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Will Obama and India seize the moment?
Praful Bidwai
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November 14, 2008

The election of Barack Hussein Obama as the President of the United States has electrified the world community and ignited hope. It is a matter of epochal significance that a black man will live as the master of the White House, which was built by black slaves and staffed by them until 1850, but where African-Americans would rarely be invited until almost a century later. This marks spectacular progress in a society where blacks were sold as slaves until 143 years ago and couldn't even vote just 40 years ago.

The magnitude of this tectonic shift in the world's most influential nation has kindled hope everywhere in the possibility of transformative, even revolutionary, change towards inclusion, equality, and respect for diversity and pluralism. Everybody wants "a piece of Obama", including diehard conservatives like former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and one-time neo-conservative philosopher Francis Fukuyama. Even President Nicolas Sarkozy of France [Images], one of Europe's most right-wing leaders, is exuberant over Obama's victory.

A striking exception to this overwhelming trend are Indian policymakers, who view the victory with nervousness and foreboding. Like the hopelessly US-dependent ruling elites of Israel and Georgia, they too had hoped Senator John McCain [Images] would win. They see Obama's presidency as a threat. As we see below, they are totally, comprehensively, wrong.

The true domestic significance of Obama's victory lies in its breaking of the conservative stranglehold over US society and politics. Crucial to this was his campaign strategy of grassroots mobilisation based on the promise of healing social divides This couldn't have been achieved by another potential Democrat victor like John Kerry or Joseph Biden.

The significance of Obama's election stands greatly magnified by the current US financial meltdown and economic recession. These have highlighted the bankruptcy of President George W Bush's [Images] disastrous right-wing policies and reminded the American people of the relevance of issues like entitlement to healthcare and social security, labour rights, progressive taxation, and above all, egalitarian programmes like President Roosevelt's New Deal. Obama's call to put an end to "unforgiving capitalism" was wholly in keeping with this sentiment. 

Obama takes over a nation exhausted with its past and despondent about its future. Almost nine out of 10 Americans believe their country has been on the wrong track. Obama will face difficult choices in fulfilling his promises. But we must hope he'll succeed.

Globally, Obama bids fair to make an impact at a fateful moment in history, when multiple crises have converged -- a global financial meltdown and growing economic crisis, discrediting of the neo-liberal economic model, decline of US hegemony amidst major geopolitical shifts, and a worsening climate crisis. These cast a shadow over the notion of development as market-led accumulation of material goods to which human needs must be subordinated.

Domestically, Obama has a historic chance to launch a new New Deal, by re-regulating the economy, engineering pro-people state intervention through bold healthcare and social security programmes, and initiating large-scale public works. He will come under pressure from the establishment, including some of his own advisers from the Chicago free-market economics school, to tinker at the margins without breaking with the neo-liberal paradigm. This would only perpetuate Casino Capitalism and human misery through recurrent crises.

Yet, the logic of Obama's promises on healthcare, education, taxation and social security, and his $200 billion plan for roads, ports, bridges, etc, should prompt him to discard that paradigm -- if he remains true to his word. He will probably adopt a far more progressive policy than the Republicans on energy and climate change. He has promised an investment of $150 billion over 10 years on renewable sources. Under him, the US is likely to take a less hostile approach to the Kyoto Protocol -- although his original proposal to put an economy-wide cap on greenhouse gas emissions might be diluted.

Obama is likely to be more respectful of civil liberties, outlaw torture and shut down Guantanamo Bay. He will probably also relax immigration and citizenship policies in favour of America's 12 million illegal migrants. However, whether he dismantles intrusive surveillance and the Patriot Act remains unclear.

Much of Obama's economic agenda will depend upon his Cabinet appointments. The two top candidates reportedly in the running for the Treasury Secretary's post are former World Bank chief economist Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, chairman of the New York Federal Reserve. Neither is likely to break with deregulation and other neo-liberal policies. The test of Obama's leadership will lie in overruling them to push a non-market-driven agenda.

His very first appointment of Rahm Emmanuel as the White House chief of staff, who'll control access to him, is a letdown. Emanuel is a hard-driving Washington 'insider' and former investment banker, close to the family of Chicago mayor Richard Daley, a controversial operator. Sadly, Obama also wants to induct Republicans into his team.

On foreign policy and security issues, Obama promises a less arrogant, aggressive and unilateralist US -- a welcome departure from the Bush-McCain approach. Obama has promised to withdraw troops from Iraq over 16 months. This is a major and worthy step --although one must hope that the US won't maintain a substantial military presence in Iraq, including bases and advisers.

Obama wants to induct thousands of additional troops into Afghanistan and intensify the war. Unless this is done in cooperation with Pakistan, and under its leadership, this could turn out extremely unpopular. Obama's remarks favouring unilateral strikes in Pakistan against al-Qaeda-Taliban militants were a big mistake. He must move away from that approach.

Obama's positions on Iran, Russia [Images], and son-of-Star-Wars-style ballistic missile defence can bring about a major change in global geopolitics. If he begins a dialogue with Iran, stops NATO expansion, builds friendly relations with Russia, delays BMD deployment, and renews the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty due to expire next year, while de-alerting and disarming a substantial number of nuclear weapons, he will have made a major contribution to defusing rivalries started or aggravated by the Republicans. Obama holds that unless the US and Russia radically reduce their nuclear arsenals, they won't be able to persuade smaller nations like Iran and North Korea to forgo their nuclear programmes. This is a big step forward.

Obama is unlikely to take an early initiative on the Palestine crisis. His call for an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is outlandish and doesn't speak of a high level of familiarity with that issue. But a settlement with Iran could transform West Asian geopolitics.

How Obama acts on global issues will largely depend on whether he recognises that the neocon project has failed and that US power is set to decline inexorably. In the absence of clarity on this, Obama's agenda may fall short of the necessary transformative content.

Yet, Obama's positions are indisputably progressive, favour a more balanced and peaceful world, and deserve to be welcomed. Indian policy-makers have been lukewarm and even cynical towards them. They view them through the narrow prism of India-Pakistan relations, his remarks about mediating on the Kashmir issue and on outsourcing, and his intention to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and negotiate a Fissile Materials Cut-off agreement..

In practice, Obama is unlikely to want to undermine the competitiveness of US industry by halting outsourcing. His campaign statements on the Kashmir question are unlikely to translate into actual policy, which will have to take into account India's reservations on the issue. As his transition team has recently clarified, the US remains committed to supporting the bilateral India-Pakistan dialogue process to resolve Kashmir and other contentious issues.

As for the CTBT, even Atal Behari Vajpayee was all prepared to sign it in 1999, after declaring a unilateral moratorium on nuclear test explosions, based on a careful strategic assessment that further testing isn't necessary for an adequate minimum nuclear deterrent. If India is truly committed to global, universal nuclear disarmament, it must recognise that the CTBT and FMCT are indispensable steps in that process. India must stop being defensive about these treaties and actively help bring them into force.

It's unlikely that Mr Obama will risk damaging Washington's relations with India by aggressively pushing agendas, especially regional ones, that New Delhi [Images] is uncomfortable with. It's a sign of our policymakers' diffidence and their lack of appreciation of India's high and growing economic, political and strategic weight in today's world, that they think otherwise.

India can positively engage Obama by seeking his cooperation in an initiative for a reform of the global governance system, including a more democratic United Nations, restructuring of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation (through Bretton Woods-II), by promoting a new financial architecture and a more equitable international economic order, and by demanding a non-confrontational cooperative security system. This means moving away from parochial, short-term preoccupations and thinking big. Can our policymakers muster the will to do this?

Praful Bidwai
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