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Opinion The Doctor Is In, MR OBAMA




1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
The Doctor is in, Mr Obama
Jagdish Bhagwati

The U.S. President can stand up to his party by borrowing from Manmohan Singh’s 1991 economic reforms.

President Barack Obama arrives in Mumbai on November 5 on the first leg of his state visit to India, reciprocating Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s state visit to Washington D.C. in late November last year. The visit adds one more brick to the evolving architecture of India-U.S. relations, going back to president Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was the first president to visit India and, as Columbia University President, to award an honorary degree to prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

The planning of the Obama visit shows traces of genius. Starting with Mumbai is an inspired choice. Devastated by the terrorist attack, planned by the Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Toiba, on November 26, 2008, known now as 26/11 in India, with nearly 500 killed and wounded, Mumbai shares the anguish of devastation with New York and its 9/11 terrorist attack with 3,000 victims, dispatched by Al Qaeda based in Pakistan as well. This immediately establishes rapport, and indeed a strong emotional bond, between India and the U.S.

It also sets the stage for stressing and building on the commonalities in foreign policy concerns of India and the U.S. regarding Pakistan and China (whose track record on encouraging Pakistan has been long-standing). Mumbai underlines the unsettling reality that both countries have to deal with Pakistan, a failed or failing state, virtually run by several successive military dictatorships with interludes of civilian rule in which the army’s long reach was never forgotten and acted as the invisible Iron Fist. It is tempting to think that if only Kashmir was settled, the two nations would settle into the peace that successive Indian governments, especially under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, have sought unsuccessfully to achieve. But not merely do military governments have a vested interest in exaggerating and nurturing external discord and threats, which gives them security-related legitimacy. There is also the fact that Pakistan’s military has suffered defeats in four wars (1947-48, 1965, 1971, and 1999) since Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947. Besides, the defeat in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971 was particularly humiliating as 79,700 soldiers and Army personnel, and 12,500 civilians surrendered on December 16. While the officers of the two armies were Sandhurst-trained and behaved the way that civilised teams used to who played crickets and competed in the Cambridge-Oxford boat race, the surrender left a huge injury on the Pakistani side. In Kashmir, the Pakistani army feels that they have India over a barrel; they are not going to let go easily.

Pakistan poses an acute problem also because of its ambition to be on a par with India, an aspiration that was fairly unrealistic at the time of the partition in 1947 because of the respective sizes of the two nations, but has become acutely so in the last two decades as India has grown dramatically while Pakistan has sunk close to chaos. Simple arithmetic shows that to keep its absolute levels of defence spending on par with India, Pakistan must spend significantly more than twice the share of its resources as percentage of GDP, imposing an intolerable burden. John Kenneth Galbraith once remarked that just as Canada, and certainly Mexico, could not hope to reach parity with the U.S., it was nonsensical for Pakistan to do so with India. Unfortunately, the witting and unwitting indulgence of such an ambition with substantial military and economic aid by U.S. leadership under successive geopolitical rationales has encouraged strange outbursts such as that of prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that he was willing to “eat grass or leaves”—a metaphor that may well have turned into virtual reality—to match India’s nuclear explosion.

If India and the U.S. finally see Pakistan for what it has always been but is even more so now, and the emerging common perceptions should lead to shared policies towards it, China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy postures toward India, particularly on its north-eastern border in Arunachal Pradesh (to which China lays claim in a dispute that was moving steadily towards negotiated settlement) and in Kashmir, have put India’s leadership in alert mode. India found it particularly galling that, unmindful or more likely ignorant of India’s concerns, President Obama issued a joint statement in Beijing on a visit to China in November last year, proposing that the two countries jointly “promote peace, stability and development” in South Asia and suggesting that the Chinese jackal be asked to help guard the Kashmir coop. By now, his administration has hopefully learnt the folly of that communiqué, as the U.S. has heard the steady drumbeat of Chinese aggression in areas of more immediate concern to the U.S. itself; the most egregious example being the Chinese claim since early this year to a major portion of the South China Sea as its own lake, with the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, protesting that unilateral policy in Hanoi at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations forum in July this year.

