Monday, November 08, 2010

After the politics

This was no pat on the back for being good guys. This was not just affirmation and the encouragement of Indian global political aspirations. Barack Obama gave a stunningly candor speech about what lies ahead for India if it aligns itself with the United States. Truth be told, there are many intricacies which cannot possibly come out during a speech in Parliament and I will let those smarter than me and in the know be the judge of that. But as I had done many years ago for The Indian Express, I'll look at this speech and ask the question -- "whats in it for me?"

Obama said that if we take this offer (which we can't refuse?!) then the generations to follow will only hear about the US- India partnership as a historic detail because India would have transformed by then. Just like kids today don't know a world without the internet, I suppose the streets of India will change to look a little more Western, and frankly, that appeals to me. (I'm mainly thinking of streets without filth right now and its making me uber happy!) But, to the offer -- adopt a foreign policy similar to the US and we will prop you up as a world leader/regional leader through political and technological support -- is an interesting one. One that we should take?

Firstly, foreign policy. My internal alarm when up when a reference to India's peacekeeping troops came just a little before his call for India to become more vocal on matters of democratic movements. I'm ok with India preaching about democracy, we are so self satisfied about it, might as well leverage it. But at the same time, I'm not sure I can imagine a country where our troops are all over the world "peace keeping" during transitional shifts to democracy, which as we know, can take a really long time. These efforts have crippled the US to some extent, and I think Obama needs backup. So, is this something we are ready to do more frequently? I mean, a world leader, seat at the Security Council, more say in international economic bodies... this is what India wants in theory. Obama has listed out some conditions attached to US support. At the same time the US wants to, and for India to, "engage East". China was never mentioned in the speech although Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan were (all the problem kids) so one can only imagine what he was hinting towards without saying. The underlying sentiment I got was that India will have to stop with the matyr/victim/good guy complex and start taking an assertive role in the international arena if it really is to become a global player. So, in that sense, we will need really strong leadership and a concrete foreign policy. Manmohan Singhs comments about the outsourcing industry and dialogue with Pakistan was heartening during the afternoon press conference because he indicated what he was thinking. Since Singh he didn't speak in Parliament, he made it quite clear that India also has things to say and America has to listen. To that end, as Obama indicated in Mumbai, our PM too understands his audience!

There were other sentiments expressed in the speech that appealed to me. Obama was very clear about the fact that India has taken some good decisions (ending the License Raj) which has led it to develop in a strong way. Of course, anyone who knows the country knows exactly how lopsided development really is, but I take his point. He also pointed out that earlier US-India collaborations resulted in the Green Revolution etc and moving forward the US can supply much needed agricultural know-how, storage & transport technology and weather forecast technology. He also talked about defense and civil space, which means satellite technology and so on. (Ask my mom about this!)

For me personally, a very welcome part of his speech was this: "This leads me to the final area where our countries can partner-strengthening the foundations of democratic governance, not only at home but abroad.Now, in a new collaboration on open government, our two countries are going to share our experience, identify what works, and develop the next-generation of tools to empower citizens. And in another example of how American and Indian partnership can address global challenges, we're going to share these innovations with civil society groups and countries around the world. We're going to show that democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for the common man-and woman."

This is a direct reference to ICT4D (information and communication technologies for development) and e-governance which is critical if the entire country is to be lifted out of a cloud of poverty and disinformation. The knowledge divide is a real thing. I have a meeting in two days with the National Institute of Smart Governance, a body that helps government organizations digitize and become accessible to common citizens. We already work with American organizations like CISCO and of course, many Indian technology organizations, to implement, scale and replicate projects. But by no means is this near completion. By making this, and marking this a priority above what was said at the WSIS - World Summit on Information Societies - Obama has, for me, hit the nail about what kind of a society we should expect to live in if we shed our distant skins and work closely with the Americans.

"Seize the possibility of this moment" is what Obama said to those of us watching TV. And its a tempting offer to imagine a life a little more American in nature, especially given that some of us have lived in the US/Canada and understand what it means to live in a society like that. At the same time, we have seen from the outside the pressures of assuming the role of a global/regional leader -- the responsibility it brings forth.

Today I spent some part of the afternoon with professionals who have been given scholarships by the Ministry of External Affairs to study development journalism. Ministry officials have told me on other occasions that India does so much in the regional sphere but people don't know about it. As a attempt to showcase our soft power leadership the Ministry is now on twitter and facebook with updates about events, schemes, scholarships. I can see why the UN seat appeals to us so dearly.

