Indian Decade

Obama: No Santa Claus for India

India and the US have a long wish list to discuss when Barack Obama arrives this weekend.

Those expecting Santa Claus when US President Barack Obama visits India tomorrow—the day after the Diwali festival—are likely to be disappointed.

However, although Obama’s Indian odyssey is unlikely to match the highly substantive India visit by his predecessor George W. Bush in March 2006, the visit might still be a welcome distraction after the drubbing his Democratic party received in Tuesday’s Congressional midterm elections, when it suffered heavy losses in the House of Representatives.

Obama will now have to look to 2012, and he can perhaps take some comfort from the fact that the last Democratic president to reside in the White House, Bill Clinton, suffered a similar midterm humiliation early in his first term, only to bounce back and win re-election two years later, in 1996.  

But regardless of how November 2 looked for the Democrats, there was at least one bright spot for many Indians—Nikki Haley, an Indian-American and daughter of Sikh immigrant parents from Amritsar, became the first woman to win a gubernatorial race in South Carolina.

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Back to India, though, and it’s clear there’ll be a number of sticking points during the Obama visit. One is that the Obama administration has been egging on New Delhi to sign three security cooperation agreements—the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), the Communication Interoperability and Security Agreement (CISMOA), and the Basic Change and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA). But India is unlikely to oblige Obama on any of these.

Meanwhile, the Indians also have a fairly long wish list. One thing is the removal of India’s major defence and research institutions from the US export control list, which has barred Indian companies from trade in US advanced technology since India’s 1998 nuclear test. A second would be for the US to roll back recent legislation that has increased fees for the H-1B and L-1 visas by $2,000 and $2,250 respectively for companies with 50 or more employees in the United States (if more than half of the company’s employees are on H-1B or L-1 visas). And India would also like an unambiguous declaration of US support for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Obama may well deliver on the first of these three points. But on the other two, the prospects are bleaker. Meanwhile, Obama will also be lobbying on behalf of the US defence industry and is reportedly eyeing defence deals worth $15 billion for US companies. But with countries including Russia and Sweden putting better offers on the table for the $11 billion order that India will shortly place for 126 Multi Role Combat Aircraft and on a big ticket Multirole Transport Aircraft deal, there may be disappointed faces all round.