President Obama came, saw and conquered. Or did he? This was the underpinning thought of the panel discussion organized by the Indo-American Friendship Association, New Delhi at the IIC on Nov 17th 2010, barely 9 days after the departure of the US President with the theme: Obama Visit : Leap Forward in India- US Relations? The discussion saw some of the brightest minds and influential voices in India joining the Panel: Mani Shankar Aiyar, former Minister of Panchayati Raj & MP, HK Dua MP, formerly Info Advisor to PM & respected Editor, Amb. KS Bajpai formerly Amb .to China, Pakistan & USA, Amb.Salman Haidar formerly Foreign Secretary & High Commissioner to UK, Amb.Lalit Mansingh formerly FS & High Commissioner to Uk & Amb to USA, Kiran Karnik formerly President of NASSCOM, Michael Macy Cul Attache, US Embassy & Prof Radha Kumar Trustee & Dir of Peace & Conflict Programme, Delhi Policy Group.
In his introductory remarks,the Founding-President of IAFA, Amb. Surendra Kumar stressed, now that the dust and din surrounding President Obama’s visit has subsided and breaking news headlines have died down there was need of, as stressed by the former foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal in his article, "a dispassionate view without baseless enthusiasm or wry cynicism". Kumar also added that symbolism of various gestures of President Obama during the visit was as important as the substance and suggested that the reported phrase on Indo-US relations as doomed to be friends should better be changed to destined to be friends !
Amb Lalit Mansingh focused on Indian Perspective:
- - Quoted Bill Clinton as saying ‘there are those who have seen the Taj and those who haven’t’. Similarly, now in India, there are those who like the US and those who are beginning to like it.
- - largely optimistic about the US and what it stands for.
- - People in India think that relations are good or they could be better- thus one notices a nuanced discussion on the US, but rarely negative.
- - Bill Clinton’s visit to India was transaction less; George W. Bush’s visit was purely transactional (nuclear deal) and Barack Obama’s was to consolidate a strategic partnership.
- - Three areas of discomfort where our fears were allayed:
- Fears of policy on outsourcing- the President rejected protectionism
- Kashmir issue- US repeated the known view: solve your problems with Pakistan yourselves.
- Fear of backtracking on nuclear deal- Instead Obama stressed bipartisan support for the deal with India.
- Four areas of satisfaction-
- Support of candidature at UNSC
- Naming Pakistan as having ‘terror havens’
- Placing India in the group of regulators on nuclear proliferation
- Taking our important agencies such as ISRO, DRDO & BDL off the list for controls
- - Concluded by stating that the visit was neither transactional nor strategic. Focus was on the future. Shared Obama’s repeated optimism which described partnership with India as indispensable and defining relationship of the 21st century.
- Mr. Michael P Macy’s American Perspective:
- - How did we get here and where are we going? Significant shifts in both countries. In the last twenty years, there has been a positive growth at all levels
- - Indian-Americans in the US have contributed to enhanced people to people contacts as have the burgeoning exchange of students of both countries.
- - The personalities of our leaders (Clinton-Vajpayee), (George Bush Jr & Manmohan) & (Obama-Manmohan) took the relationship to a much higher level.
- - Drew an interesting analogy : Keith Legend with Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger, both had artistic differences and disagreed on many issues but still succeeded in creating something great jointly because they shared common values.
- - Disagreements will always be there, but when they are kept in mind and focus is on larger issues two countries can still work productively. This is especially true about the US and India that share so many common values besides democracy & pluralism.
- Professor Radha Kumar: An academic view:
- - Believes that the structures of a partnership are not yet fully developed.
- - Security issues need to be tackled and discussed more comprehensively.
- - She was struck by how Obama could talk about importance of democracy in various parts of the world without underlining the need of true democracy in our neighbourhood, Pakistan.
- - She valued Obama’s comments on Gandhiji. Probably what Gandhiji would have liked to complete, but couldn’t, should be discussed by India and the US.
- Dr. Kiran Karnik, an Economic perspective:
- - India and the US don’t work well together because of shared or common values, but because of a vested interest in each other’s goods and services. India has a strong market, and the US, great technology.