So, the ultimate question remains - is India just a market for the US? Is India a much needed ally that America is ready to invest in to make it (truly) an equal? Will India gain or lose by closer ties with the US?

Obama has come to tell everyone he knows there is a new world order only when it comes to the fact that it is not a unipolar world anymore. But democracy and free markets are still what *should* be winning and he needs India to jump on this bandwagon. How much of our economy and defence will we have to open up in exchange for (what I believe) will be leaps and bounds in social/civil/agricultural society? But there comes the sobering thought: outside of a few national level politicians, can our petty, corrupt, illiterate, incompetent politicians understand the nuances of this offer? Or perhaps embracing American ideals and meritocracy will allow us to, in the long run, purge this political system as well? Too much, too much? Probably.

A girl can dream!

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Before the politics

Obama has a matter of fact style of speaking which has appealed to me since I saw him campaign. He deftly explained issues about Muslims, war, extremism to voters back then, and he explained his protectionist logic when the economy demanded it. In India, he has equally been calm and measured in telling us again and again that America's interest lies in trading with India: you have a growing market and we want this trade to be a two way street. Unemployment has rocked America and Obama is here with a clear economic agenda. And another thing is clear: Obama is not making a political argument for business, he is making a business argument.

If you saw some of the panelists on TV giving their opinions, you then saw that unlike some of our trigger happy anchors, seasoned diplomats and officials have been taking pains in explaining why Obama cannot come to India and start immediately pandering to a country that honestly can't even vote for him and even more honestly is not his top priority in the war on terror. Before he landed in India, in an interview to PTI, he made it quite clear that Pakistan needs to control terrorist elements that are bred there, but to make similar statements just as he landed in India would color this trip quite differently. For many of us watching the first speech at the Indo-US Business Council in Mumbai (on TV - I wasn't there!) it was immediately clear that this speech was not aimed at India but at America. He was quite frankly telling the Americans that I am going to solve this economic crisis even if it takes going to every Asian country and signing business deals myself. That he did not point out to the Indians - us - what the advantages of these deals were was never more obviously then the befuddled expressions on the faces of so many illustrious anchors, but this is the job of the Indian government, not Obama. He wasn't giving that speech to win the heart of the business community - after all, $10 billion deals were already signed - but he was there to announce these to this constituency.

If people have immediate needs - shelter, food, clothing - "healthy materialism" as Obama called it in a town hall meeting "is made happen by businesses and people". I think he needs the common American to not worry about these things, and that is what he is doing. Plain and simple. Of course, tomorrow's address at Parliament may open up some political questions but I am not sure that is his focus. He has already said that he is the President of the United States of America, as differentiated from the leader of the free world, and I think this is a different Obama than the guy we saw cockily accepting a Nobel Prize based on intention! The more measured personality we see, trapped by the recent mid term elections that has seen Republicans win the House in the US, is not what are used to seeing. After all, when he visited Cairo, his speech made a play to end animosity between the American and Muslim word. We are used to the "yes we can" stuff which is why we want him to come and give some impassioned speech about how India is wonderful and Pakistan is evil and Afghanistan is useless and because we are such an emotional people we are reacting rather personally to the fact that he hasn't! But diplomacy is diplomacy and what is talked about in private between government often never makes it to the public fora and I didn't need to have seen The West Wing to know that, but I have and I do.

What has been pointed out by many, and is clear to anyone watching analysis of the past two days is that we don't hold the US or even President Obama in awe. People, including the students who met him, have raised some tough questions and made some valid points. I haven't yet seen all the articles in the American press to analyze how Americans are reacting to "this" India but as someone pointed out, the India-US relationship is more equal today because economics is taking the front seat. In fact, we feel richer and so by extension, more comfortable to call out the Americans on what they are "not" doing, but in truth if this was simply a political visit, over time India might not have this backbone. In a political context we still have a desire to get a pat on the back for being the good guys in South Asia and that has never been more obvious that sentiments expressed all over the media. However, economically, its different. America was hit hard by the recession, we were not in comparison, but to grow we need more markets and the US is one of them. So do they.

I'm looking forward to the speech in Parliament. It'll tell us more about how India is viewed in the global marketplace.