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Obama should visit India -- soon

February 18, 2009 15:05 IST

My fellow columnist Gordon G Chang made a piquant point in this space last week in his preview of Hillary Clinton's trip to East Asia -- her first trip abroad as secretary of state. Chiding her for what he regarded as a scheduling misjudgment, he wrote that "she should have reserved time for a stop-over" in India. I agree with him 100 percent.

Ironically, even as Mrs. Clinton was packing her valise for Beijing, a senior spokesman for the Congress party, which heads the ruling coalition in New Delhi, made an impassioned freelance appeal for George W Bush to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, the country's highest civilian award. The Bharat Ratna is a big, big deal in India and has been awarded only 41 times since its inception in 1954 -- and only twice to non-Indians, one of whom was the sainted Nelson Mandela. The Congress party quickly distanced itself from its spokesman's appeal, no doubt regarding it as a particularly impolitic show of nostalgia for Bush so early in the Age of Obama.

But the truth is that, for all his unpopularity in the US (and Europe, and Latin America, and the Middle East, and practically everywhere else outside Albania and Georgia), Bush is a much-appreciated figure in India -- at least in high policy circles. As many have noted, both in Washington and New Delhi, the one indisputable foreign policy success of the eight Bush years was America's invigorating new alliance with India -- an alliance that is based as much in a sense of shared ideology (democracy, pluralism, etc.) as it is in strategic need (both countries want a reliable counterweight to China and face a common foe in Islamist terrorism).

I'm not suggesting that Mrs Clinton has slighted India; far from it. China is clearly the perfect choice for her travelling debut, especially in light of Tim Geithner's unhelpful pronouncements -- only days after President Obama's inauguration -- that Beijing was manipulating its currency. If the US is to tackle the global recession in any meaningful way, it needs China on board more than any other country. Besides, the Obama administration must reassure Beijing that the US, while wary (by inclination) of China, is not hostile to it.

In any case, my point here is not about the importance of China, which is self-evident; it is, instead, to alert the Obama administration to the need to keep the alliance with India from eroding.

There is no doubt that the Indian political establishment was rooting for McCain in the US elections, believing that the Republican candidate was a better guarantor of India's interests. Yet President Obama should resist any reflexive inclination he might have to treat India as "Bush country." Certainly, Indian popular opinion has been strongly in his favour, particularly among younger Indians; and the many leftists who still populate India's political class -- dinosaurs who cling to non-alignment as a creed and who regard the US as "imperialist" -- were never keen on Bush, anyway. They like Obama for giving Bush his comeuppance -- and from allegiance to all those fuzzy third-world notions of non-white solidarity that most sentient beings have grown weary of.

The Indian establishment's preference for McCain was understandable, given that many nuclear-nonproliferation hardliners in the Democratic Party were vehemently against the US-India nuclear deal, the centerpiece of Bush's new relationship with India. The Republican Party, by contrast to the Democrats, has outgrown America's historical mistrust of India, and the Bush years saw the emergence of a quite exhilarating degree of cooperation between the US and India -- so much so that the alliance with India might be described as a tectonic shift in American foreign relations.

What President Obama must be careful to do is deal with India on its own terms. He must not return to the old, pre-Bush binary in which India was twinned always with Pakistan and in which American diplomacy with India was always calibrated for the effect it might have on American relations with Pakistan.

India has outgrown Pakistan economically, militarily, strategically and civilizationally --and the US must treat it, on a par with Japan and Germany, as an always-consequential state whose interests can never be disregarded. The Obama administration started off on the wrong foot with India by giving its special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan --Richard Holbrooke -- the additional task of seeking resolution on Kashmir, an affair on which India has never encouraged foreign intervention. In the end, hard-nosed Indian diplomacy led to a dropping of Kashmir from the Holbrooke "portfolio," but the Obama administration's intervene-in-Kashmir instinct sowed alarm in New Delhi.

An elegant and effective way to dispel Indian apprehensions about an Obama administration would be for President Obama himself to visit New Delhi very early in his presidency. Does his schedule permit such a trip some time within the first 100 days? I would urge him to give it some serious thought. My bet is that such a visit would cement America's alliance with India for at least the next generation. What could be wrong with that?

Tunku Varadarajan, a professor at NYU's Stern Business School and a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, is executive editor for opinions at Forbes. He writes a weekly column for Forbes.com.

Tunku Varadarajan
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