- - Obama, as the Chief Marketing Officer came on behalf of America Inc. to procure deals to benefit his domestic voter base.
- - India has huge talent pools, and the US has an immense potential to train them and is still the world leader in innovations.
- - Globalization has helped our cause. However, the trade and manufacturing aren’t driven by politics but by resources, both material & human, capital, technological excellence and competitiveness in quality & prices. The growth of India’s exports of IT & services to the US owes a lot to Iconic figures like Dr NR Narayana Murthy & Dr Azim Premji.
Shri HK Dua, a ‘ holistic view from a journalistic eye’:
- - Joked by saying, may be journalists don’t talk ‘holistically’ that is why he has been asked to do so!
- - May be, the Indo-US relationship, post Obama’s visit, isn’t a leap forward; it is a process evolving for better.
- - It seemed that Obama had taken a crash course in salesmanship before he came to India
- - India is not yet a Global Power and many questions need to be answered, ranging from ‘what role do we have in Asia’. ‘what is the future of the US-China relationship, ‘what is the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan’ and so on before we pat ourselves in euphoria, over US’s statement that India has ‘emerged’
- Ambassador Salman Haidar, “a diplomatic dissection of the outcome of Obama visit”:
- - The visit was of a multifaceted nature
- - Many doors have opened for India, it is up to us how we can take this process forward.
- - UNSC support is good, but definitely not a ‘gift’ to India. We deserve a seat at the High Table, so to speak.
- - Initial response on Pakistan was diplomatic, but in the speech at the Joint Session of the Parliament, he was more direct and said the things we were waiting for; it augurs well for us.
- - Obama’s views about Iran, Myanmar, China and plans for Afghanistan differ from ours and may be cause of concern.
- Mani Shankar Aiyar, ‘an Unconventional Perspective’:
- - ‘Historic’ visit, this wasn’t. What has been historic is the US-India defense relationship sine 2005. The ‘same trajectory’ has been followed in the five years.
- - Nevertheless, it was a consolidation of the past gains.
- - De-hyphenation from Pakistan was a positive step. The most important achievement of the visit was his mention of the ‘terror havens’ in Pakistan.
- - It was great that he asked us to keep our own house in order and assured non-interference by the US in Indo-Pak matters.
- - He demolished Macy’s view that our common ideals, values and democracy were the foundation of our relationship and questioned how come we haven’t been best of friends and close partners for the last sixty years! He stressed that democratic credentials and shared values matter very little in American strategy as it has enjoyed warm and close relations with Regimes which were dictatorial, despotic, totalitarian and undemocratic such as Marcos of Philippines; Mubarak of Egypt; Pinochet of Chile, several dictators in Africa and successive Military Rulers in Pakistan.
- - We don’t have shared values, but shared interests in defense relationship. Nothing was said in the communiqué, on how to take this forward.
- - He won the Nobel Peace Prize for expression of his intent to bring about Peace in world, so that should have been a priority for him.
- Ambassador KS Bajpai’s concluding remarks:
- - Interestingly, on the 17th of November, 69 years back, he had landed in the US for the very first time!
- - Perceptions of both countries’ people’s towards each other have changed dramatically. From stereotypes of 50s & 60s, to more real time images of India OF TODAY, we have come a long way. In the beginning, we used to see the US through the British socialist eyes, and they(US), through the ‘exotic, oriental’ perspectives. He applauded the role of Indian Americans in changing the perception of India in the eyes of average American.
- - We will always have differences with any country; strategic concerns are what we should focus on.
- - The palpable excitement over the UNSC is ‘childish’ and we must focus on bigger concerns rather than waste time and energy in pursuit of a seat on the High Table.
- - Our bilateral, global and regional concerns were discussed, at least in one to one meetings between the two leaders, and our fears allayed to some extent, that is what matters.
The Q&A session was marked by some provocative questions which were handled deftly by the Panel Ms. Nehha Bhatnagar, Joint-Secretary of IAFA was the MC for the evening; she also proposed a vote of thanks.