The Master of Sweet Nothings


Why did we cheer President Obama so much? Here’s the lowdown on what he really said

He came. He wowed. He went. And now that the tumult and the shouting have died, and the Captains and the Kings have departed, it is time for a sober evaluation of the pluses and minuses of the Obama visit, away from the din and clamour of the media’s unprecedented saturation coverage of every second of the US First Couple’s stay in Mumbai and New Delhi.

Not Bushed President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Not Bushed President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

A useful point of departure for such an evaluation might be the carefully crafted and exceptionally detailed joint communique issued at the end of the visit which says “Prime Minister Singh and President Obama concluded that their meeting is a historic milestone…”

Was it? Surely a historical milestone would constitute a change of trajectory rather than continuation along a path already chosen. That path was charted much more than a decade ago; it could perhaps be said of Vajpayee describing the US and India as “natural allies” (a strange turn for an allegedly ‘non-aligned’ country to take); it could also perhaps be said of the Bush-Singh communiqué of 18 July 2005 as it represented the US acceptance of the fact of India having become a nuclear weapon power, but even that acknowledgement was predicated on what was a truly “historic milestone”, the conclusion of the “New Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship” in Washington a month earlier, June 2005, which transformed India into a willing associate of the US on matters military, thus giving military content to what had till then been a “strategic partnership” bereft of any military implications.

For it was in June 2005, rather than a month later, that India completed crossing the bridge from Rajiv Gandhi’s fury at Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar allowing Bush Sr’s military aircraft to refuel at Nagpur en route from their base in Subic Bay to the invasion of Iraq in January 1991 to the change in stance which, in effect, said that the Indian Ocean would be a “Zone of Peace” only if it were patrolled by the US Navy. It also marked the moment when India accepted that the US military presence in Asia was benevolent and in India’s security interest. No wonder one foreign affairs expert announced, to general approval and even agreement, in Prime Minister Singh’s presence and at his residence that the 21st century would not be the Asian Century so much as the Century of America in Asia.

President Obama’s visit has, in this sense, been less a “historic milestone” than an affirmation of continuity in the turnaround in Indo-US relations that began with the economic reforms of June 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union a few months later.

In terms of that continuity, there has indeed been a useful consolidation of much that the two countries have been working on for the past several years, such as cooperation in civil nuclear energy; the facilitation of Indian access to US hi-tech and dual tech, including the promise of the further removal of certain Indian public sector entities from the proscribed list; acknowledgement of the need to let qualified Indians (of the class that were glued to their television screens along with their Green Card-holding relatives in the US) into the US at cheaper visa fees and in larger numbers; and defence contracts and commercial deals that make most unthinking Indians (read television anchors) and some naïve Americans believe that $10 billion worth of purchases gives India powerful economic clout in the $14 trillion US economy! All of this is important; none of it a “historic milestone”.

Nor was there anything specific or direct for the aam aadmi. He is possibly a potential beneficiary in the fullness of time of the general improvement in Indo-US relations, as he is, perhaps and in the far future, a beneficiary of India’s liberalisation and globalisation, but it is primarily the 60 million or so Indians who have grown obscenely prosperous in the past 20 years, with a per capita income that matches America’s and exceeds that of the bulk of aam Amrikan (you see now why we are such a lip-smacking trade and investment destination for slowing developed economies), who are most rejoicing at the carrots left behind by Obama.

There is as little in the joint communiqué for the 77 percent “poor and vulnerable” 900 million Indians, identified by the late Dr Arjun Sengupta, who live on under Rs 20 a day, as there has been for them in the past two decades that have seen the Indian economy zoom to plus 9 percent annual GDP growth rates while agriculture (which employs 65 percent of our population but has suffered an accelerating decline to only an 18 percent share in our GDP) virtually stagnates at 1-2 percent, with many years of even negative agricultural growth, and manufacturing booms through capital-intensification, leaving only 8 percent of our industrial labour force in the organised sector, the same percentage as before liberalisation began. The services sector (principally IT and IT-related services) meanwhile soars to a share of 57 percent in our GDP while employing less than 1 percent of our workforce. So, India prospers but Indians don’t.

