Indian Decade

Obama, Bhopal and India

Obama may get a cool reception during his November trip to India. Bhopal hasn’t helped.

The much-delayed but snowballing outrage over the Bhopal gas disaster couldn’t have come at a worse time for the pro-American Manmohan Singh government. President Barack Obama has slated his first state visit to India for November, and the government is bound to be worried about the reception he’ll be accorded by the Indian people.

Generally, the Indian middle class is pro-America, and the United States has generally received higher approval ratings in India than in many other places, including Europe. This was true even (and indeed particularly) for the George W. Bush administration, which was otherwise reviled in most parts of the world. This was to some degree because of the Indo-US nuclear deal, although Muslims were wary about it and there was a massive Left parties’ lead demonstration in Delhi on Bush’s visit to India.

Obama doesn’t provoke harsh feelings, and Indian public opinion is generally sympathetic, for example, to his predicament over the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But quite inexplicably, the general mood of the country has turned anti-American, and the pain associated with the Bhopal tragedy has worsened it all.

NGOs working on behalf of the Bhopal victims haven’t been placated by the central government’s announcement of enhanced compensation. They also complain that by bearing some of the cost of cleaning up the toxic Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, the government has let off the present owners, Dow Chemicals (interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, Dow Chemicals chief Andrew Liveris reportedly kept away from a meeting between US CEOs and visiting Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee).