LiveFist Column: Barack Obama is a new opportunity for India

By Neil Padukone

While the world rejoices in the victory of Barack Obama, Indian political circles have been filled with worries and pessimism. The Indian press has pounced on any indication that an Obama administration would be harmful to India (i.e. the recent ‘phone call’ episode), and instigated widespread cynicism throughout the country.

But these anxieties neglect changes in global politics and the irreversibly strong relations that America and India have established. The new US President brings opportunities for a new level of Indian global engagement. But it is upon India to make the most of it.


Given the Indian upper hand in Kashmir, India’s skepticism of outside involvement is understandable. But the status quo for India is far from perfect. If US engagement in Kashmir does materialize, India should not remain cynical.

It has long been argued that the Pakistani military’s every whim must be supported or Pakistan will implode and bring the world with it. With the Musharraf legacy decidedly obsolete, this argument no longer holds. After years of diverting US military aid to the Taliban and anti-India terrorists, Pakistan’s military must be held accountable.

As India has been able to do little to address unrelenting Pakistani aggression, countries with more influence over Pakistan must be engaged to exercise their authority.

The US is considering both economic and military aid to Pakistan, and is in a place to hold Pakistan’s feet to the fire on issues like supporting terrorists, a central element of any Kashmir resolution. Obama has long maintained that any military aid to Pakistan must be linked to on-the-ground changes, including cessation of military support for anti-India activity. With US sway over Pakistan, American participation in Kashmir may benefit India.

India’s strong new partnership with the US enables India to stand its ground if its long-term interests are threatened, and makes the “re-hyphenation” of Indo-Pakistan relations (in which US-India ties are seen through the lens of Indo-Pakistan affairs) near impossible.

Credibility and Global Challenges

America has the most to lose in the nuclear realm, and both Democrats and Republicans have been understandably vocal on nonproliferation. India shares these goals of nonproliferation and global disarmament, holding an unmatched nonproliferation record. But the US has often pursued nonproliferation while maintaining and expanding its own arsenal, undercutting its credibility in nonproliferation efforts.

Obama has stated that he would make the US a party to any treaty it promotes around the world, and favors reduction and disarmament starting in the US. If the US takes credible steps of its own, the cause of global nonproliferation is greatly and more credibly served.

US credibility is also central in dealing with climate change. Obama has said that the US must “lead by example”: setting standards on its own emissions, developing and sharing green technologies, and ultimately engaging the world in more equitable environmental frameworks.

Economics and Strategy

Many in India fear Obama’s ‘hardline’ views on outsourcing. But there is little that any US President could do to stop the flow of jobs to places like India, where wages are cheaper; Obama himself maintains that outsourcing “cannot be reversed.” Rather, the economic void left in the US must be filled with proactive domestic investment.

With Obama’s plans of research and development in alternative energies, science and technology, the advances that Indians make in these fields can be another source of partnership.

Due to the current economic crisis, global outsourcing to India will ebb regardless. But this change provides an opportunity for India to reassess its economic strategy. Outsourcing provided a boost to a sluggish Indian economy in the past decade. But India need not be overly dependent on external investors and must develop a long-term strategy that considers this.

‘A Great Nation’

Fears of an Obama administration emanate from an Indian strategic culture that is excessively myopic and reactive. If India wishes to be a global power, it must act as such.

An argument made by Obama himself is that India is on the brink of global power and should not remain caught up in regional tensions such as that with Pakistan.

Likewise, the Mumbai-based Strategic Foresight Group has said that “if India is serious about a place at the high table, Pakistan should not be an issue…India has wasted too much energy managing an adversarial relationship with Pakistan. If India wants to make a U-turn, it will only be possible with a new mindset and vision.”

A vision of global engagement could include an Indian role in promoting development and resolving conflict in Africa (i.e. Sudan), advancing investment in Latin America, facilitating an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, and even assisting the de-escalation of US-Russian enmity.

Vice President-elect Joe Biden has articulated a view of US-India relations that should inspire India itself: “There are all kinds of reasons to treat [Indians] as they are—a Great Nation.”

A New Opportunity

There have been false rumors that Obama is an extremist Muslim who will kowtow to the demands of radicals. He is a Christian who has taken firm and pragmatic stances on terrorism and radicalism. The victory of a Black man in the US, a country with so many racial divides, represents a victory of tolerance and acceptance over racism and prejudice for the world. A pluralist, accepting India should see it as such and as inspiration for change in its own, increasingly tense social fabric.

US-India relations are improving due to converging global interests and a growing Indian-American lobby, rather than partisan politics. They have been solidified by the nuclear agreement, which paves the way for heightened economic activity, brings the US away from a Pakistan-centric view of South Asia, and articulates India’s position vis-à-vis China.

An Obama Administration is likely to strengthen these ties; Joe Biden, a long-time supporter of India has said that the US rapport with India is the “single most important relationship that we have to get right for our own safety’s sake.”

In the end, the citizens of the US have already elected Barack Obama to stabilize and strengthen their country. A strong America—including the prospect of financial rehabilitation—is in the interests of a strong India.

Campaign rhetoric must of course be weighed against concrete actions, and how the new administration performs is most important. India should, as always, remain vigilant. But unwarranted defeatism will not help anyone. India should engage the new American President with an eye to the opportunities presented, not just the potential challenges faced.

As in the campaign that brought Obama to the presidency, positive engagement can be self-fulfilling. It is a lesson from which India can take some hints.

(Neil Padukone is a US-based security and international affairs consultant. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Security Studies, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. His research interests include security studies, international affairs, and political management. ©This column originally appeared on the ORF website here)

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