In much the same manner, prosperous India gains enormously from the consolidation of the Indo-US relationship while the aam aadmi gets some crumbs from the G-8 table but must, as usual, wait indefinitely for a little more to come his way. In other words, most paragraphs of the joint communique relating to economic cooperation constitute the external dimension of the skewing of the domestic Indian growth pattern in favour of the favoured. Typically – and most significantly – “Inclusive Growth” figures as a sub-heading in the communique, just as “Inclusive Growth” is emblazoned on the masthead of the 11th Five-Year Plan, but then remains substantially ignored in the substantive parts of both documents. Appeasement of the aam aadmi goes little further in either the 11th Plan or the Indo-US communique than sub-headings. That is perhaps why when I left Central Hall after the president’s address and crossed the outer perimeter of Parliament’s premises, I found myself confronted by a beggar who said he had not heard of Barak Hussein Obama but could I give him five rupees please to eat? (I did – by way of expressing my thanks for the Commonwealth Games, which had banished the likes of this beggar from Lutyens’ Delhi, being indeed over!)

It is this favoured class that is getting all hyper about the president of the world’s most powerful country certifying India as not “emerging” but “emerged”. There was thunderous applause in Central Hall as he said so. I did not join in the applause for I was wondering whether India under the global moral influence of Mahatma Gandhi had been “submerged” and “emerged” only in the first decade of the 21st century, and whether the combined influence on the world of all our prime ministers since VP Singh had ever matched that of Jawaharlal Nehru alone? Is being complimented on having at long last “emerged” a tribute or a denigration of everything India has stood for and achieved since Independence?

In much the same vein, while lulling us with his lullaby about the glory of India’s distant past – the Puranas, the Panchatantra, Swami Vivekananda, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, even the stroke of the midnight hour (what an outstanding speech-writer Obama must have; much better than poor Rajiv had in me!), the visiting president also subtly asked us to move beyond our more recent past: “Yet too often, the United States and India found ourselves on opposite sides of a North-South divide and estranged by a long Cold War. Those days are over.”

Really? Are those days really over? Is there not a continuing North-South divide? Does not the Indian economy, catering to a population 400 percent larger than the US on a GDP 14 times smaller than the US, continue to belong to the South? Or are we to be beguiled into believing that we are “emerging” (sorry, “emerged”) because 1 percent of our population can hold its own with the North in conspicuous consumption? (Witness a private residence for a family of three – served by 600 domestic staff – in a private home that reaches into the sky more than halfway the height of the Empire State Building with floor space exceeding that of the Palace of Versailles!)

Of course, Obama did not felicitously describe us as “emerged” because he is overcome with Alzheimer’s over our poverty; he said so because our upper middle class (and their 2 million Indian-American cousins) who have indeed “emerged” want to be recognised as “emerged” – and let the Devil take the hindermost. Obama was not flattering us; he was merely holding up a mirror to the self-image of our urbanised, Hinglish-speaking middle class that wants, like Cinderella’s step-mother, to be told that we are fairest of them all. A pathetic commentary on where liberalisation and globalisation have taken the moral values of the country of Mahatma Gandhi who warned that “nature has enough to meet every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”.

The truth is that although in terms of the size of our GDP and its growth rate, we do indeed merit inclusion in G-20 or even G-8, in terms of the UN Human Development Index (published, ironically, in the same week as the Obamas descended on us to hosannas), where we stand is 119, not 8 or 20. The basic reality of our country – and one that cannot be hidden by being described as “emerged” – is that 47 percent of our children under five suffer from severe to moderate malnutrition, partly because 9 out of 10 pregnant women in India are anaemic, and hence also that our infant and maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the world, and that we add more hungry millions to the world’s population every year than the rest of the world put together. The Oxford Institute of Multi-Dimensional Poverty Studies, backed by the outstanding studies on Indian poverty by James Foster of the George Washington University and Jomo Kwame Sundaram of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and in charge of monitoring the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals, have irrefutably shown that eight of our most populous states are also our worst-off states and that on almost every human development index worse than almost any sub-Saharan African state. Obama kids us into believing we have “emerged” not because he is kidding himself but because he knows we want him to kid us into so believing.

And why were we “estranged during the long Cold War”? It could not have been the mere fact of the Cold War – for during that Cold War we were far from being estranged from the other half of the Cold War, the Soviet Union. We were estranged from the US during the “long Cold War” because the Soviet Union (after Stalin) accepted the legitimacy of our non-alignment – and all it stood for – while the US held that “neutrality” was “immoral” and sent their nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal to prevent us from liberating a 100 million oppressed human beings who were being oppressed by the favoured allies of the US in west Pakistan – allies who allowed U-2 spy planes to take off from their base in Peshawar, even as today they are allowing their land to be bombed and their people to be killed by unmanned drones winkling out America’s “Most Wanted” man, last seen nine years ago riding into the Tora Bora caves bareback on a white horse carrying at his side his kidney dialysis machine while being chased by NATO daisy-cutters.

