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Good/Bad/Ugly: What will Obama's visit be like for India?

January 22, 2015 13:25 IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Barack Obama'The real test will be in defence-related deals, for instance the Javelin anti-tank missile: Is the US willing to co-develop something with India, on terms that will support the 'Make in India' initiative? Is there defence technology transfer? Or will it dump old junk on India?' asks Rajeev Srinivasan.

All things considered, it is still self-evident that the United States is the most important nation in the world based on a number of parameters, such as economic, military, technological and cultural power. Therefore the somewhat unexpected visit of US President Barack Obama is to be treated both with anticipation and a certain amount of trepidation.

President Obama's previous trip in 2010 did not produce anything of substance, and the distinct impression was that he was merely going through the motions. I was unimpressed by the entire visit, and I was mostly relieved that then prime minister Manmohan Singh did not sign over the Siachen glacier to Pakistan, as many in the US had been suggesting.

Things are a tad different now, of course. A study (external link) from Harvard University suggests that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is viewed as one of the world's leading heads of State, no doubt to the chagrin of many of his detractors.

Though the report downplayed Modi's standing in comparison to Xi Jinping of China and Angela Merkel of Germany, the fact that he placed so strongly is a tribute to his -- and by extension -- India's visibility in the world.

It seems to be the case that the whirlwind foreign tours by Modi, including his grand appearances at New York's Madison Square Garden and in Sydney, have helped drive the perception that India is finally on the move. All kudos to Modi's foreign affairs team.

On the contrary, Obama did far worse in people's perceptions, a far cry from his larger-than-life image upon first being elected, when he was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in anticipation of what he might achieve. But evidently he has disappointed, and thus his poor showing in the survey.

Interestingly, neither man has been considered a foreign affairs expert. In Modi's case, his experience as Gujarat chief minister was mostly oriented towards internal affairs, although he did reach out to countries like China in order to improve investment. In Obama's case, the biggest achievement -- and that too is in some jeopardy -- has been Obamacare, domestic heath care regulation.

It is customary for a lame-duck President like Obama (he has two more years as President, but a hostile Upper House and Lower House to deal with) to try some quick wins in foreign affairs, as his domestic agenda is unlikely to fly. Indeed, Obama the statesman is struggling to come to the fore: The startling thaw with Cuba is one example.

On the other hand, though, it is fair to say that Obama/the West are hounding Vladimir Putin (the Ukraine imbroglio is largely their making) and Shinzo Abe (Japan possibly ending its pacifist stance is actually in the interest of the US, as it would reduce the odds of China running riot in Asia).

In a sense, then, Obama and Modi are coming to foreign affairs from diametrically opposite ends: Obama, as a lame-duck, needs to get some big wins in foreign lands to buttress his legacy. Modi, on the other hand, is going to be judged by voters on how well he does in domestic affairs, especially the economy, but he is enjoying his honeymoon period with global audiences.

I am reminded of the old fable of the king, his court jester, and the emperor. The jester is sent to the emperor's court, where he pays obeisance saying, 'Greetings to the full moon from the new moon!' and when he returns, the king is unhappy about this. But the jester explains that the full moon is waning, while the new moon is waxing.

We have Obama, waning, and Modi, waxing. It would be most interesting to see how they will take forward their engagement.

There are three scenarios I can see that might result from the Republic Day visit, and I may be pardoned for dubbing them -- in homage to Clint Eastwood -- the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. At the moment, it is not clear which it will be, but we shall soon see.

The Good Scenario

There is a policy of enlightened self-interest that the US and India might follow, and that leads to something similar to the 'triad' first proposed by Keniichi Ohmae of McKinsey Japan, a consultancy firm. It is an instantiation of the principle of comparative advantage (first articulated some centuries ago by David Ricardo, an economist). The idea is that nations produce whatever they do best, and then trade for the remainder of their needs.

Thus a triad, which takes into account the comparative advantages of the US, India and China; and in a way, binds the three together through trade and mutual dependency, thus in effect making conflict less likely. And what might these comparative advantages be?

The core competence of the Americans is in manufacturing dreams, and then making them come true by throwing large amounts of resources at the problem. We see this in Hollywood, and in venture capital in Silicon Valley, and even in the gleaming city of Las Vegas in the middle of the desert: Americans envision, articulate and then realise astonishing advances in the aspirations of men.

India's core competence is in two things: Intellectual property rights and agriculture. Leaving agriculture aside for the moment (see, though, an excellent new history of cotton, the industry that dominated the world for a thousand years till the 1900s, and the story is mostly about India: Empire of Cotton: A Global History, by Sven Beckert, Knopf), let us look at IPR.

Yoga guru Shameem AkhtarIndia led the world in the creation of abstract thought throughout most of history: Yoga, meditation, Panini's astonishing grammar, Aryabhata's astronomy, Madhava's infinite series. Today, India has the capability to be a leader in information technology, computing and telecom, all related fields with much IPR.

China's competency has been in practical ideas and their exploitation: For instance, gunpowder, the printing press, the magnetic compass. And we see this in their manufacturing prowess today, especially around Shenzhen's thriving electronics industry.