While former U.S. President George W. Bush, who is much loved in India for his full-throated, visceral admiration for India’s democracy, was keen to see India and Japan as the democratic bulwarks against an authoritarian China, India wisely did not wish to confront China. But now that China confronts India instead, and the U.S. is ever more fearful of China’s aggressiveness, a rapport between India and the U.S. on China is plausible and should lead to a meeting of minds on how to deal with China.

But the real dividend from the Obama visit must accrue from what the two leaders can learn from each other. Since both countries are democracies and are also multi-religious and multi-ethnic, it is a no-brainer for each to profit from the other.

Thus, Mahatma Gandhi drew on Henry David Thoreau for civil disobedience (indeed the title of Thoreau’s 1849 essay was just that); in turn, Martin Luther King drew on Gandhi. Besides, the Indian Constitution’s main draftsman was the Dalit Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who was deeply influenced by the US Constitution. Ambedkar had studied with the Columbia University philosopher John Dewey, and later remarked that he had experienced social equality for the first time in the U.S. In return, the public litigation innovation by the Indian Supreme Court has influenced judicial thinking among the liberal members of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Again, while the women’s suffrage movement procured for American women the right to vote with the 19th Amendment in 1920, India followed naturally only after Independence in 1947 and with the adoption in the Indian Constitution of universal suffrage in 1950. While the glorious struggle of the American women in securing their suffrage inspired Indian women, India in turn has set an example by getting ahead of the U.S. in getting women into politics and at the highest levels. Mahatma Gandhi in fact used the cultural-religious tradition in the shape of the mythology of female Indian goddesses who often slew male demons, to underpin his determination to have women march for Independence in the front ranks with men, so that the country came to accept women in public life and in leadership positions.

Again, Indians have long been struck by the civil rights movement and the slow but sure rise of growing numbers of African-Americans in public life, capped spectacularly by the capture of the White House by President Obama. But Indians have, in turn, leapfrogged the U.S. in having minorities such as Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis (the Zoroastrians who fled from Persia and landed on the west coast of India), tribals and the lower Hindu castes and even untouchables, elected in numbers to the highest positions.

As it happens, the way to handle multi-religiosity is also an area where the two countries can teach one another. The U.S. approach to secularism consists in ensuring the right to practice your religion, as evidenced by liberal reactions to the recent controversy over the “Ground Zero mosque” and certainly India equally guarantees that right also through its Constitution, which draws important ideas from the U.S. Constitution. But this is only a “negative” right. There is also the question of the positive right to equality in public displays of religion. Gandhi had the right approach to this question: at his political meetings, he began by reading from the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Gita of the Hindus and the holy books of the Sikhs and the Zoroastrians. After 9/11, the Judeo-Christian monopoly on public space in the U.S. gave way to inclusion of Islam, largely for prudential reasons. But the reasons must go much deeper than that and include in an equal way the many religions that now inhabit the U.S. President Obama’s initial decision to visit the Golden Temple was only a gesture to his Sikh host; if he had learnt his lesson from Gandhi, he would have had a prayer breakfast with a bow to all of India’s great religions.

But the greatest lesson he can learn from the visit to India is, ironically, about the bankruptcy of the opposition to the idea of an open economy that Democrats have increasingly surrendered to, especially in the mid-term elections. To take just one example from those elections, California Democratic incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer attacked Republican candidate Carly Fiorina for outsourcing jobs; Boxer seemed not to understand that if, as CEO, Firoina had not outsourced 30,000 jobs, Hewlett Packard would have become uncompetitive in this fiercely competitive world, with the result that possibly as many as 100,000 jobs would have been lost. Sadly, President Obama has been virtually silent on this folly, unable or unwilling to play the conventional role of Presidents in countering such protectionism.

India was once wedded to illiberal policies, at whose core were fear of integration into the world economy and embrace, therefore, of inward-looking autarchy. Shedding these attitudes and steadily opening India to the world economy have yielded high dividends in shape of enhanced growth and therefore beneficial impact on poverty. President Obama can do no better than to take a leaf from Manmohan Singh who pioneered the reforms in 1991 and gather the courage to stand up to the reactionary forces in his party.

The original article appeared in the November 15th, 2010 issue of India Today.

http://indiatoday.intoday.in/site/Story/119084/Guest Column/the-doctor-is-in-mr-obama.html