Op-ed in The National: The Obama celebrations

Don’t underestimate the importance of the atmosphere

Here’s the original draft of an op-ed that appears in UAE’s The National daily today. It emphasises the importance of the popular basis of the India-US relationship.

Barack Obama will have a grand, memorable and successful visit to India merely by turning up.

Despite sinking approval ratings at home and misgivings among sections of New Delhi’s strategic establishment, he is remains immensely popular in India. Many are inspired by his life story, and many more are impressed by his style, personality and oratory. So expect a groundswell of welcome, warmth and good wishes for him when he arrives in Mumbai next week. In addition to stately official functions, India’s raucous clamour of billboards, sand sculptures, T-shirts and the quintessential Amul butter advertisement will celebrate the occasion. It is easy to get caught up in geopolitical, economic and commercial issues and understate the importance of “atmospherics”. To do so would be to miss the point.

The mutual popularity of the two countries forms the bedrock of the India-US relationship: and because both countries are democracies, this creates powerful political constituencies pressing the two governments towards each other. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, two out of three Indians polled have a favourable opinion of the United States. In fact, 73% of the Indians surveyed said that they have confidence in Obama, compared to only 65% of the Americans. Americans return the favour. A recent Gallup poll reveals two in three Americans have a positive opinion of India, with younger people even more favourably disposed. Pro-India lobbies in Washington and pro-America lobbies in India are set to grow stronger and more numerous with time.

This doesn’t translate into New Delhi and Washington taking identical positions on all issues, but is a powerful driver towards their convergence. It also allows policy disagreements between the two governments to be placed within an overall positive context, and permits both to say “No!” to each other without the fear of jeopardising the relationship. So, just like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s state visit to Washington last year, President Obama’s trip to India next week should be seen as both acknowledging and reinforcing the bottom-up basis of the relationship at the very highest level.

In the pre-trip press gaggle, White House officials were at great pains to project the visit as focussed on Mr Obama’s domestic agenda of creating jobs. They pointed out that India is the second fastest growing foreign investor in the United States (after the UAE) and Indian companies support over 57,000 jobs in the country. The US-India Business Council estimates that deals signed during the trip could create or sustain as many as 100,000 jobs in the United States. While they got that part of the messaging right ahead of the mid-term Congressional elections, the Obama administration’s defensiveness over the issue of outsourcing reflects its inability to appreciate that it ultimately benefits US consumers, especially during hard times. This remains a concern for India’s highly competitive services industry.

Indian analysts, however, are aware that creating jobs in the United States is important to India. As my colleague V Anantha Nageswaran suggests, India should not make too much noise about short-term protests against outsourcing and “buy more stuff from the US which it is still good at making.”

If the hot-button political issue in Washington is unemployment, in New Delhi it is terrorism. US authorities have extended genuine co-operation — albeit not to the extent that their Indian counterparts desire — over the investigations into David Headley’s involvement in the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai. With Headley’s confessions — in the presence of US officials — squarely implicating the Pakistan’s ISI agency, it is no longer possible for Washington to plausibly pretend that terrorism has no official sanction from Pakistani state institutions. Now, by deciding to stay at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai and meet victims of the terrorist attack, Mr Obama has done well to signal his commiseration, if not solidarity, with the Indian people. However, he will not be spared tough questions on his administration’s equivocal attitude towards the source of that terrorism.

In two years, Mr Obama has traveled the distance to reach the same point over Pakistan as when he took over — that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex will not yield to US demands beyond a point. In two years, he has traveled from believing the notion that the United States and China can co-operate in a “G-2″ to recognising that a strong partnership with India is critical to US interests in Asia. So when he travels to India next week, both Washington and New Delhi share a common understanding of the problems they face. Where they differ is on what the solutions ought to be.

That, however, won’t spoil the party.