s oldest and largest democracies, let’s hope it will.

Mira Kamdar, a Senior Fellow of the World Policy Institute, is a 2008 Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society and the author of Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Asia Society