As expected, Obama’s maiden visit to India this weekend has been a success. President Obama struck all the right notes, and the First Lady charmed India as she danced with children. The highlight of the visit was Obama’s address to the joint session of the Indian Parliament on Monday where he endorsed India’s permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, and took a tough stance on Pakistan and said that terrorist safe-havens within its borders were unacceptable.
Even before the President arrived in India, there was speculation about whether he would call out Pakistan for harboring terrorists within its borders, terrorists that have been shown to carry out attacks on India. During the first two days of his trips, Obama was hesitant and the Indians seemed disappointed with his Pakistan attitude. India’s skepticism about the Obama administration, in particular due to its constant appeasement of Pakistan and their “efforts” in fighting terrorists within their borders, was evident in the build up to the visit. However, Obama choose the right place to confirm his support for India’s concerns about Pakistani terrorism – the grand halls of the Indian democracy. It is no wonder then that Obama received one of the largest and longest applauses of the evening when he said,
“And we will continue to insist to Pakistan’s leaders that terrorist safe-havens within their borders are unacceptable, and that the terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks be brought to justice. We must also recognize that all of us have an interest in both an Afghanistan and a Pakistan that is stable, prosperous and democratic—and none more so than India.”
But the home-run of the evening was his endorsement of India for the permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Indian leaders across party lines have demanded a permanent seat for India at the UNSC on the basis of India’s nuclear prowess, economic growth and regional eminence. The U.S. on its part has evaded the endorsement for an equally long time. Monday’s endorsement was open-ended, dependent upon overall reforms of the UNSC which might take a number of years to be implemented. But India can hope that the endorsement from the U.S. would help initiate reforms to the UNSC sooner. The support by John McCain brings hope that the support would become a permanent part of U.S. foreign policy.
Addressing the Parliament Obama said,
“And as two global leaders, the United States and India can partner for global security—especially as India serves on the Security Council over the next two years. Indeed, the just and sustainable international order that America seeks includes a United Nations that is efficient, effective, credible and legitimate. That is why I can say today—in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed U.N. Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.”
The announcement was at best a shrewd high impact low risk diplomatic gesture, an opportunity to surpass Bush’s Nuclear Deal moment and ensure reciprocal support from India on issues such as human rights in Myanmar or tougher sanctions on Iran. Obama’s support was followed by a call to India to take up more responsibility and reprimand for not speaking out against and condemning human right abuses. He said,
“Faced with such gross violations of human rights, it is the responsibility of the international community—especially leaders like the United States and India—to condemn it. If I can be frank, in international fora, India has often avoided these issues. But speaking up for those who cannot do so for themselves is not interfering in the affairs of other countries. It’s not violating the rights of sovereign nations. It’s staying true to our democratic principles.”
So far there have not been disapproving voices in the media or the Indian polity about Obama preaching India how to conduct itself in the world. And it would be in Indian interests not to take offense. The U.S. has played its superpower role for a long time and with considerable success. There have been strategic miscalculations that caused pain to many innocents, but its intentions have been largely humane. Obama and Singh may have declared that the two countries would work as equal partner, but India has a lot to learn when it comes to playing superpower.
Obama’s address to the Indian Parliament was also unique in that it touched upon not only the usual suspects – Gandhi, great civilization, diversity, contributions to medicine and science, economic growth – but also talked about Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (a lower caste leader who rose to be the chief architect of the Indian Constitution), the Panchatantra (a collection of stories that reflect the moral framework of the Indian civilization), Swami Vivekananda (who preached equality of religions in Chicago) and increasing engagement with East Asia.
What was conspicuously missing though is a reference to China in relation to India. While the India-China rivalry might not be as evident to the world as the India-Pakistan rivalry, it exists and poses a serious concern to India’s aspirations. China is one of Pakistan’s closest allies and will soon begin construction of two new nuclear reactors in Pakistan among other things. The two countries have festering border issues in the North-East as well as the Jammu & Kashmir region where Pakistan has handed over a part of the territory to China. The Dalai Lama finds refuge in India, and Chinese influence is growing among India’s neighbors such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh etc. The economic competition between the two countries is well-known.
The missing reference to China is important because India featured prominently when Obama visited China last year. He had irked India by suggesting that China help India and Pakistan resolve their issues. However, while in India, Obama did not mention China even in reference to the nuclear reactor agreement between China and Pakistan which would only add to the nuclear capability of Pakistan and consequentially the instability in the region. The Pakistan and UNSC mentions seem to have sidelined the thoughts about China.
Overall, the Obama visit and his speech before the Indian Parliament was a step forward for U.S-India bilateral relations. President Obama also managed to quell apprehensions in India about his administration’s pro-India attitude. The discontent and fear in India due to the Democratic Party’s protectionist attitude in response to the economic recession, continuing appeasement of Pakistan (as evident in the new $2 billion aid package) and uncertainty about the estimation of India’s role in Afghanistan is sure to have been reduced by the Obamas’ charm offensive over the last weekend. India has become an important economic partner for the U.S., and the relationship is sure to grow stronger in days to come.