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J. Sri Raman: India's Obama Issues

India's Obama Issues

by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

How does India look at Barack Obama? The question - as well as any answer to it - is crucially related to major foreign policy issues that the Democratic candidate for the US presidency will have to face as he continues his campaign, and even more frontally if he wins the contest. The question acquires importance as the issues concern more than India and even South Asia.

Some six months ago, India was taking only a cursory glance at Obama. It was taking a closer look at, and listening for significant sound bites from, his more familiar and famous Democratic rival. In my article on "What the US Presidential Election Means to India" (January 08, 2008), I noted the "sensational statement" by Hillary Clinton about the then-much-discussed insecurity of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. She declared: "(If elected president), I would try to get Musharraf to share the security responsibility of the nuclear weapons with a delegation from the United States and, perhaps, Great Britain." Well, she is not going to be elected to the White House, Pervez Musharraf is now a ceremonial president, and the subject has been practically shelved.

"The other Democratic hopeful," I reported, referring to Obama as many others did then, "has not triggered much excitement among India's mandarins and militarists, either, by talking of launching unilateral strikes or hot pursuit across the Afghan border to hit al-Qaeda." The anti-Pakistan warriors of India were quite happy then, that a large section of the Pakistani armed forces were pinned down on the Afghan border and thus far away from Kashmir.

The situation has now changed. The elected government of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani is holding talks and concluding pacts with militants on the border with Afghanistan, while incursions and skirmishes are being reported from around the Line of Control in Kashmir.

Is Obama, therefore, striking a chord now with India's far right? Does his promised toughness with Pakistan revive hopes in the forces represented by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government, which pressed for a right of pre-emptive attack on its neighbor in the post-9/11 period? The answer is "no," and this is not because the far right has turned into a fervent partisan of the cause of regional peace.

It is the larger picture that is making this political camp lukewarm about the prospect of what Pakistan will perceive as a superpower assault on its sovereignty. To this section of India's public opinion, Obama's pledge to end the Iraq war and bring the boys home makes the promised action in Pakistan meaningless.

A far-right columnist, writing in a leading daily of India, speaks for this section thus: "What should be of concern to India is the possible dilution of the 'imperial' dimensions of US foreign policy. In concrete terms, this boils down to Obama's approach to the war on terror. Obama's core constituency, the one that secured him the Democratic nomination, has reacted to Bush's gung-ho crusade against Islamist 'evil' by swinging in the opposite direction. Obama wants to cut American losses in Iraq and bring the boys home.

"If he does that and leaves Iraq to God and anarchy," snorts the indignant columnist, "it will be interpreted as an unqualified victory by those who have crazy notions of Sharia rule and a global Caliphate. Far from diluting the anger against America, a shamefaced retreat from Iraq will galvanize the soldiers of God to redouble their efforts in Egypt, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The fear of America has bred anger but it has also kept ideologically driven terrorists on the back-foot."

He delivers the dire warning: "An America preoccupied with itself will create openings for terrorists in both West and South Asia.... America's retreat will give the forces of terror an additional opening in India and its neighborhood." The columnist, notorious for his closeness to far-right leader Lal Krishna Advani selling himself currently as the "shadow prime minister," signs off with: "... India has compelling reasons to hope that Obama doesn't win in November."

The "war on terror" is not the only worrisome stake in the US presidential election for India's militarists and their mandarins in the establishment. They are far more seriously concerned over the fate of the US-India nuclear deal, which has run into considerable opposition within the country. The nuclear hawks are agreed that an Obama victory in the election may not be good news for the deal, but they differ on whether its implementation will help India's cause as a nuclear-weapon state.

As noted in these columns before, what the election means, immediately and above all, to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government is a desperately urgent need to hurry up with the nuclear deal. From Washington as well as New Delhi, we have been hearing almost every day about the deal facing a certain death without President Bush's strong push for it and amidst opposition from nonproliferation advocates and the Democrats in Congress. US State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack warned on June 21 that "every single day's delay by New Delhi (in operationalizing the deal) makes it much more difficult," even as Left opposition to it threatened to shorten the life of the coalition regime in New Delhi.

The view of the section of hawks, depressed at the prospect of a Democratic victory, finds expression in an article titled "India's Obama Problem" by C. Raja Mohan, a member of the National Security Advisory Board during the Vajpayee years. The problem, says Mohan, "arises from the prospect that he (Obama) might reverse President George W. Bush's bold departures from the traditional US policy towards India."

The security expert, also a former strategic affairs editor of two major Indian dailies, says: "Many of the nonproliferation activists, who are likely to fill crucial arms-control jobs in the Obama administration, genuinely believe Bush gave away the store to India and that the deal needs to be renegotiated to make it more 'balanced.'"

Mohan adds: "Indo-US relations have surged in the past few years because Bush broke with the traditional American policy on nuclear weapons and Kashmir. This, in turn, was rooted in Bush's recognition of democratic India's exceptionalism and his perception of it as a rising great power. Obama, in contrast, might take the United States back to the old liberal-internationalist view of India as a problem for the global nuclear order ..."

Striking is the contrast offered by the response to Obama from another prominent security analyst of similar commitment to the nuclear cause, Brahma Chellaney. Chellaney, also a former member of the National Security Advisory Board, welcomes the prospect of a President Obama derailing the deal.

After recounting Obama's dogged opposition in the Senate to the Bush administration's bid to offer the deal as a "blank check" to India, in an article titled "Obama's India-nuke legacy," Chellaney rejoices at the prospect of the country escaping a pact that may cramp the size and style of its strategic nuclear program. He proclaims: " An Obama triumph ... will help add momentum to the US-India relationship by freeing it of the albatross that the deal now represents."

Far from a familiar figure just months ago, the Democratic candidate for the US presidency is now sharply identified with a definite set of foreign policy stances in this part of the planet. Will we see a new US or a new Obama after November? Like the rest of the world, India will wait and watch.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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