Monday, November 08, 2010

Obama flatters India's elite audiences, but...

Barack Obama is a good orator, teleprompter or no teleprompter. He may not quite be the charmer that Bill Clinton was during his visit in 2000, nor may he have the Clinton charisma, but there’s no doubt that he is able to leave an impression on most occasions when he speaks. And he did so today in Parliament, with the MPs and invited guests giving him a standing ovation.

Flattering an elite audience may be good politics (and Obama is a consummate one) but words are easily forgotten when they do not translate into action on the ground, action that heralds change for the better. If India’s Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had no compunctions uttering the ‘K’ word today, Obama proved the skeptics wrong and toughened his stance by referring to “safe havens” in Pakistan and the need to eliminate them. Although he mentioned clearly that it was up to the two nations (India and Pakistan) to resolve differences and move forward, he did not point to anything specific. Dr Singh, too, had nothing much to offer, saying that unless Pakistan stopped sponsoring terrorism, there was no way forward. These are oft repeated stances and the Obama-Manmohan meeting certainly has not found any quick-fix remedy.

In Parliament, Obama talked about three ways India and the United States could work together – what he termed as shared prosperity, shared sense of security, and good governance. As far as prosperity is concerned, it was Dr Singh who hit the nail on the head (earlier in a press conference) when he said that economic development was all about raising the standard of living of millions, the majority of Indians who lived in the villages. And as far as good governance is concerned, we all know what the Indian government, central or state, is capable of. Indeed, if we really had good governance after Independence, we would have become a developed country probably a decade or more ago. That we are still struggling to emerge from that catchphrase is the harsh truth.

Yes, there is no doubt that India is different from what it was even ten years ago, from the time Clinton arrived here. But we still have miles to go as far as basic infrastructure is concerned – be it agricultural infrastructure, industrial infrastructure or civic infrastructure. Where are good roads in cities (have a look at some of the pictures in my earlier blogs), where is clean drinking water for even those who live in urban slums, where is affordable housing, adequate transportation… the list can go on and on. In fact, Dr Singh mentioned the necessity to build infrastructure during the press conference.

Any visitor to India can see what is lacking. President Obama, too, must have seen some of it (the lack of infrastructure). After all, when you are driven in a limousine in a cavalcade to places like the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Humayun’s Tomb and St Xavier’s College, there is not much of the ground reality your eye can catch. Obama of course said all the right things, even endorsing India’s stand for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council (another significant utterance). His ‘Dhanyavad’ and ‘Jai Hind’ were set to charm everybody, but like I said, he is not Bill Clinton.

One thing for sure though, is that he seems quite well read and well informed. His references to Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar were not lost on those who listened; so too were the words he echoed of Rabindranath Tagore (when the head is held high) and Jawaharlal Nehru (midnight hour). You wouldn’t call them red herrings, would you?

I thought all those references were remarkable, especially when he talked about how Mahatma Gandhi was indirectly responsible for him becoming American President (tracing Gandhi to Martin Luther King and to the first Black US President). What I also thought remarkable was his castigating the Burmese government for running a dictatorship and conducting a sham election. There was a reference to Iran as well, which might not have gone down too well with many in Parliament.

In the circumstances, Obama did well for himself. But there was nothing spectacular, not was anything of the sort expected. He knocked off the ‘outsourcing’ bogey and that may have given some of the IT honchos reason to cheer. For the President, 50,000 will be the number to take home gladly – the number of jobs for Americans thanks to various deals signed with Indian business establishments. After all, it’s the American economy that cost him votes in the mid-term elections, and if he is to make a comeback and try for a second term in office, 50,000 jobs coming so soon after the fiasco he faced will be the elixir he’s looking for.

So, what about India’s masses? Are they going to see some quick changes on the ground? Hardly. Is striking business deals enough? Will the deals be able to get rid of the so-called Maoist threat, for instance? Will it get rid of starvation deaths or appease those in the North-east? You know the answer as well as I do.

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