But yes, of course, “those days are” indeed “over”. And so a realignment of attitudes is not only possible, it is positively to be desired. Hence the president’s “fervent support” for India as a “rising global power”, subject only to the condition that we should show ourselves to be “responsible” – for with “increased power comes increased responsibility”. Our being urged to show ourselves as “responsible” always brings to my mind PG Wodehouse’s remark about “the petrification of the implied opposite” – for to be urged to show ourselves now as “responsible” is to suggest that the Nehrus and the Nehru-Gandhis (1947-1989, the precise years of the “long Cold War”) were not “responsible” and as, fortunately, “those days are over” we may now start proving our ability and willingness to take on these emerging responsibilities.

As one foreign affairs expert told Prime Minister Singh, the 21st century will not be the Asian Century so much as the Century of America in Asia

And to help us along, Obama listed these responsibilities: recognising the imperative of a “United Nations that is efficient, effective, credible and legitimate”; and ensuring that “the Security Council is effective; that resolutions are implemented and sanctions enforced.” Unimpeachable objectives that one of our two countries needs to learn to respect – not India, for it has never been India that has ever been in breach of the UN Charter or UNSC resolutions but rather our “defining partner” who has gone to war on its own without UN authorisation twice since the dawn of our decade-old millennium and many times earlier; which several times over the past 50 years has imposed unilateral sanctions when the UN has declined to go along with it; and supported an army of dictators from Batista in Cuba to Jimenez in Venezuela and Pinochet in Chile and the worst of them all, Stroessner in Paraguay, not to mention the Central African Republic’s ‘Emperor’ Bokassa and Katanga’s Moise Tshombe, and in an Asian arc from Synghman Rhee in Korea and Marcos in the Philippines and Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam to a raft of Pakistani military dictators, the ghastly Shah of Iran (after the CIA overthrew the democratically elected Mossadeq) and even Saddam Hussein against the Ayatollah, none of whom were paragons of the “UN’s founding ideals” which, as Obama reminded us (and, Inshallah, himself) includes “advancing human rights”.

That is why I thought it pretty rich for the representative of a country with this (continuing) record of cherry-picking favoured dictators to lecture the country, which housed Aung San Suu Kyi and her family in the bungalow that now houses the Congress party headquarters on what we should be doing about Burma. To accuse us in the sacred precincts of the Central Hall of Parliament of having “avoided these issues” was not only regrettable in itself; even more regrettable was our taking it on the jaw without protest.

For, that is the price we pay for promotion, with American benediction, from the Group of 77 to G-20. If I may be permitted a moment’s diversion, I was present on 17 August 1989 at a Universities’ Nehru centenary seminar in Mysore on Nehru’s legacy when I heard Rajiv Gandhi explain, in a spontaneous intervention, that the most important component of that legacy was Nehru’s opposition in everything he stood for to the “Quest for Dominance”. It was for me a stunning revelation of the essence of the life and work of a man I thought till then I had studied more than Rajiv. So, begging President Obama’s pardon, non-alignment was much less about not taking sides in someone else’s Cold War than about promoting a world order that eschewed the Quest for Dominance that has led to such inhuman cruelty through all of history but worst of all in the bloodied annals of the 20th century. Our increasing co-option into a world order where the sheep are sharply distinguished from the goats, through our potential or putative election to exclusivist clubs such as the UNSC (howsoever “reformed”) and elevation perhaps to G-8+1, should not, if we are to be true to our heritage, mean our co-option into the Quest for Dominance.

Then there is all this misplaced rejoicing over Obama having endorsed India’s right to a permanent seat in the UNSC. He did nothing of the sort. In keeping with the slightly vaguer noises that emanated from earlier visits by Clinton and Bush Jr, Obama very cleverly began by “welcom(ing) India as it prepares to take its seat on the United Nations Security Council”. The applause was deafening – for few of my Parliamentary colleagues understood that he was referring to the temporary seat we have been elected to from January 2011, not the permanent seat we so avidly covet.

