By C Raja Mohan
New Delhi’s knee-jerk political protestations against Barack Obama’s remarks on the stalled economic reforms in India have missed out on far more important comments from the president of the United States about Jammu and Kashmir.
Delhi’s jumpy media was quick to push the anxious talking heads and cabinet ministers into affirming India’s sovereign right to drift on the economic front.
What did Obama actually tell the Press Trust of India? A quick look at the text of the PTI story suggests Obama was careful not to criticise India and even acknowledged the government’s right to pursue a “do-nothing” strategy on the reforms front.
The PTI quotes Obama as saying, “it is not the place of the United States to tell other nations, including India, how to chart its economic future. That is for Indians to decide.”
Obama was underlining the growing sentiment in the US business community about the difficulties of investing in India and expressing the hope that India's governing United Progressive Alliance, in its second term, would launch a new round of economic reforms.
The president went on to add, “As India makes the difficult reforms that are necessary, it will continue to have a partner in the US ... It is important, though, to put this in the context of India’s incredible growth and development in recent decades.”
What Obama said in the PTI interview is not very different from the remarks that Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was making in public and private in the Indian capital last week.
Overreacting to every presumed offence from the US is a special Indian political sensibility that has been carefully cultivated over the decades. It’s not so easy to shed it.
If Delhi’s talking heads were objecting to Obama’s "intervention" in India’s internal affairs, the cousins from across the border in Pakistan were disappointed that Obama was not doing enough of it, especially in Jammu and Kashmir.
In ruling out any external mediation in the Indo-Pak contestation over Kashmir, Obama also disappointed the separatists in Srinagar forever looking towards Pakistan's military in Rawalpindi and Washington.
While there was nothing new in what Obama has said, it underlines the huge political distance that the US president has travelled in the last four years.
During his run for the presidency in 2008, Obama was quite candid about the urgency of resolving the Kashmir issue. He also formulated a thesis that stabilisation of Afghanistan depended on satisfying Pakistan’s concerns in Jammu and Kashmir.
Immediately after his election in November 2008 and before he was sworn in in January 2009, Obama openly mused about Kashmir as a US foreign policy priority and even hinted that he might appoint former president Bill Clinton to mediate between India and Pakistan.
Today, Delhi finds Obama more empathetic than George W. Bush on India’s concerns about cross-border terrorism from Pakistan. Obama has resolutely kept the Kashmir issue off the table.
Obama is clear-eyed in seeing that the Pakistan army’s support to violent extremism is part of the problem in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Few American presidents have mounted as much pressure on the Pakistan army to change course as Obama.
Under Obama, there has been a steadily growing convergence between Delhi and Washington on various issues relating to Pakistan, Afghanistan and the sources of regional instability.
When Obama was elected president, India’s apprehensions went beyond the Kashmir question. Delhi made no secret of its preference for Obama’s Republican rival, Senator John McCain.
While India’s chattering classes were excited about the historic prospects of the US electing a black president, the establishment in Delhi had its thumbs down.
It feared Obama might not implement the civil nuclear initiative negotiated with Bush, could invest more in the Pakistan relationship, and pursue a "China first" policy in Asia. Whatever his initial impulses, Obama has demonstrated a solid commitment to the partnership with India.
Going beyond Bush, Obama supported India’s case for the permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, discarded the traditional temptation of the Democratic Party to view India solely through the Pakistan prism, and has given strong support to India’s geopolitical role in Asia.
Not surprisingly, Delhi might be happy to see Obama re-elected as president. The Indian government has Obama’s record to go by and the experience of engaging his team.
But Mitt Romney is a "known unknown", as former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld would have put it. While Delhi has many friends in Romney’s foreign policy camp, it is not clear if the presumed Republican nominee has any interest in or a strategic view of India.
This post was originally published at The Indian Express.
19 July 2012