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After the Kool-Aid: Notes from the Obama visit

November 11, 2010 20:45 IST
Where is the substance in the just-concluded Obama jamboree, asks Rajeev Srinivasan.

A casual observer, the proverbial Martian, would have concluded from the breathless media coverage during the Barack Obama love-fest that this was a visit of the King-Emperor of India's colonial master. The pageantry and pomp and circumstance hid the sad fact that the emperor had no clothes, that is to say, there was precious little of substance in evidence. Lots of style, though: An Obama trademark.

But then Indians love a good party, and this was like a Big Fat Punjabi Wedding: Plenty of dancing, much drinking, and everyone nursing a hangover the next day. Naturally, nobody wanted to bring up anything serious or embarrassing. As usual, Indians were taken in by flattery and vague words about 'global power' and 'rightful place in the world'.

There was one major meta-theme: Obama was in India hat in hand, beginning his re-election campaign. After the self-confessed 'shellacking' he received in the mid-term elections, and given that anyway he is more comfortable campaigning than governing, this should not be much of a surprise.

The 2012 presidential elections are not that far off; the Republicans may contrive to shoot themselves in the foot; and so the grim prospect of 'four more years' of Obama cannot be underestimated.

If you take the election issues out, the Obama visit was much like the visit of British Prime Minister David Cameron a few weeks prior (and he's doing the same in China now). Cameron was disarmingly candid -- he was a salesman, doing a hard-sell of his wares. India clearly has 'buyer power' -- as per strategy guru Michael Porter -- that is, India, being a major purchaser of all sorts of goods, has influence over sellers.

Obama did his selling more subtly, partly because he could get a lot of mileage out of his black-man-inspired-by-Gandhi-and-King trope -- Indians are suckers for this sort of sentimental pabulum, although in reality 99 per cent of American blacks have never heard of Gandhi, and have no particular sympathy for Indians as fellow-sufferers from white oppression; if anything, they may view Indians in the US as benefiting unfairly from the affirmative action programmes they won with their blood, sweat, and tears.

Was the visit a success? Perhaps it was, from the American point of view. Obama did sell $15 billion worth of goods and generate 54,000 American jobs. And he didn't give away the store, or anything at all. Incidentally, there is a meme among hostile Americans about how Dubya Bush 'gave away the store' to India -- the New York Times in particular harps on this theme often -- in relation to the so-called 'nuclear deal'.

On the contrary, it is India that gave away the store by giving up its -- pitiful though it might be -- nuclear deterrent capability.

Surely Obama didn't give much away. He got misplaced, but thunderous, applause from Indian parliamentarians when he talked about welcoming India into the UN Security Council -- they did not realise he was talking about the non-permanent membership that India has just won. The prospect of a full veto-wielding permanent membership is, alas, just as far as it always has been, thanks to the supreme folly in refusing it when offered in 1955 -- in favor, of all countries, China! Go figure!

Obama's rhetorical flourishes about the Security Council membership were full of fine phrases, but there was the distinct absence of an action verb: Such as 'support', 'commit', or 'endorse'. I am reminded of a Doonesbury cartoon about Ted Kennedy, wherein the orator makes fine, emphatic statements, which, sadly, all consist of nouns, and the commentator says, 'A verb, Senator, we need a verb!'

All President Obama said was the following, verbatim: 'In the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed UNSC that includes India as a permanent member'. What he did not say was that his country strongly supported the idea and that it would throw its weight behind India's candidacy, as it has for Japan.

Without a time-bound statement of intent, it was mere fluff, a pious platitude. In any case, Obama knows full well that China will veto Japan's, and India's, aspirations.

Furthermore, Obama immediately imposed conditions -- that India should toe the US line on Iran, human rights and nuclear non-proliferation. All of these are suspect -- not that I am a big fan of Iran, but India has regional interests that suggest it engage Iran, for instance for access to Afghanistan, and for hydrocarbons.

In fact, it would be a good idea for India to lecture the US that the latter should ally with Iran so that it is not dependent on Pakistan's ISI for transit of its war materiel to Afghanistan.

By carping on human rights (code for Kashmir) and non-proliferation (code for India signing the NPT), Obama was addressing his pals in the ISI and in the non-proliferation-ayatollah-dom that permeates the Democratic ranks in the US.