That came later when Obama said: “…in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed UN Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.” I thought the roof would come down as members thumped their desks and wreathed their faces in beaming smiles. But a little sober reflection should show that the commitment was made in the personal pronoun: “I”, not in the solemn name of the United States of America. And with good reason. Obama knows that UN reform is likely to take much longer than his office as president even if he is elected for a second term. So, while he can make a personal commitment, there is nothing he can say which would bind his successors. Moreover, the shape that UNSC reform will take is anybody’s guess: how many new members will there be; will they have the veto; will there be a veto at all; will the new and the old members have equal rights; will the relationship between the UNSC and the UN General Assembly remain unchanged; will Charter amendments go beyond specifying numbers and names for the UNSC. Hence also the stress on “in years ahead…” No one knows how many years ahead. Nor whether “later” means “never”. Yes, it is good that Obama has personally gone further than his predecessors in naming India; for the rest, it remains a will o’ the wisp chase. Listening to Obama at this point, I was reminded of Mahatma Gandhi’s wry remark about the Stafford Cripps proposals: “a post-dated cheque on a failing bank”.

In any case, there is something so undignified in this chase after a permanent seat – that the USSR offered Nehru as the “sixth” member after the US had suggested in the wake of the Korean war a swap between China and India for the permanent seat. Nehru indignantly turned down both efforts to make us party to the Cold War. Can we not wait for the apple to fall into our laps as a matter of self-evident right instead of begging for recognition? In any case, let us understand that so long as we are at loggerheads with Pakistan and do not get our act together with China, a permanent seat will be dangled before our eyes but, as in the Myth of Tantalus (from which the word “tantalising” comes), every time we bend our lips to the edge of the cup, the cup will drop further.

That is why my applause was loudest when Obama spoke straight sense to us about both subjects. One, that for the US, Pakistan is a valued ally in a time of war; we are no more than a friend in a time of peace. When no Western publisher would take Animal Farm, which George Orwell had written in 1943, because Uncle Joe (Stalin) was a war-time ally bearing the brunt of the fighting, why should we imagine that the Americans will choose this conjuncture of all conjunctures to pull our Pakistani irons out of the fire? Obama wisely advised us to settle our own affairs. Instead of being delighted at this overt endorsement of our long-standing demand that the US de-hyphenate Pakistan from India in their relationship with the subcontinent, most of the media were baying for a re-hyphenation, measuring the uses of Obama in terms of the harshness of his words about Pakistan. Does such a country even deserve a permanent seat in the Security Council? What Obama urged us to do was work for a “stable, prosperous and democratic Pakistan”. What a lovely prospect! But we can only do so by engaging with Pakistan in an uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue, not by running from door to door begging others to abuse and denigrate our neighbour.

Especially in the context of terrorism. While our headlines next morning went gaga over Obama “slamming” Pakistan, what he actually said was that the US “will continue to insist to Pakistan’s leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders are unacceptable”. Please note: “will continue to insist”: the US has long been insisting, with little effect, and while Obama will “continue to insist” that will have no more effect than the insistence of his predecessors. He also said the US will “continue to insist” that “the terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks be brought to justice”. The Pakistanis would readily agree (as they already have) – and then ask for direct, unimpeded and unsupervised access to David Headley and Ajmal Kasab. Would the US agree to the first? And would we to the second? Then what are we crowing about? For terrorism based on Pakistani soil to have the remotest chance of ending, it will have to come through an Indian recognition of the point emphasised by Obama, that “these networks are not just a threat outside of Pakistan, they are a threat to the Pakistani people.” The people of Pakistan know this; the Government of Pakistan knows this. Hence, Obama’s underlining further that “The Pakistani Government increasingly recognises” this. But do we? Are we ready to follow the American example as outlined by Obama: “That is why we have worked with the Pakistani government to address the threat of terrorist networks in the border region.” Why do we not do the same? What makes us so naïve as to imagine that Obama’s carefully hedged words constitute a “slamming” of Pakistan? And what, in practical terms would any such slamming amount to? Obama basically asked us to sort out our differences with Pakistan ourselves instead of looking to him to do so. I salute Obama for recognising where Indian interests lie and eschewing interference in our affairs.

For the rest, while much of the joint communique deals with known issues, the “historic” element emerges in a longish paragraph tucked away in the middle of the communiqué where the president goes further than any of his predecessors in accepting with his Indian counterpart a “joint responsibility” with India “to lead global efforts for non-proliferation and universal and non-discriminatory global nuclear disarmament in the 21st century”.

