Ghost in Obama Shadow
By M J Akbar
In The Third Eye: India Today)
8-15th November 2010
The prevailing metaphor of Barack Obama’s relations with India is surely the sauciest gatecrash in the timeless span of diplomatic dinners. Michaele and Tareq Salahi probably deserve an Oscar for chutzpah in turning up, uninvited, for Obama’s grand evening in honour of Dr Manmohan Singh last year, and maybe the White House secret service now needs a tutorial from Delhi Police. But the hovering presence of an unwanted spirit has become the most unsettling factor in Indo-American relations.
Pakistan is now the omnipresent ghost in the room when India talks to America.
Obama did not send an invitation to Islamabad but he left the door open the moment he adopted, during his campaign, Afghanistan as his preferred war. George Bush, being strategically dysfunctional, decided that the only way to defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was to destroy Iraq, but this enabled him to engage India without bothering too much about Pakistan. Uncomplicated Bush liked India and complicated India returned the embrace.
Obama began with a contortion and slipped into contradiction because he made a false choice. Bush may have been right or wrong when he went to war, but he believed in what he was doing. Obama promised war only because America was never going to elect a peacenik in an age of terrorism. The moment he won the election, he began looking for ways and means to outsource the conflict. Pakistan’s role in Pentagon plans changed; it moved from an important but passive-positive third lead to centre stage.
Pakistan needed Bush more than Bush needed Pakistan, which is why Pervez Musharraf buckled under Colin Powell’s ultimatum within hours after 9/11. It may not be by much, since both sides seem desperate, but Obama needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs Obama. Obama prepared for his India visit in early November by being sweet to Pakistan. The third round of the US-Pak strategic dialogue was held in Washington in the third week of October, and ended in the usual ‘back-present’, another couple of billion dollars for the Pak armed forces. The Pakistan army, which is surely the most powerful mercenary force in history, simply sends a bill and Washington brings out the cheque book. Obama explained why: it’s known as “helping Pakistan in helping us in Afghanistan”. There must be something in the White House which destroys the syntax of even a former professor at Yale, but the substance is clear enough. Obama has not only promised a “comprehensive partnership” to Pakistan but also promised economic prosperity. When you are in love, you do tend to promise the moon. As if romance with a delegation led by a mere foreign minister was not enough, Obama telephoned Pakistan’s president Asif Zardari asking him not to fret just because he was going to call on the competition.
In any case, Obama is not coming to India bearing gifts. He will provide plenty of rhetoric of course, particularly since speech is free in a democracy. He may even be tempted to give Indian Muslims a patronizing pat on the back for being “good” Muslims rather chaps who commit suicide over the weekend. But a principal objective, hidden under the phrases, will revolve around what Obama can take away from India. His chance for a second term depends on whether he can bring unemployment down. His own job depends on how many jobs he can give Americans. He wants contracts. The 126 fighters for the Indian Air Force, for instance, will create 29,000 jobs in America. Have you ever wondered why American presidents avoid Bangalore like a bubonic plague? Whenever a domestic job is lost to some cheaper foreigner, they describe it as being “Bangalored”. Bush, therefore, preferred Hyderabad to Bangalore. No president wants to be “Bangalored” by the voter.
Obama will also, of course, reserve his widest smile for India, although he may not be in a very sunny mood after the congressional elections. But he cannot do very much to help the Indian economy at a time when the American economy needs repair. The best he can do, in political terms, is ignore Kashmir, but there is nothing on offer for India in Afghanistan. If anything, Obama will urge India to tone down, rather than ramp up, its presence on the American-Pak battlefield.
Barack Obama achieved what was considered impossible when in 2008 he became the first black person to become President of America. In 2010 he just might add a second historic achievement to his credit. He could make both India and the United States feel nostalgic for George Bush.