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!


Ambika said...

I somehow can't see us giving up the good guy martyr role, at least for a couple of years. Our government isn't equipped yet to take on major stances. You're right when you say what Obama presents works in theory. The reality, however, doesn't support this ideal. At least, that's what I think!

Kundan Singh said...

good speech and all that,the right buttons were pressed as far as the Indian audience is concerned.

To be honest I wouldn't have expected anything less from the man (Obama); he's just been kicked around in the midterms and now needs a fresh start; so where does he go - Foreign policy.
The Republicans made a hash of their foreign policy hence thats his ticket to 2012. (its early but i do think he has a real fight on his hands in 2012)

Obama said they would like to see a UNSC with India on it, what I would like to know is that what will be Americas role in making sure we get that seat. China will veto India on the UNSC, how will Obamas USA tackle that.

I also like many things in life, but how i get them is what im interested in

What better way to charm the audience than to throw in a few Gandhi reference, a bit of Dalit topping it with a dash of Banagalore.

The Indian media (& Rudy) had gone berserk that he didn't mention Pakistan within the first 5 mins of Air-force one touching down.

Times Nows special coverage at the end of Day 1 was - " Jobs for USA, Terror for us" but by day 2 it had changed its stance to how Obama was hearing us.

The Arnabs, Rajdeeps and their likes need to be sent back to class and told that they cant define American foreign policy. America has thousands of troops in Pakistan, any harsh statement by Obama in India puts his own troops in grave danger. But hey Arnab aint concerned.

In 13 days its going to be 2 years since 26/11 happened and India was brought to its knees as a nation (emerging/emerged its your call)
Since then what have we done to take on Pakistan ? Nothing !!

Ive counted and now we have sent them 13 dossiers, 13 !! Its a joke and then we wait till Obama will come and scold our naughty neighbors.

Many things were said in his speech but the part I liked the best was where subtly he told India that - boss you wanna play in the major league, you have to step up your game.

mahima said...

Agreed K.

He's focusing on foreign policy and he couldn't have been franker about what his goals are and what he expects from us.

You know Vir Sanghavi has just written an article about how Obama might have heard the Indian media and therefore changed his speech (from Bombay to PArliament) to suit Indians.. I mean COME ON. Out media is too full of itself and its a joke.


Ishan-Ratra said...

" Or perhaps embracing American ideals .............. " super optimistic Mahima ! , but then , never know

he said a lot of things which sound great , just the right stuff , the ques is how much of it ( political ) will be backed by action.The americans will definately back up their economic promises , since they need India vis China , Currency war , Brazil , Iran etc .A Pakistan visit right after India would have been a litmus test for his views !

assuming these guys can deliver on their political promises , whats wrong with supporting them . we want a seat on the high stake table , then we ought to show some cash, or we just like to make noise and dont have the stomach to see ourselves through ?

in the present senario , our best interests are to align with the US , then whats wrong ? maybe he is right , we "shy" away from the real stuff ,

it can be a mutually beneficial relationship

Rohan said...

I did not know about ICT4D and other work that is being done along similar lines, but these are avenues where clear gains can be made by India. Meritocracy, as you point out, and institutions that promote or safeguard it, is another area of expertise where a greater degree of knowledge exchange would benefit India massively. In fact I feel it would do us good to focus solely on this.
I have always been unsure about what is meant by closer ties with the US (beyond military and economic dependence). Agricultural expertise from the US cannot be easily transferred for higher productivity in India because the scenarios are massively different.
Unfortunately, some of the aspects of Western society that you mention, eg. clean streets, do not seem to be transferable. As a result, I do not necessarily see closer ties with the U.S. leading to huge leaps in social/civil/agricultural society directly. Having a meritocratic system in place, however, would indirectly affect all of the above.
One could ask, what does India possibly have to lose from a closer alliance? It is not about whether we can count on Obama when we are in a conflict situation, but can we count on the American senate? As Obama, very unfortunately, realized the two may not be the same. Foreign policy with Russia on the other hand has the advantage that it rarely needs ratification of any sort. This seems to me a potential trade off.
The most disheartening part about the mid term elections is that Obama cannot be the leader that he (and the rest of the world) wants him to be. It is such a pity that the person who could have really made a difference, got perhaps the worst possible draw in recent history.
While his hands are tied, he knows that this is not the case for India. I think he wants the Indian leaders to recognize this and do something about it. Closer ties with the US, is an exciting phrase, but we really need to get our own act together. The Nandan Nilekani's are on this, and we need more people.
For starters the seasoned bunch in tv news (like NDTV) need to either wake up or collectively resign. To see a man going from hosting "The World this Week" to listening (drunk) to how many times "Rahul Gandhi" bobbed his head during a state dinner, on a news channel is nauseating.

egg style said...

Embracing ‘American’ ideals, am not so sure is a great idea. Universal values, fine, and that would certainly include not bombing folk ‘back to the stone age’ as part of some supposed clash of civilizations or whatever. Obama once wrote of the sweetest sound he’d ever heard, and it was not the boom of explosions. This man is US Prez now, and so it’s very likely the Indo-US clasp is not (or no longer) about what hardliners/chaddiwalas want it to be.

Instead, the Indo-US engagement may well prove crucial to how the secular world shapes up, and for sound reason too, no ideal of US/Indian conception in the way. Globalization poses future challenges, and these must be given primacy over earlier complaints. Take our Triangulation challenge. According to a brilliant Singaporean analyst, Kishore Mahbubani, the 21st century will see the US, China and India jockeying for world influence, and the upper-hand will go to whichever country gets along best with the other two. For India to sustain self confidence and stay in the game (and it's a lambi daur), it laterally needs another relationship of mutual assurance (and an uplilting Hero score… !?)

Anonymous said...

India is jackie shrowoff of all trades, hijr a days are long ago gone past even if effect is taking long to reverse. This is why India is under the world's watch now and all its relationships, walls etc

mahima said...

But egg style, American ideals are not bombing places back to the stone ages... or not what they are meant to be. But yes, my whole thng is that in an alliance with the US, inheriting or join in with their foreign policy seems to be to be the weakest link.. internally the system works and there is a government which is accountable and cities that are developed. And they are actually scared of the law something our country seriously lacks. Though their media sucks (not that ours is much better!!)
I guess Rohans got a good ques - why not?

egg style said...

Just who exactly the govt is accountable to is never quite so obvious, no matter what the rhetoric/propaganda says. Also, people who watch their parking meters (as ol Bob of subterranean homesick blues fame advised) and stuff may be considered law abiding in some cute sorta way, but if their govt is okay with illegal wars (a complaint made even by a former UN Secretary General) that devastate innocent lives by the hundreds of thousand, even million, then the rule-of-law claim to moral high ground rings hollow, you might agree. Let me say this again: universal values, okay! US values, naah!

If they can be made to coincide, a challenge Obama must take on if it's the last thing he does (even at the cost of losing support in war-happy parts of America), then we're talking... till then, from DC's point of view, it's perhaps still all about Sam's way or the Highway (figuring out the abstract references of Highway 61, a great Bob Dylan track, would be a nice way to start, though :)

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog, Mahima. Awaiting your next post eagerly. It is true that the Indian Blogosphere is exceedingly vibrant. Your blog shows why

mahima said...

Wow anon! Thanks. I'll post tomo just for you :)