Please note that in terms of this formulation, we in India have accepted without our previous reservations the concept of “non-proliferation” set out in the grossly unequal and asymmetric Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; in exchange, the US have accepted several (if not the whole of) the crucial concepts underlying the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan for a Nuclear-Weapons-Free and Non-violent World Order: “universal” and “non-discriminatory”; as well as (most significant of all and, therefore, worth quoting in extenso) “affirming the need for a meaningful dialogue among all states possessing nuclear weapons to build trust and confidence and for reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs and security doctrines”.

“Meaningful dialogue” could, indeed should, have been taken forward to affirm the commencement of work in the deadlocked Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) on the elimination of nuclear weapons in the explicit way in which the CD is referred to with regard to the proposed Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty. Nevertheless, this is, without a shadow of doubt, a truly “historic milestone” for it takes the US further than ever before towards discussions leading to negotiations on a convention for the elimination of nuclear weapons, especially as it lays down a time-frame (albeit nine decades into the future!) for attaining such a world order in “the 21st century”.

I would be the first to accept that having pushed the US so far down the “historic” path, our diplomats might have jeopardised even the progress now achieved by insisting on an explicit commitment to commence negotiations or at least inter-governmental discussions in the CD. Yet, I cannot help regretting that we could not go further than we have in this 22nd anniversary year of the Rajiv Action Plan which coincides with Obama’s truly historic commitment to “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” in his speech in Prague in April 2009, which won him the Nobel Prize for Peace a few months later. Indeed, he went so specific as to offer what he called in that very speech a “bargain”: “All will have access to peaceful nuclear power; those without nuclear weapons will forsake them; and those with nuclear weapons will work towards disarmament.”

Was India under the global moral influence of Mahatma Gandhi ‘submerged’? Has it only ‘emerged’ in the first decade of the 21st century?

It was exactly the bargain that Rajiv Gandhi had placed before the UN exactly 22 years ago. Here was the moment to link Obama indissolubly to the Mahatma and Rajiv Gandhian vision of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free and Non-violent World Order. After all, in Prague, Obama’s most wildly applauded line was: “Yes, we can.” Now he seems to be saying, “Perhaps we can’t – but I wish we could.”

Alas! For did not Obama in the same address to our Parliament where he shied away from definitively committing his government to inter-governmental negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, not get yet another round of enthusiastic applause by quoting Martin Luther King on Gandhiji’s philosophy of non-violence: “the only logical approach” in the “struggle for justice and progress”? There can be nothing more just than saving humanity from nuclear holocaust; and nothing more progressive than making that the over-riding priority in international affairs. Yet, the Obama who was so strong on the rhetoric of nuclear disarmament emanating from the “philosophy of non-violent resistance” is the same Obama who says “not in my lifetime” but perhaps within 80 years of my ceasing to be the president!

For US priorities, as between proliferation issues, on the one hand, and the elimination of nuclear weapons, on the other, will always fall in the former to the disadvantage of the latter, as clarified (without the audience quite catching on) in Obama’s address. He told Parliament unambiguously that “preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism” had been put at the “top of our (the American) agenda”. As for elimination, that is no more than a “vision” that we could “together pursue”.

This was in marked contrast to Vice-President M Hamid Ansari bringing up time-bound, universal and non-discriminatory “elimination” at the very start of his welcome address which did not mention “non-proliferation” at all. Had he done so, as a Constitutional authority of the highest integrity and an IFS officer of the highest distinction, he would have had to mention “vertical proliferation” in the same breath as “horizontal proliferation” and remind his guest that the nuclear weapon states are as much in violation of their Article 6 NPT obligations as the Islamic Republic of Iran is being warned to adhere to strictly and without fail, under pain of the kind of condign punishment that her neighbour was subjected to on the suspicion, eventually not proved, that it was in quest of weapons of mass destruction.

So, in all sobriety, let us not get euphoric but, on the basis of the essentials of the Rajiv Action Plan, build through unceasing diplomatic activism in Geneva and world capitals on what Prime Minister Singh has achieved in bringing the Obama horse to the water even if the horse is still to drink.

So, I conclude with two cheers for what Obama has said and done in India – but reserve the third cheer for when, if ever, he shows that: Yes, he can!

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