Barack Obama's main target audience was the middle class which, if brought into close embrace with America, would be the best guarantee of a pro-U.S. orientation of the country.
A reliable indicator of how the visit to India of a foreign leader has gone is to watch out for Pakistan's reaction. If Pakistan is upset, the visit was a success. If the leadership and the media in Pakistan go to the extent of asking the visiting dignitary to retract something he might have said or done in India, it is a sure sign that the visit was highly successful. Barack Obama's visit to India, by that yardstick, was an outstanding success. (While we might gloat over this, we must recognise that our turn to get upset or angry will come when the American President visits Islamabad and Karachi next year.)
While Mr. Obama went back or went on to Djakarta from New Delhi with $20 billion worth of contracts and 50,000 jobs in his bag, he also left behind some goodies. His unambiguous support for India's bid for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council exceeded certainly this writer's expectation. (The Hindu, October 25.) It would be churlish to look for any negative element in his endorsement of our ambition. This does not mean that the reform of the Security Council is round the corner. It will not be possible for India to get permanent membership by itself, just as it is not possible for Japan despite America's support. There will have to be a package solution bringing in at least six new permanent members. There is widespread expectation that a reformed Council will have two additional members from Asia — India and Japan. China is at best lukewarm to the former and opposed to the latter. The African continent does not have a single permanent member at present, nor does South America. South America is demanding a permanent seat and the Africans would like to have three but are insisting on at least two.
Mr. Obama is no doubt aware of all these complexities as also of the expectation that he will certainly have aroused in Japan of a similar, unambiguous endorsement. But what Mr. Obama's support for India does is increase the pressure on China to drop its reservations about the issue. When the Russian leader comes visiting, he will feel obliged to remove the slight ambiguity that has entered Moscow's earlier categorical support. And Nicolas Sarkozy will be only too glad to reiterate France's support which, he will remind the Indians, was pledged well before Mr. Obama's. If four of the five permanent members are so gung-ho about India's aspirations, can the lone hold-out hold out for long?
Mr. Obama's reference to Iran made political sense from his point of view since the issue has huge resonance domestically as well as with Israel and western countries. But his reference to Myanmar, soon after he endorsed our candidature for a permanent seat in the Security Council, was intriguing and sounded contrived. (He insisted on describing the country as Burma.) Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi followed his instinct and condemned Burma's military coup in 1989 which took place when he was in Belgrade for the Non-Aligned Summit but was later persuaded by his advisors to be more pragmatic. It is true that India has abandoned all expressions of disapproval of the Myanmar regime's ruthless suppression of opposition and this has made many in our own country very unhappy with the government. We do not seem to have developed the skill or confidence to take positions based on principle without harming national interests.
Nevertheless, Mr. Obama's decision to include this point in his address to Parliament somehow did not fit in with the rest of his discourse. It was as if he felt he had gone too far in India and had to say something jarring or unpleasant to dampen his audience's enthusiasm over the Security Council seat endorsement. Mr. Obama, as has been mentioned by several American observers, is not a spontaneous person and surely had some political angle but it is somewhat frustrating not to be able to fathom why he felt the need to do this, since there is no particular constituency that he might be addressing.
Mr. Obama also went out of his way to praise Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for his efforts to improve relations with Pakistan. What is significant is that he did so without, in the same breath, mentioning Pakistan also for its efforts to mend fences with India. When this writer was in Washington in late October, he emphasised, in his interaction with think tanks and some senior government officials, that praising both India and Pakistan in the same sentence for making efforts to improve bilateral relations would not go down well in India. It will take someone like Bob Woodward to find out how the debate within Mr. Obama's entourage might have gone on both this point and expressing clear support for India's permanent membership of the Security Council.
The Prime Minister, for his part, re-linked terrorism and dialogue with Pakistan more firmly than ever before. Since he too, like Mr. Obama, carefully weighs his words, he must have meant every word of it. Nonetheless, he might find it difficult to get out of this one.
On Afghanistan, the joint statement has expressed the commitment of the two countries to intensify consultation, cooperation and coordination to ensure a stable Afghanistan. India must make full use of this pledge. While earlier, there was perhaps a degree of perfunctory consultation on the situation in Afghanistan, “cooperation and coordination” are more potent instruments to influence the course of events there. “Coordination,” in particular, gives us an opening to get involved with the process of “reconciliation” and to get our concerns taken more directly into account. No doubt, the NSA or someone will surely leave for Washington in the near future to take advantage of this development. It would be even better if a senior person from Kabul joins such a coordination exercise.
Mr. Obama no doubt came to India with a definite agenda in his mind. His main target audience were youth and business circles — the middle class, in other words. It is the middle class which will increasingly determine our economic and foreign policy. This GenNext is probably no different from previous GensNext in wanting to get rich quick; only that it has more opportunities to do so now. If the middle class is brought into close embrace with America, that would be the best guarantee of a pro-U.S. orientation of the country. The defence and business links will certainly create a dependency syndrome in India's thinking, much as our defence relationship with Israel has created, and this in turn will surely have an impact on our foreign policy. However, so long as we are aware of this risk and are capable of integrating it into our decision-making processes, we need have no fear of our foreign policy being led into an undesirable direction. We have to keep in mind two contrasting sayings: do not look a gift horse in the mouth, and beware of those who come bearing gifts.