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India & Barrack Obama

( These comments were sent by me in response to a query from a leading Washington DC-based think tank on Indian perceptions of President-elect Barrack Obama)

There were initial concerns in India over the likely implications to India’s national interests during an Obama Presidency. These concerns arose from the following factors:

(a). Obama’s initial opposition in the Senate to the Indo-US civilian nuclear co-operation agreement, though he subsequently supported it.

(b). The reportedly active role played by Richard Holbroke and Madeleine Albright in advising him on foreign policy issues during the election campaign. Both were seen in India as advocates of a more intrusive role by the US in matters such as a settlement of the Kashmir issue and addressing the Pakistani concerns over the increasing Indian presence in Afghanistan.

2. The fact that a large number of influential Americans of Indian origin had supported the Bush administration and that many of them—except Americans of Indian origin in Chicago— had switched their support to Hillary Clinton during the primaries also influenced Indian perceptions of Obama.

3. These concerns are likely to be mitigated by reports that Obama is likely to nominate Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State. She enjoys a positive image in the Indo-American community as well as in India. It is remembered that the Indo-American community played an active role in her campaign to win the election to the Senate. They remained loyal to her during the entire primary campaign and switched their support to Obama only after she had withdrawn from the race.

4. There were ups and downs in India’s relations with the US during the presidency of Bill Clinton. During his first term he was viewed as insensitive to India’s interests and concerns. This perception got strengthened after his negative reaction to India’s nuclear tests in 1998. The Kargil military conflict between India and Pakistan in 1999 saw a thawing of the cold vibrations, which had set in between India and the US. What was seen as his support for India and his criticism of Pakistan for violating the Line of Control (LOC) in Jammu & Kashmir and the active behind the scene role played by him in pressuring Pakistan to withdraw its troops from Indian territory in the Kargil area contributed to a change in the Indian perceptions from negative to positive. This change was reflected in the extraordinarily warm welcome he received during his visit to India in March 2000.

5. Despite this, the Clinton Administration, like other Democratic Administrations that preceded it, thought of India more tactically than strategically.—–more in terms of American business interests in catering to India’s large middle class than in terms of the role which India can and ought to play in the Asian—and ultimately global— stage in the years to come.

6. It goes to the credit of President George Bush and his Secretary of State Condolleezza Rice that they started thinking of India more strategically than tactically—- as an Asian power on par with China, as a power to be reckoned with and as a power with a tremendous potential for playing a benign role on the world stage. The remarkable improvement in Indo-US relations under the inspiration of Bush and Rice—- adequately reciprocated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh— has been a turning point in Indo-US relations since India became independent in 1947.

7. Will Obama continue with the Bush-Rice policy of dealing with India strategically and strengthening their relationship or will he revert to the traditional tactical Democratic reflex? This was the question that bothered many Indian opinion-makers as they heard with concern speculation about the likelihood of Holbroke or Albright becoming the Secretary of State. There is a sigh of relief over reports of the likelihood of Hillary Clinton taking over as the Secretary of State. She has enjoyed positive vibrations with influential Indians and Indo-Americans. There is a confidence that Indo-US relations will be safe in her hands.One has to wait and see whether this belief proves to be correct or mere wishful-thinking.

( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: seventyone@2gmail.com )

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