Barack in India: “The White House has the advantage of low expectations”

Posted on November 5, 2010

It is startling to read in the pages of the latest issue of TIME magazine that the Obama Administration’s so-called advantage in the trip to India is low expectations.

The Obama administration wants to highlight strong economic ties with India, while the Indian government wants the U.S. to take a tougher line with Pakistan and support India’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

With two diverging agendas, it is unlikely that this visit will end with a dramatic announcement, as President George W. Bush’s did in 2006 with the civilian nuclear energy deal. Without something to show for this trip, the U.S. may lose ground with India, its largest ally in dealing with Pakistan and China. Still, the White House has the advantage of low expectations. There is a widespread perception within the Indian foreign policy establishment that Obama is not as friendly toward India as Bush was.

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With Barack perceived as being negative in his view of India, he will have to do a lot of image repair. There is little time for this exercise. How could any President get off to such a bad start?

In setting a course for better economic ties with India, Obama has given himself little room for success.¬† India is a member of what will become the most powerful economic bloc – BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China). As a measure of their growing power, “[t]hree Brazilian and two Chinese banks are among the world s top 10 credit card issuers, new research shows.”NewsPointer]

At this writing, Brazil and China among many other nations are very vocal in their displeasure at the FED’s moves to pump stimulus money into the economy. [FT]¬† This is not an ideal backdrop for a much heralded but also much criticized trip abroad.

India is uneasy about recent US arms sales to Pakistan – ostensibly to be used for war against the Taliban.

Shikri notes that India has been buying military equipment from the U.S., but he says before the two sides can conclude any big deals, they must have a shared vision on defense strategy. That includes U.S. acceptance that India may need to use the equipment to defend itself against Pakistan, he says.

India’s defense minister has declined to say where India will make its next big purchase of warplanes, but competitors for the sale include France and Russia. []

Obama also will be seeking more retail inroads into the subcontinent. Last week Wal-Mart executives toured there but the Indian government has the same concerns voiced for decades by small communities all over the US:

Shikri [Rajiv Shikri a retired Indian diplomat and strategic analyst in New Delhi] says the United States needs to understand India’s political concerns about foreign investment, in an arena where huge numbers of jobs could be at stake.

“In India, in small towns, large towns and villages, you have so many mom-and-pop stores and family-run businesses, which would sustain the livelihoods of millions of people. Now if they’re wiped out, it creates a problem,” he says.

Shikri says it is a problem not unlike the one that Obama raised when he complained about the outsourcing of U.S. jobs a few weeks ago. []

But on the issue of China and its unparalleled growth, the US and India do find more common ground:

“Americans must remember that India is the America of Asia. We are both modern nations. China may be an advanced nation, but it is not a modern nation because it has no democracy,” Akbar [editor, India’s Sunday Guardian] says.

Indians are hoping that Obama’s visit to their country will balance the president’s trip to China last year and provide solid recognition of India’s power in the region.