Thursday, November 13, 2008




    After the saturation coverage in the Subcontinent of the US presidential elections, and later the rapturous celebrations over the victory of Barack Obama, it is quite natural to be a little confused over whether the Americans were electing a President for India or for themselves. Even more infuriating was the search that TV networks and newspapers launched for a local Barack Obama. If truth be told, Obama is more an accident of history - caused by the terrible economic mess at home and a military campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan that is going nowhere - rather than some Messiah, Prophet, Mahdi or Avatar, who will solve all the world's problems.

In a way, the US elections have revealed the extent to which India has become Pakistanised, at least in the widespread belief of the impact that the political change in White House will have on India's foreign policy, its economy and its politics. It is almost as though, like in Pakistan where the occupant of the Aiwan-e-Sadr survives on the sufferance of a certain address on Pennsylvania Avenue, so too in India, where the future of residents of 7 Race Course Road will increasingly be decided in the Oval Office.

To be honest, it's a little difficult not to be sceptical of the hype and hoopla surrounding the election of Barack Obama. If one swallow does not a summer make, how can the election of an African-American as the President of the US be treated as a revolution. Sure, the election of the first black man to the White House – after more than 200 years of independence and 43 presidents – is an interesting development. But to extrapolate from this and imagine that America has transcended the race barrier is like saying that because Mayawati has become chief minister of UP, caste has ceased to matter in India.

His political rhetoric certainly doesn't inspire much confidence in his ability to effectively address either the global economic crisis or the international security situation. It is one thing to sway voters suffering the effects of a terrible economic crisis and angry over the unsuccessful military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq with brave and inspiring words, and quite another delivering on these promises. At the risk of sounding cynical, jholawalas and do-gooders, whether in India or in America, have a rather poor track record in become agents of change.

Notwithstanding the expectations that people around the world have attached to his presidency, Obama is ultimately going to do what he thinks is going to serve US interests and not the interests of countries like India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq etc. If the changes he makes in US policies suit countries like India or Pakistan then it will not be because he was consciously doing them a favour but because his policies advance US interests, which happen to coincide with the interests of one or the other of the countries.

At the same time, if Obama makes a move that affects India adversely – for instance, the linkage he is drawing between Afghanistan and Kashmir – it will not be because he is targeting India deliberately but because he thinks he will be solving an American problem. It is an entirely different matter that placating the Kashmiri and Punjabi jihadis in Kashmir to counter the Pashtun Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan will ultimately be a zero-sum game and will do nothing to end the international jihadist movement of which both of the jihadis and the Taliban are an integral part.

Many people, who are suffering from irrational exuberance over Obama's victory, would have lost some of their enthusiasm if they realized that the Obama administration is likely to be far more intrusive and interfering in affairs of other countries than the Bush administration. The Democrats are notorious for political evangelism. They consider it their burden and right to spread their brand of liberal democratic gospel around the world, although these very same people were willing to not just tolerate but also do business with the Taliban – remember Robin Raphael, the South Asian pointsperson in the State Department during the Clinton administration – when they erupted on the scene in the mid-1990's.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, had followed a very hands-off approach, almost isolationist in nature, on international crises until 9/11 forced its hands and made it adopt the policy of pre-emption. Even though many people in both India and Pakistan will violently disagree, the Bush administration was good for South Asia. Its unambiguous position on terrorism and its post-9/11 policy played a big role in the roll-back of the jihadi infrastructure in Pakistan. This paved the way for the peace process between India and Pakistan, which despite all twists and turns, has resulted in improved relations between the two neighbours. At the same time, by dephenating its relations with India and Pakistan, the US was able to deal with each country on its own merits. By forcing Pakistan to become an ally in the War on Terror, the Bush administration awakened the Pakistani rulers to the horrendous domestic ramifications of the jihadist policy they were pursuing for achieving foreign policy objectives. As a result, Pakistan still has a reasonable chance to defeat the forces of radicalism that threaten the very existence of the Pakistani state.

The fear is that the Obama administration, under the influence of Clinton era officials, might change course and try to appease the so-called 'reconcilable elements' among the Islamists. This would be a big mistake because it will amount to playing into the hands of the Islamists. Such a policy change will be seen as a weakening of resolve on the part of the Americans and will betray a sense of desperation on their part to get out of Afghanistan, something that the Islamists have been banking upon ever since the Americans entered Afghanistan. Not only will this prompt Pakistan to once again start patronising the radical Islamists and use them for its own strategic objectives, it will also re-energise Islamists around the world and lead to a far more virulent form of terrorism than has been witnessed until now.

As far as India is concerned, it needs to be very wary of the next US administration. If Obama sticks to his word of cracking the whip and pressuring the Pakistani authorities, especially the military brass, to act even more forcefully against the Taliban – the 'irreconcilable' ones – there is every chance that he will balance this by trying holding out the carrot of a favorable solution Kashmir. This will confront India with a dilemma: if India accepts US intervention, then it could end up compromising, if not altogether losing, its sovereignty over Kashmir; on the other hand, if India rebuffs the US, it could sour the 'strategic partnership' with the US that many in India have so assiduously sought. The latter may not be such a bad thing because as an American diplomat once said: what is worse than being America's enemy is to be America's friend. Perhaps, the rose-tinted glasses with which India viewed the US during the Bush era, will be cracked, if not shattered, during the Obama years. If this helps India to stop depending on the crutches of superpower support, it will be a price well worth paying. But if India continues to hanker for US attention regardless of the cost this involves, then the Pakistanization of India will be complete.


    <1240 Words>                    13th November, 2008



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