Not to say that India was bad at manufacturing (just nano-carbon steel known as wootz, from Tamil urukku, and Dacca muslin would suffice as examples of Indian products), but China is far better today at infrastructure and superb supply chains.

Thus, the triad would consist of Americans coming up with the ideas, the capital, and the marketing; Indians doing the abstract innovation and IPR; and Chinese doing the manufacturing: a rather seamlessly integrated economy, a G3 of major powers.

There was talk during the PM's visit to the US of increasing bilateral trade from $100 billion (about Rs 620,000 crore) to $500 billion (about Rs 31 lakh crore), but that will not work unless there is fresh thinking.

US Secretary of State John Kerry made some make-nice noises at the Vibrant Gujarat meet but unless he can escape his Atlanticist straitjacket, nothing much is going to materialise from the Obama visit other than pomp.

There is a basic premise behind this 'good' scenario: That the US respects, and not just tolerates, India. That would be hard for the State Department (and particularly for the Cold Warriors of the Democratic Party), who would be leery of tolerating another Asian power -- China alone is a handful.

The real test of this will be in any defence-related deals, for instance the Javelin anti-tank missile: Is the US willing to co-develop something with India, on terms that will support the 'Make in India' initiative? Is there defence technology transfer? Or will it dump old junk on India?

The Bad Scenario

This would be more or less the status quo, especially as defined by the hostile current and prior US secretaries of state: Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. In this scenario, India is viewed as an easy mark, one that the can be hoodwinked, used and then discarded casually. Americans are prone to do this -- Tariq Ali, a Pakistani-Briton, once memorably called Pakistan an 'international condom' -- use, flush down the toilet.

This sort of behaviour is par for the course for the US, which has a belief in American exceptionalism and also a sometimes naive (but endearing) faith in its ability to 'fix' other countries.

With typical energy and enthusiasm, Americans rush in where angels fear to tread, and they end often end up making a huge mess of things, destroying the target countries. How much of this is due to malice and how much due to incompetence is not clear, but the list is long: Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.

Thus, America is a difficult partner to dance with: It is like dancing with elephants, and India has to do it very carefully. The default option would be business as usual: A sort of wary detente, wherein the US continues to view India as an undesirable element at best and an active adversary at worst.

This is the surprising 'estranged democracies' perspective as articulated by Dennis Kux, a former American foreign service official. It is the result of bad behaviour by the US (it prefers totalitarian dictators) and by India (the Nehruvian penchant for the Soviet Union and China). The old Atlanticist establishment (exemplified by Zbigniew Brzezinski) still views India through this obsolete prism.

US President Barack Obama with then Chinese president Hu JintaoThe US pays lip service to India, but in fact kowtows to China, as demonstrated in Obama's ceding of 'South Asia' to China: on his previous visit, he in essence agreed to the Chinese vanity that the region was its feudatory backyard.

India, in this view, is no more than a dumping ground for American products (rotten grain in the old PL-480 days and ancient nuclear reactors in the 'nuke deal' days), a source of raw materials it might want (code jockeys, thorium sands, genetic material), and a polity in which its moles and fifth columnists run riot.

There is current evidence of this in the generous grants that John Kerry gave to Pakistan (a billion here and a billion there) as well as the certification (though since denied) that the country is not a sanctuary for state-abetted terrorism, despite much evidence to the contrary. That is pretty much along the lines of the certification that Pakistan was not developing nuclear weapons, a fiction that several US Presidents endorsed, with disastrous consequences for India.

At the moment, I suspect that Obama has an agenda that is mostly about the sale of weapons systems to India (they will be overpriced, obsolete, and will likely have Trojan Horse systems in them so that they, for instance, will tell the Central Intelligence Agency exactly where they are deployed, as happened, allegedly, with laser printers sold to the Iraqi Air Force). Sales of nuclear plants, after eviscerating India's nuclear liability law, will be another item.

Finally, the US really needs help with its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq/Syria/Libya etc. Manmohan Singh was on the verge of giving away Siachen so that Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence would call off its proxies the Taliban in Afghanistan, or so the story went. It was never clear how this would benefit India. Now I am sure there will be other snake oil purveyed by the State Department.

I just hope that Modi and his National Security Advisor Ajit Doval are not taken in by these siren songs. Else we may see Indians dying for white people's geopolitics, deja vu from the British Afghan wars and the two World Wars.

The Ugly Scenario

This scenario is already in play, although it is a little subtle. Its root is the original encounter between white Christians and Asian Hindus and Buddhists. In the early stages of this, white European Christians were dazzled by India (yes, the Mughals were nominal rulers, but the culture was Hindu), China and Japan. This can be seen, for instance, in the euphoric descriptions of the Portuguese ambassador to Vijayanagar, and indeed in early British writings collected by Dharampal.

But the fact of the matter is that white Christians are instinctively antagonistic to Buddhism and even more so to Hinduism, although they could quite easily relate to Islam, given that these Semitic faiths are identical in their core principles, despite differing in some surface details. But the pantheistic monism of Hinduism comes across to them as the baffling other, and the reverse is also true. Since the West divides the world into Manichean 'us and them,' this means a fundamental chasm between the west and the east.