What about extensive proliferation and human rights violations by Pakistan and China, Mr US President? How come you have no fine words to say to those allies of yours? What about the human rights of Afghans, so trampled on by the ISI?

All in all, whatever the ELM spin-doctors say, Obama gave much less than a ringing endorsement of India's aspirations for the Security Council. It is clear that the P5 are not going to dilute their stranglehold on the UNSC, or on nuclear weapons -- if India ever gets on the UNSC, it will be as a non-veto-holding member, and it would have signed the NPT. This is no different from the way things were two weeks ago, so I ask: '"Where's the beef?'

Naturally, unfriendly pundits from the New York Times and others passed it off as 'Countering China, Obama Backs India for UN Council'. No, Virginia, read his lips. That's not what he said. The Los Angeles Times correctly identified it as 'only a step' in that direction. The Wall Street Journal quoted William Burns, an official, who refused to say whether the US would support a veto-bearing status for India. Bingo!

But Obama demonstrated that he does know how to use verbs when he spoke about Aghanistan. He said, 'We will not abandon the Afghan people'. Fine words, but it is hard to reconcile this with his actions, in particular his insistence on pulling out troops in 2011, which has emboldened all the warlords into a waiting game.

Furthermore, the official Obama Administration stand on Afghanistan is predicated on India making sacrifices to appease Pakistan. The standard line was articulated in a particularly inane op-ed in the Washington Post on Nov 8 by one David Pollack, in an article headlined 'Our Indian Problem in Afghanistan', which could have been written by the ISI, so well did it articulate their position.

No, David, the issue is not India's presence in Afghanistan, which goes back centuries, and is mostly humanitarian. Let us also remember that Afghanistan was the nation that opposed Pakistan's entry into the UN -- they had good reason to do so, because half of the natural territory of Afghanistan is occupied by Pakistan.

The problem is the Durand Line. The Afghans have never recognised the Durand Line, an artificial boundary that was imposed by force on them in 1893 by the British; in any case that treaty expired in 1993. The Pathans on either side of the line are unnaturally divided by the line.

This human rights issue -- the oppression of the Pathans since 1947 by the largely Punjabi Pakistani army and the ISI -- is the root cause of the Afghan problem. There is a simple geographic solution to the Afghan problem -- let the Pathans merge southern Afghanistan and the western part of Pakistan into a Pashtunistan, their long-standing demand.

That would immediately solve the Afghan problem, and Obama can take his boys home. Leaving the Pathans in charge of their own destiny will prevent the Pakistanis from abusing them by proxy -- it is Pakistani ISI and army personnel who put on baggy pants and grow beards and call themselves the Taliban. And consort with Al Qaeda.

Northern Afghanistan, dominated by Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, and base of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, could be administered as a peaceful nation, protected by NATO forces.

Even today, the Panjshir Valley (home of national hero and military genius Ahmed Shah Massoud, assassinated by the Taliban a day before 9/11), Mazar-e-Sharif, etc are not so troubled.

Why, they even have a tourist agency in Bamiyan which, I am told, brought 800 tourists this year to the site of the magnificent Buddha statues that the Taliban blew up.

Selig Harrison, writing in the Los Angeles Times on November 8, in a piece titled 'Pakistan divides US and India', got the facts right -- the problem is the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani army, which in effect has colonised the Baluchi, Sindhi, and Pathan populations of Pakistan, all of which are restive.

The dissolution of Pakistan is the only answer to the problem. And this is the one thing that Obama is unwilling to countenance. Therefore he is not serious about solving the Afghan problem, he merely wants a face-saving way of exiting Afghanistan.

Given that these are life-and-death issues for India, and that other major issues, such as agriculture and education, got short shrift, from an Indian point of view, it is fair to say that the Obama visit was not a success.

The most positive thing I can say is that the feared 'November surprise', a signing-over of Kashmir to the ISI, did not happen. At least, it did not happen in public.

Otherwise, stripped of all the glad-handing and the huzzahs, the Obama visit to India was a major non-event. India got practically nothing out of it. But then, India's leaders do not know what their goals are, so avoiding utter disaster, I suppose, is a victory. Of sorts.

Rajeev Srinivasan