Indian Decade

Obama’s Welcome Clinton Break

Barack Obama’s recent trip to India suggests he’s planning a welcome departure with Bill Clinton’s policies.

Less than two months before leaving on a 10-day visit to Asia that included India, US President Barack Obama appointed yet another Bill Clinton favourite to a sinecure. This time it was the ageing ‘Kashmiri-American’ furniture dealer from New York, Farooq Kathwari, who was made a member of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

The appointment caused severe (if silent) heartburn within the Indian establishment.

Why? Kathwari was long reported to be a major backer of groups that have sought to integrate Kashmir with Pakistan, switching to ‘independence for Kashmir’ mode after it became clear by 2003 that Pakistan was slowly and painfully imploding. In addition, his son Irfan left to engage in jihad, but was killed fighting in 1992.

None of this prevented Kathwari developing a close personal bond with members of Clinton's administration, a warmth that still endures. Indeed, he has peppered both US Houses of Congress and the US government with tracts on just why the full might of the United States ought to be focussed on the task of securing ‘freedom’ for the Kashmiri people.

If there was a sharp spike in terrorist incidents in Kashmir during the 2000 visit of then President Clinton to India, it was because his administration had pushed and pummelled India in an effort to get it to surrender control over Kashmir. The jihadis had hoped that the innocent blood that they spilled in grisly terrorist incidents would strengthen Clinton by forcing concessions from the Vajpayee government (which incidentally was nudged by the Clinton team into accepting Kathwari as an interlocutor in its Kashmir dialogue).  Clinton had linked a solution of the Kashmir problem to India's offering proof that it was a ‘mature’ nation. Mature enough, that is, to commit suicide.

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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been known to favour the continuation of her husband’s policy of placing India in the same basket as Iran and North Korea when it comes to the question of access to US ‘dual use’ items. Meanwhile, the presence of a muscular pro-Pakistan group within the Pentagon and a pro-China lobby within the Department of Commerce during the Clinton, Bush and now Obama years has ensured that this blacklisting of India has endured.

So the Pakistan and China lobbies in the United States were surprised by Obama's impromptu promise to remove India from the so-called ‘Entity Lists’ and to give the world's most populous democracy the same status as long-time US allies Germany and Japan. Obama further sweetened his message by placing the United States firmly behind India's bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council—a proposal already accepted by Russia, France and the UK—leaving China as the only P-5 member not to back India.

But informed sources in the Manmohan Singh government have said they are fully aware that all three of the powerful trio of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been sceptical of what may be termed this ‘George W Bush line’ of treating India on par with key US allies.

In internal discussions, all three are said to have repeatedly pointed to the lack of tact and transparency in India as reasons why the policy concessions announced by Obama ought to have been denied until the Indians have made substantive concessions. Gates has also apparently followed the advice of key advisers in treating India as a bigger version of Pakistan, and insisting on Delhi accepting the same conditions for transfer of US equipment that Islamabad does. The difference (besides the ones obvious to all except Gates and his team) is that the Pakistan side routinely signs agreements that it has no intention of ever keeping, while in India, a nervous bureaucracy and one eager for UN and World Bank assignments ensures that commitments are kept. Had Gates shown a modicum of flexibility in his dealings with India, at least two of the three agreements that he has been pressing the Manmohan Singh government to sign since 2005 would by now have been inked: that on the provision of logistical support and the other on communications security.

In the case of Locke, he seems to have developed a fixation with China, an attitude that has led him to neglect the potential for US businesses in India. In common with his Bush-era predecessor, Locke has been pushing for concessions that would amount to political suicide for Singh, such as opening up the retail trade to foreign brands without placing restrictions that protect the 28 million jobs that ‘kirana’ (or small) retail trade provides in India. Locke has become accustomed to doing business with China, a country where there’s no need to consult public opinion before taking a decision. In this irritation with the admittedly more roundabout procedures of a democracy—and in his reluctance to take India off the list of countries that US companies face major hurdles in doing business with—Locke has been very much on the same page as Hillary Clinton.

The fact that Obama didn’t bring along his secretary of state along for his India tour seems an early indication that he’s planning to jettison the Clinton India policy of ‘salami slicing’—offering slivers of concessions in exchange for changes in Indian policies—in favour of a bold policy of accepting India's case that this democracy of 1.2 billion people deserves at least the same treatment as is given to Germany, France and Japan.

If the 2008 India-specific waiver at the Nuclear Suppliers Group indicated the beginning of the end of the US policy of boxing India into a lesser category than its main NATO allies, the November 9, 2010, Obama speech to the Indian Parliament seems to have signalled the start of a relationship of equals between the United States and India (well, as equal as Japan or Germany are).

Two years into his presidency, Obama seems to be finally freeing himself of the Clinton policy fetters. Certainly in his India policy he has shown that he favours change, and that he has the necessary fire within to force through such change over the wishes of his India-sceptic troika of Gates, Locke and Clinton.