Obama and India
The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights
activist based in Delhi
Barack Obama’s re-election as United States president is welcome. Contrary to the views of some pro-US analysts and even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a Republican win would have further widened class, race and ethnic rifts in America’s highly unequal society, strengthened a Rightward tilt in the domestic economy and international institutions, and set a jingoist tone for US foreign and security policy, with terrible consequences for the world, including South Asia.
Obama’s victory owes itself only partly to “positives” like his well-planned campaign, and “negatives” such as Mitt Romney’s crass “one percent” elitism, his repulsive remarks against the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes, and his inability to attract non-white minorities and women.
Underlying the result is a much deeper change in America’s demography: a relative decline in the white population, and an increase in the populations of blacks, Spanish-speakers from Latin America and Asian-Americans. In the last decade, these groups accounted for an absolute majority of all births. The number of Asian-Americans and Hispanics rose by 43 percent, and blacks by 12 percent, but the white population only grew by under six percent.
This favours a new social coalition of non-white minorities, over 70 percent of whom voted for Obama. They were supported by women and pro-Democrat sentiment among a majority of university-educated people.
Hopefully, all this sets a long-term social-political trend which will potentially make for a less pro-rich, pro-corporate domestic policy and a less militarist foreign policy. This trend is of course welcome. But it won’t translate into major shifts immediately. Obama is likely to continue with his earlier policies, with minor changes and nuances.
The biggest change will be a further shift in the policy pivot towards Asia, in line with the shift in global power away from the North Atlantic. Early in his first term, Obama wooed China, and tried to coax Pakistan into a more cooperative relationship, while keeping India out of the core of his security architecture. However, he soon raised India’s profile. He visited India, hosted Manmohan Singh as the first foreign leader at the White House, and advocated a permanent seat for India on the UN Security Council.
Obama has since tried to rope in India, along with Japan and smaller Asian countries, to form a hedge against China, and encouraged it to play a major role in Afghanistan where a drawdown of US forces is under way. India has been cautious in not being seen as part of a “China containment” strategy. But India hasn’t really thought through its position, as it must.
India is under pressure to “cooperate” with the US to reduce tensions in the South China Sea, keep vital Asian sealanes peaceful, and isolate and coerce Iran into giving up her nuclear programme, although she has the right to pursue peaceful nuclear activities.
India must resist such pressure, while maintaining her foreign policy independence and strategic autonomy. India must not underestimate its leverage vis-a-vis the US. For instance, even as it pursues the imposition of heavy sanctions against Iran, Washington has had to accept that India will continue to import oil from Iran, albeit in reduced quantities. India can and should adopt positions that don’t tail the west on Syria, Palestine and Venezuela.
India can translate both its strategic weight and the tremendous goodwill it enjoys in Afghanistan to see that the US does not withdraw precipitously to leave behind a vacuum in which violent jihadi forces flourish. India should help build and train the Afghanistan National Army and police autonomously of the western powers, without getting into rivalry with Pakistan.
India is critically poised to repair its frayed relations with Pakistan and reach a historic rapprochement. Singh ought to visit Pakistan very soon to bring about a real breakthrough. That’s a high priority. Nothing, including short-term gains that might accrue through glitches in Washington’s relations with Islamabad, should be allowed to interfere with this agenda.
On the international canvas, India can play an important mediatory or facilitating role in resolving the crisis over Iran’s nuclear activities. Iran is probably still many months, if not a couple of years, away from producing enough enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb. According to US intelligence agencies, Iran hasn’t yet decided whether to acquire nuclear bombs.
India must take a firm stand against a military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations, which will be dangerously counterproductive. The futility or limited utility and extremely high risks of such an attack have become apparent even to hard-nosed hawks in the US and Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans for an attack have been strongly opposed by many of his cabinet colleagues, and also by Israel’s security establishment, including serving army chief Benny Gantz, former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, and former Mossad head Meir Dagan, who called it “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard.
More than 30 former top US foreign policy-makers, experts and military officers have warned against an attack. They argue that an Israeli strike would delay Iran’s nuclear programme at best by two years. A much bigger US “military action involving aerial strikes, cyber-attacks, covert operations, and special operations forces would destroy or severely damage many of Iran’s physical facilities”. But their “complete destruction” is unlikely; and “Iran would still retain the scientific capacity and the experience to start its nuclear programme again ...”
A strike on Iran would produce a conflagration in the Middle East, which threatens US bases and Israel. It will create resentment greater than the American-engineered overthrow of elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. Worse, it would guarantee that Iran rapidly becomes a nuclear weapons-state.
Obama could be receptive to a diplomatic approach. After all, he refused to cave in to Netanyahu’s strident demands, risking the US Zionist lobby’s hostility. India should push Obama to translate the call he made in his acceptance speech for moving “beyond this time of war” into a major diplomatic initiative, including bilateral talks with Iran for the first time since 1979, which the White House says are “under consideration”. Iranian leaders are likely to respond to a non-coercive diplomatic initiative, and have indicated their willingness to mend relations with the US.
India should propose a compromise along the lines that Turkey and Brazil worked out in 2010: transferring Iran’s low-enriched uranium for further enrichment overseas, but capping domestic enrichment to non-weapons-grade levels. This was rejected then by the US, but has a better chance of being accepted now. India can thus reverse the damage it caused by repeatedly voting against Iran since 2005 at the International Atomic Energy Agency under Washington’s pressure.
This will help India rebuild its relations with Iran, with which it has traditionally had friendly ties, besides close relations in Afghanistan. India can then re-launch the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, which was abandoned under Washington’s pressure.
Many bilateral issues also need attention. India must reject the US demand for diluting the nuclear liability act to exempt equipment suppliers. The US is trying to pry open India’s defence production sector through joint ventures. There’s no justification for this. It’s one thing to have normal relations with a difficult power like the US; it’s quite another to get close to it.
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