Tunku Varadarajan writes about the “tattered” relations with India in the Obama era.
As the president hits India this weekend, he will find it is still George W. Bush country. Tunku Varadarajan on an alliance that Obama has allowed to wither on the vine.
Barack Obamaâ€™s visit to India, starting Saturday, may offer him some small respite from the drubbing that has made this week the nadir of his political life; but if heâ€™s looking (a la Elizabeth Gilbert/Julia Roberts) for some Eastern salve for his battered soul, he isnâ€™t going to find it in Mumbai or New Delhi. Obama will encounter a hospitable people, of course: Indians are never unkind to their guests.
Why, theyâ€™re even stripping coconuts from trees that line a path heâ€™s scheduled to walk down, lest a hard nut ping him on his un-turbanned head. But he will find little of the spontaneous warmth and genuine bonhomie that was lavished on George W. Bush when the latter visited India in 2006.
Two years after Bushâ€™s departure from the White House, India is still Bush Countryâ€”a giant (if foreign) Red State, to use the American political taxonomy. By that I mean that the political establishment and much of the non-leftist intelligentsia still looks back with dewy-eyed fondness to the time when Indiaâ€™s relations with the United States flowered extravagantly under Bush.
It wasnâ€™t just a matter of securing a mold-breaking nuclear deal with Washington; it was a case of India dealing, for the first time in the uneven history of its relations with the United States, with an American president who saw India as a partner-in-civilization. Bogged down in health care and bailouts at home, and in â€œAfpakâ€ abroad, Obama has let the alliance with India wither on the vine. This has frustrated India deeply, especially as a perception came to grip New Delhi that some of Obamaâ€™s neglect was payback to India for its closeness to his predecessor. India pushed back hard and furiously at Obamaâ€™s early, tone-deaf attempt to foist Richard Holbrooke on the Indian subcontinent as some sort of â€œKashmir czar,â€ and New Delhi has returned, to a noticeable extent, to the pre-Bush method of dealing with America: watch first, and closely; trust later, and sparingly.
When a good history of the George W. Bush years is finally written, his breakthrough with India may turn out to be the most important foreign policy initiative of his administration. The Indian Ocean hosts lanes for the oil from the Persian Gulf and an ever larger share of its trade, and India sits in the middle of it. It is also the geographical center of transnational Islamic terrorism. It is essential that the United States maintain a strong deterrent in the Indian Ocean, and that it preserve and enhance its ability to coerce whatever clown revue happens to be governing Pakistan at the moment. India is the key to both. That Barack Obama recognizes this is to his credit. It is quite possibly the most deft foreign policy move of his administration — admittedly, a low standard — and he deserves credit for it.