Indian Decade

Reality Bites for India

Obama didn’t offer anything exceptional to India. It’s time for our leaders to get back to reality.

Following is a guest entry from Lawrence Prabhakar Williams, an associate professor in political science at Madras Christian College

Diplomats often have an unhealthy obsession with looking suave, a tendency that sometimes results in events being significantly over-hyped.
US President Barack Obama’s recent visit to India is a case in point. The US delegation landed in Mumbai with much pomp and circumstance, with mutual exchanges of appreciation and warmth, a slew of agreements signed and wonderfully choreographed press statements by Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The sheer size of the US delegation – the largest business delegation ever sent to one country – was a glowing stamp of approval on the growing friendship and strategic cooperation between India and the United States.

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Despite this overwhelming public display of goodwill, however, there were no promises of exceptional treatment for India. For example, while the United States supports India’s bid for permanent membership of the UN Security Council, it has not done so to the exclusion of other key candidate countries (Japan, Germany, Brazil and possibly South Africa). There are also no signs of India being admitted as a Nuclear Weapon State (NWS) under the NPT, despite the supposedly 'unprecedented' Indo-US civil nuclear deal earlier this year. (Though I should add that six agreements – all symbolic and significant  – were signed). 
But setting warm and fuzzy symbolism aside, India has some harsh realities to deal with. Chief among these is what India believes to be China’s aggressive support for the 'failed' Pakistan state – support that would enable China to dominate the Central Asian stage when the United States departs from Afghanistan.  Also, the Hindu Kush continues to harbor the potential for a new wave of radical terror and destruction. 
The gala in New Delhi will thus not last long in Indian public memory.  With Obama’s own candid admission that US power is atrophying in this region and the world, the Indian public will be increasingly conscious of the US exit from Afghanistan and the consequences – in particular Pakistan’s response and behavior. India must prepare herself for the strategic ramifications of this post-US era, including the possibility of a hostile Pakistan-China complex playing both the Taliban and nuclear cards against India. 
In the face of these challenges, the significance of UNSC permanent membership or NWS status suddenly pales. It's far more important for India to get its internal security act together – specifically as a hedge against any potential threat from Pakistani-inspired terrorists and Chinese-supported Naxalites.   
There's also much to be done on the economic front, particularly in terms of reducing income inequality and increasing economic diversification. Given the current state of the US economy, India can no longer rely on outsourcing from the US as an economic fail safe. Instead, India needs to find alternative ways to sustain robust growth – growth that will allow the 40 percent of the population currently below the poverty line to attain reasonable standards of living and dignity.

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There’s little doubt the visit by the US president generated significant goodwill between the two countries. It's worth remembering, however, that rhetoric and hype are quickly forgotten when the dust settles and the need for tangible achievements become clearer. There's still a long way to go before India achieves her goals, whatever fine rhetoric we've just heard.