Saturday, November 06, 2010
Obama comes job-shopping
Are we mindful of our concerns?
A friend on Twitter, @naveenks, made the most profound comment on US President Barack Hussein Obama’s visit to India, which officially begins tomorrow morning: “There was a time when Indian Prime Ministers used to visit the US looking for food to feed hungry Indians. Now US Presidents visit India looking for jobs for Americans.” There couldn’t have been a more apt comment as Mr Obama makes his first halt on a job-shopping trip to Asia. To Mr Obama’s credit, as also to his advisers’, no false claims of furthering ‘strategic relations’ have been made; hence, expectations should not soar in Lutyens’s Delhi or elsewhere in India. To that extent, it was unfair to expect him to name Pakistan — or its ‘non-state actors’ — as the perpetrator/s of the November 26, 2008 bloodbath while reading out his treacly message for the victims and survivors of Mumbai’s unending night of horror. This is not the first time people have pretended the fidayeen came from outer space and Kasab is an extra-terrestrial alien. His immediate predecessors, Mr Bill Clinton and Mr George W Bush, were keen on striking a strategic alliance between the US and India as part of a realignment of geostrategic interests designed to fetch mutual long-term benefits; Mr Obama does not need to toe their line and is at liberty to aggressively seek for America a ‘strategic relationship’ with Pakistan. The ongoing US-Pakistan ‘strategic dialogue’, which involves the active participation of Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, speaks for itself and where India stands in the changed circumstances. Whiners do not make winners; a country that does not fight to protect its interests should not expect others to join an imaginary battle.
That does not necessarily detract from the importance of Mr Obama’s visit. An American President knocking on our doors for jobs to sustain his presidency back home is not an everyday occurrence. If only Mrs Indira Gandhi had been alive today, she would have relished this moment of triumph: India’s sweet revenge on the US for treating her so shabbily. Mrs Gandhi was not in Washington, DC with a begging bowl to feed her hungry millions, but to plead the case of Bangladesh and seek American support for a just war of liberation. MV Kamath, who was posted in Washington those days, recalls, “The United States, under President Richard Nixon, was strongly on the side of Pakistan. Nixon hated India with the intensity of a burning Sun. His unprincipled Secretary of State, a real chamcha and an unscrupulous one at that, was ever-willing to back his boss to the hilt. If Nixon showed anger against India, Kissinger would happily fan it. If Nixon abused India, Kissinger was willing to go all the way to insult it … The plane in which she (Mrs Indira Gandhi) travelled was ordered to come a halt at New York’s Kennedy Airport close to a stinking urinal deliberately. One had to hold one’s nose while passing by. According to the lowest level of protocol, she was received by a junior State Department official. I was one of those present on the occasion … The first meeting between her and Nixon was fixed. Punctual to the point, Mrs Gandhi presented herself but Nixon deliberately made her wait for some 40 minutes to show his contempt for his visitor ... It was bad manners at their worst…”
No matter how lofty the cause, Mrs Gandhi was a supplicant in Nixon’s court and he was loath to let this fact go unnoticed. That does not, however, require us to be boorish as Mr Obama comes looking for jobs to bail out Americans from an economic crisis that continues to get worse, causing unemployment to rise to a level that has forced his ‘coalition of voters’ — the college-educated, the suburbanites, the politically uncommitted — to disown their ‘Apostle of Change’ and make Tea Party a fashionable political term of grassroots resistance to what is increasingly being perceived in the US as bad governance and which has fetched the Democrats a walloping in last week’s mid-term elections the like of which has not been witnessed in 72 years. Mr Obama’s approval rating, let us not forget, hovers at 45 per cent, and he is not even in the last year of his term.
So here are the bare facts. Mr Obama arrives in India not as the world’s most powerful person (that honour now goes to Mr Hu Jintao, President of China), an American President who can assert his authority and swing congressional approval for long-term strategic deals. The mid-term elections have left him severely bruised and his presidency hobbled. Republicans now have a majority in the House; the Democrats’ lead in the Senate is too narrow to over-ride opposition to presidential initiatives. The reversals are far worse than those suffered by Mr Clinton and Mr Bush. Unlike Mr Obama, neither Mr Clinton nor Mr Bush was isolated within his party. The Democrats are increasingly reluctant to either endorse him or be seen to be endorsing him. Few candidates wanted him to campaign for them and the party is already divided on renominating him for 2012, although these are early days for the race which begins late next year.
Domestic issues, especially the American economy, will preoccupy Mr Obama through 2011 to shore up his ratings. It’s unlikely he will focus on foreign relations and policy unless they are directly linked to domestic concerns. Hence his honest admission that his Asia visit is meant to ‘shop for jobs’: Any big ticket agreement that is arrived at while he is in New Delhi is likely to be linked to job-creation in America. That’s why Mr Obama is pushing hard for Government-to-Government defence purchases by India. It obviates procurement norms, fast tracks contracts, and advantage accrues to the supplier Government: The Obama Administration can boast to have created that many more jobs.
India has agreed to purchase 10 C17 transport planes for the IAF. The deal would fetch the US $ 5 billion. More importantly, it would save up to 30,000 jobs. Mr Obama now wants India to place its order for 126 multirole aircraft for the IAF with Lockheed Martin or Boeing, or both. That would save and generate as many as 27,000 to 31,000 jobs. If India agrees, we would be underwriting Mr Obama’s job-creation programme and funding the recovery of the US’s badly hit economy to the tune of more than $10 billion. Curiously, as soon as India agreed to the purchase of the C17s, Mr Obama announced an additional military aid package of $ 2.037 billion (over and above the $ 7.5 billion ongoing aid) for Pakistan. So, by placing orders for American merchandise, India not only creates jobs in the US but also defrays part of the mounting cost of American civil and military aid to Pakistan. For the record, since 9/11, American aid to Pakistan has surpassed $ 25 billion; nearly all of it in military assistance.
India Inc has made two points in response to Mr Obama’s job-shopping agenda. First, with India emerging as one the fastest growing source of FDI in the US, thousands of jobs have been created and secured by us in that country. Second, notwithstanding this fact, Mr Obama has become increasingly protectionist. For example, tax breaks for companies that outsource business or employ non-Americans are being withdrawn; H1B visa fees have been raised astronomically; and, it’s more difficult to get business visas than ever before while many Indians with business visas are being refused entry at port of arrival.
It is against this backdrop that we should judge the outcome of Mr Obama’s visit to India, not imagined slights and grievances which have no place in hard-headed diplomacy.
[This appears as my Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer on November 7, 2010.]