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Home > India > News > Columnists > Girish Rishi

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Obama should carry on Bush's India policy

January 21, 2009

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The Obama [Images] coronation is a morale boost in what is turning out to be the most dire economic and geopolitical climate in a century. Most people around the world have found a reason to rejoice, also hoping that the Obama presidency will end the reign of ideology, an advent of the Bush era, with realism and pragmatic policies.

While policies of the Obama administration will unfold in the weeks to come, Indians may be well advised to show healthy scepticism.

The 'freedom agenda' of the Bush administration was good for India. For one, it resulted in the de-hyphenation of India and Pakistan. The Bush administration had a clear position that was understood, albeit not always respected around the world. If a State is liberal, pluralistic and free, you are America's friend, so went the Bush policy.

This policy led to a dialogue with India that was conducted without a degree of undue caution about and from Pakistan. The rising economic strength of India also helped the Bush administration to look at India as a separate, sovereign power and not a conjoined twin of its wily and insecure neighbour.

For decades prior to the George W Bush [Images] presidency, India aspired for a different and preferred treatment based on its democratic credentials. But, in all those years, US foreign policy paired India and Pakistan and at times favoured the latter. The Bush administration acted to reverse those policies, the most visible symbol being the US-India nuclear agreement.

The US policy was recently evidenced when then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice [Images] made it clear that Pakistan cannot wash its hands off of the Mumbai [Images] attacks by claiming that it was an act of non-State actors. It should not be forgotten that the level of assertiveness seen from the US after the Mumbai attacks could not have been imagined a decade ago.

Dr Rice's assertion in favour of India after the Mumbai tragedy was consistent with her past positions when she commented, 'Pakistan is not in the same place as India. I think everybody understands that. One of the important achievements I think of the (Bush) administration is that we've been able to take Pakistan on its own terms and India on its own terms.'

But we have a new administration in Washington DC now and recent statements by President Obama and his representatives should raise some concern in New Delhi [Images]. The suggestion of a special envoy to deal with India-Pakistan, is already being viewed as the first faux pas in some circles both in Washington DC and in New Delhi.

Another suggestion that Afghanistan, Pakistan and India need to be looked as a sort of an amalgam is like suggesting that the US, Cuba and Venezuela should get together to work through regional woes.

India has much to expect in terms of a relationship with the new administration. Besides Secretary Hillary Clinton [Images], a long time ally of India, the Obama administration will feature many Clinton officials from the 1990s, who spearheaded the engagement with India.

Vice-President Joe Biden's chief policy advisor when he was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was Jonah Blank, a reputed South Asia scholar, who has lived in India and written extensively about it. It is expected that he will hold an influential position.

With momentum from the Bush era and known friends in the Obama administration, it needs to be made clear that pairing of India and Pakistan, the latter a failed State, will be discouraged by India and the politically potent Indian-American community.

India needs to be assertive in its stance that it will not sit down for a dialogue where it is treated at par with its anarchic and erratic neighbour.

The point needs to be made that the latest incarnation of a democratic government in Pakistan mirrors other past pseudo governments of Pakistan, as was recently visible in its waffling and in-admittance of complicity in the Mumbai attacks.

There is a risk of circumstance here. The Obama administration is coming in pressured to act in ten days and will not have the luxury of a 100 day honeymoon like past administrations. The financial meltdown, the draw-down in Iraq, the impending surge in Afghanistan and the treatment of Iran, all this, while replicating the stellar performance of the Bush administration in protecting the homeland, is surely going to be overwhelming to the new occupants of the White House.

Thus, there is a risk that the administration may off-load its focus by kicking-off a regional solution for India-Pakistan and for that matter start implying that the path to peace between the neighbours goes through the Kashmir valley.

This needs to be discouraged by the full force of Indian diplomacy, US foreign policy experts, as well as by India's allies. What India, the US and for that matter the world needs is a 'Pakistan solution.' After all, the threat of further seepage of nuclear weapons, the greatest global security risk known, is emanating from Pakistan. This is where ideology of freedom from the Bush era should meet the expected pragmatism of the Obama administration.

In that, the Bush and Obama administrations need to demonstrate a continuum of policy and not a disruption.

President Obama presents an inspirational figure to the rest of the world. His intellectual abilities and calm, thoughtful demeanour are being heralded. He has a mandate of the people and with that there is hope that change is on the way.

But, in a rush to bring change and to undo the perceived damage brought about by Bush policies the Obama administration should not get tempted in to reversing the progress that has been made.

Pakistan needs to be ring-fenced and held accountable for its misdeeds and not given a platform to sit down as equals with India. When viewed ideologically or through the prism of realism, the US needs to have a Pakistan policy and continue on its path of de-hyphenating India and Pakistan.

Girish Rishi is a Chicago-based writer.


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