This gulf has persisted. Given their texts' message that they should 'go forth and multiply' and bring their faith to all nations, and especially given the missionary nature of America's Puritans and later its myriad churches (like the Baptists and Mormons), it is only natural that these Christians would want to prey on these newly discovered reservoirs of souls, and that is exactly what they did.

Since China closed itself off (until the Opium Wars forced it open), and Japan was very hostile (Tokugawa Shogun Ieyasu expelled them with force as undesirable aliens, see the recent book Japan and the Shackles of the Past by Taggart Murphy, OUP), it was only India that has remained susceptible to the wiles of clever missionaries. They didn't make much of an impact, however, because the social structure of Hinduism (many self-contained jatis and the simple faith of women) was able to fend it off. But not any longer, as the foot-soldiers of the war-footing Joshua Project make clear when they crow about the large numbers they are converting.

After World War II American missionaries have been able to get a foothold in India, thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru who in effect ceded the entire northeast to them. The results are there for all to see: Violent Christian terrorism in, say, Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur, with separatism, Hindus being forced to convert or murdered, and all links with Indian culture being forcefully erased.

This is not only in India, but also now most visibly in Nepal, to a large extent in separatist enclaves in Yangon with Kachin and Karen insurgencies. Andhra Pradesh under YSR Reddy was a prime example.

With the Sonia Gandhi government, the rapid Christianisation of India took on new momentum. There is now a 'missionary' visa category which has led to the arrival of large numbers of conversionists, not to mention the rise of a veritable tsunami of native compradors who found this a good entrepreneurial opportunity.

That there is a US government entity named US Council for International Religious Freedom that actively colludes in this conversion project is an indication of bad faith on the part of the Americans. This, of course, reflects the views of religious fundamentalists represented by the Republican Party's fringe, but India is caught between that Scylla and the Charybdis of the Democratic Party's leftist animosity, which like Nehru's, would rather turn Hinduism into a museum piece.

I was startled to read in (external link) a piece by Arvind Kumar about the antecedents of Wendy Doniger, the Chicago professor whose brood of acolytes, memorably termed 'Wendy's Children'; by Rajiv Malhotra of the Infinity Foundation, has been instrumental in a broadly anti-Hindu perspective among American academics.

It appears that Doniger and her father (lapsed Jews) had strong evangelical connections, and government support and largesse. Other culprits include Michael Witzel of Harvard and Martha Nussbaum of Chicago, along with a motley crew of Indian leftists.

Another recent example is the new Murty Classical Library of India from Harvard (the citadel, along with Chicago, of Atlanticism) curated by Sheldon Pollock, another hostile academic. Notably, the first set of works released with much fuss did not include a single classical Sanskrit text, but minor works -- a Sri Lankan anthology of women's poetry from Pali/Prakrit, two medieval works from Telugu and Punjabi, Akbar-nama from Urdu, and Surdas' poems from Hindi. It is not obvious that they have great significance, though the Telugu work touches upon the Vijayanagara Empire, and Akbar-nama on the Mughal Empire.

I was also intrigued that the Web page of this library talks of only 'classics from the last two millennia' (no prizes for guessing why that arbitrary cut-off date, despite the fact that much classical literature is a lot older) and that it saw fit to only feature comments by two arrogant anti-Hindus, Amartya Sen and Pankaj Mishra, who have absolutely no expertise in classical Indian literature (and I seriously doubt if they know any of the classical languages, Sanskrit, Prakrit/Pali and Tamil).

I have dwelt at length on this relatively hidden assault on Hinduism because of my belief in an Indian exceptionalism -- India is different, and it is what it is primarily of its unique, Indic, inheritance.

An India shorn of this will be a satellite country, a self-defeating, identity-free vaastuhara nation that will remain an also-ran. Nehruvian Stalinists have systematically shorn all textbooks of Indic content, so that that at least three generations of Indians have been deracinated, and are most happy to ape the West.

That is just fine with the West, as they have role models: The rapid conversions of Filipinos and Koreans and Nepalis, which enables them to keep these countries in their orbit.

Namaste, ObamaI would view the success or failure of President Obama's visit to India on Republic Day through the prism of these scenarios: if it encourages the good scenario, well and good. If it looks likely it will be the bad scenario, then there is a problem. If it is the ugly scenario, heaven help us all: It is war by other means.

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Top Image: United States President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House last September. Photograph: MEA India/Flickr

Middle Image: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Will the US agree to co-develop weapon systems, like a futuristic Joint Strike Fighter?

Penultimate Image: Yoga guru Shameem Akhtar. India, says Rajeev Srinivasan, led the world in the creation of abstract thought throughout most of history: Yoga, meditation, Panini's astonishing grammar, Aryabhata's astronomy, Madhava's infinite series...

Bottom Image: President Barack Obama bows as he greets then Chinese president Hu Jintao, a photograph that was criticised by the American leader's domestic rivals as kow-towing to China.

Rajeev Srinivasan