The unprecedented remarks by the United States President Barack Obama in a media interview suggesting how the Indian leadership should run the country’s economy in the optimal interests of the partnership between the two countries raised a storm in the Indian teacup. Government ministers, opposition politicians and India’s business circles expressed indignation.
But the Indian government has been put on the defensive
at a juncture when it is gearing up to do precisely some of those things that Obama advised — especially, opening up the $430 billion retail sector to American multinationals such as Wal-Mart. In addition to facing criticism over neo-liberal policies, the government now has to dispel the impression (rightly or wrongly) that its economic policies are dictated from Washington.
Was this a gaffe on Obama’s part? It can’t be. He is far too seasoned a ‘pro’ to say silly things in the midst of an election campaign. Three things stand out. One, just about everything Obama says or does these days is meant as input for his re-election bid, which is hotting up. And Obama knows it pays to be branded as an aggressive salesman for American business and industry in foreign markets.
The thrust of his remarks was that India should open up its market for American business. He didn’t hide his ulterior motive — rather, he wore it on his sleeve — that US business wants to tap the Indian market, which is one of the handful of big markets today in the world economy for the US exports to register a quantum leap.
Second, Obama spoke warmly of the US-India partnership. He seemed satisfied with the advancement of the partnership under his watch. It is an appeal to the Indian-American voter. He made it abundantly clear that he meant no harm to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s reputation.
Third, Obama chose the Indian national news agency to give the interview. Obviously, his views are expected to be disseminated to the widest possible Indian audience. Washington hopes to spur the Indian elites’ appetite for reform. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also undertook a similar mission to Kolkata recently.
Of course, Manmohan Singh government is nearing the ‘homestretch’ — to use the idiom of horse racing. Evidently, this has been an unabashedly “pro-US” government. It is far from certain if or when Washington could get a similar government in Delhi, especially in this chaotic, unpredictable era of coalition politics. Without doubt, Obama would like the goose that laid the golden egg to give one last push and deliver in its last phase of fertility one really big golden egg the size of Kohinoor diamond that Indians gave away to the East India Company.
There is already talk of a mid-term poll in India. A ’stand-alone’ interview by a US president without any apparent contextual need is indeed striking. It is an unmistakable message to the current Indian leadership to get cracking and to quickly fulfill the high expectations raised in Washington 3 years ago. Time magazine recently chastised Dr Singh for being an ‘underachiever’.
The whole intriguing experience of India figuring as a campaign issue in the US presidential elections also underscores something. This has been hitherto the experience of countries such as the former Soviet Union, Japan, Russia or China. The novelty of it will take time to wear off.
Interestingly, both the ruling Congress party and the opposition BJP fielded second-tier leaders to react to Obama’s remarks. Which suggests they grasped that principally, Obama was grandstanding — something which politicians are entitled to in the heat of the election battle. After all, Obama and Mitt Romney are saying much worse things to each other than what the US president just said about India’s rulers.