A Tale of Two Presidential Visits

Tuesday, 14 September 2010 11:53 By J Sri Raman, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

A Tale of Two Presidential Visits
(Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Jon Baldock nz, AlexJohnson, jurvetson)

It is already clear that President Barack Obama's visit to India in early November 2010 (the exact dates are yet to be finalized) will be very different from his predecessor's in March 2006. Obama is scheduled to address a joint session of the two Houses of India's Parliament, probably on November 9. George W. Bush could not deliver a message, in person, from the "greatest democracy" to the "largest democracy" in the most appropriate of forums.

Arundhati Roy explained why in her inimitable manner in an article captioned "Bush in India: Just Not Welcome" on March 1, 2006: "For Bush's March 2 pit stop in New Delhi, the Indian government tried very hard to have him address our Parliament. A not inconsequential number of MPs threatened to heckle him, so Plan One was hastily shelved. Plan Two was to have Bush address the masses from the ramparts of the magnificent Red Fort, where the Indian Prime Minister traditionally delivers his Independence Day address. But the Red Fort, surrounded as it is by the predominantly Muslim population of Old Delhi, was considered a security nightmare."

"So now we're into Plan Three: President George Bush speaks from Purana Qila, the Old Fort." she reported and added: "Ironic, isn't it, that the only safe public space for a man who has recently been so enthusiastic about India's modernity should be a crumbling medieval fort?"

She also noted: "Since the Purana Qila also houses the Delhi zoo, George Bush's audience will be a few hundred caged animals and an approved list of caged human beings, who in India go under the category of 'eminent persons.' They're mostly rich folk who live in our poor country like captive animals, incarcerated by their own wealth, locked and barred in their gilded cages ... "

Noneminent persons outside the Parliament were no more welcoming to the world's biggest warlord. The country witnessed quite a few demonstrations, where people (including misguided leftists, peace activists and, of course, Muslim miscreants) waved placards and chanted slogans against the visiting dignitary. Obama is unlikely to encounter such a reception.

Muslims may not have seen his policies exactly as what his middle name promised, but they can't espy an enemy in him after the way he has tamed pastor Terry Jones and tackled the new far right on the mosque issue. The peace activists and leftists may be disappointed with his performance, but they see Obama still as a victim and not a symbol of the system that says, "No, You Can't."

Bush received a red-carpet welcome from the elite and establishment, not unduly worried about the right and wrong of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but excited over the opportunities that the "pre-emptive" offensives seemed to offer. His successor raises no such hopes in the same quarters.

Bush arrived in an India abuzz with talk of a "strategic partnership" and a US-India nuclear deal, which he was to sign into law less than two years later. Obama will be coming amid less fanfare, but more speculation about the fate of the "partnership." His visit will also add to anxieties in the "security" set-up here about what it can spell for the country's nuclear ambitions of a noncivilian kind.

For India's establishment, the former president appeared a truer friend, too, for promising to meet its expectations in relation to Pakistan. Hopes from Obama have not been heightened by his articulated keenness on a solution to the Kashmir dispute, so that Pakistan can focus on the "anti-terror war" on its frontier with Afghanistan.

Similar has been the contrast in expectations concerning China. The "strategic partnership" of the Bush era, in fact, was widely understood as setting up and strengthening India as a "counterweight" to the bigger Asian giant. Pro-establishment analysts in New Delhi read a different message in Obama's decision to visit China - in November 2009 - much before India.

Writing on the eve of the Bush visit, commentator and former High Commissioner to Pakistan, G. Parthasarathy said: "More than any of his predecessors ... Bush has made a genuine personal effort to build strong relations with India. After ... Condoleezza Rice replaced Gen Colin Powell in the State Department, the Bush Administration has made a conscious effort to widen ties with India, with a clear recognition that New Delhi has an important role to play in guaranteeing strategic stability in the Indian Ocean Region and in promoting a viable balance of power in Asia."

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Parthasarathy applauded the Bush administration's eagerness to address India's concerns on Pakistan: "The Pakistani Prime Minister ... Shaukat Aziz, was told in no uncertain terms when he was in Washington that the US reserved the right to intrude into Pakistani territory to hit at the remnants of the Al Qaeda and the Taliban.... Aziz was also told that Pakistan will not receive any American cooperation in civilian nuclear energy."

Obama is considered less obliging. Influential security expert C. Raja Mohan has said that, while rejoicing over Obama's waving of the stick at Pakistan, India omitted to note "the carrot" dangled in the shape of a third-party intervention in the Kashmir dispute. Even before Obama's election, he wrote: "“As Obamamania grips much of the world, including India, the man who might become the next President of the United States has ideas on Jammu and Kashmir that should cause some concern to New Delhi." Several others of the same school of thought have followed suit.

Another prominent security analyst, K. Subrahmanyam, counsels New Delhi to play the China card. In an article of August 30, 2010, he says: "There is a vast search for the 'big idea' to make the visit of President Obama as memorable as the Bush visit in 2006. The Indo-US summit of 2005 was preceded by the US announcement of their interest in supporting India's efforts to become a major power. That was no doubt motivated by the US concern about the rise of China possibly as a hegemon in Asia."

Subrahmanyam adds: "The Indo-US summit of 2010 is taking place at a time when there are perceived decline in US power and perceived gains in Chinese power and influence in the world in the aftermath of global financial crisis."

Another subject likely to figure during Obama's visit is outsourcing of US jobs to India. Bush made no bones about his backing for this as a form of "free trade." In his Economic Report of the President, presented to the US Congress in February 2004, he spelt out the rationale of his policy. Referring to India as an example of an outsourcing destination, the report said, "When a good or service is produced more cheaply abroad, it makes more sense to import it than to make or provide it domestically."

On September 9, 2010, Obama caused some consternation in India by asserting that tax breaks should go to companies that create jobs in the US and not overseas. Commerce Minister Anand Sharma has promised to raise the matter at the Trade Policy Forum meeting in Washington later this month.

The tale of the two presidential visits is not confined to contrasts alone. Mega gains for the military-industrial complex marked the "strategic partnership" of the Bush period. They are likely to follow the Obama visit as well.

It has been reported before that the Indian government ensured the US-India nuclear deal by expressing readiness to buy $150 billion worth of US nuclear reactors, equipment, and materials. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's former Special Envoy Shyam Saran also pledged that US companies would "benefit for decades" from Indian orders for military hardware orders. According to informed sources, Obama's visit may help secure $5 billion worth of orders for US arms manufacturers.

Presidents may come and go, but the industry that pits profits against peace goes on forever.

Last modified on Tuesday, 14 September 2010 12:46