Barack Obama flew into India yesterday for the start of what has been described as a trade and investment shopping trip and immediately announced the sealing of $10bn of deals to help the floundering US economy.
At the start of a four-nation tour of Asia, Mr Obama flew into Mumbai, site of a devastating 2008 attack by militants, and declared the relationship between India and the US would be one of the most important of the 21st Century. “We visit here to send a very clear message,” said the president, who is staying at the seafront Taj Mahal Palace hotel that was one of the locations attacked by Pakistani gunmen. “In our determination to give our people a future of security and prosperity, the United States and India stand united.” Talking later that evening to a meeting of business leaders, Mr Obama rattled through a series of deals that had been finalised ahead of his visit, deals worth millions of dollars to companies such as Boeing and GE. These 20 or so agreements will help support up to 50,000 jobs in the US, where unemployment still stands at more than 9 per cent .
Mr Obama, traveling with a party of dozens of US business leaders and warmly received by the Indian business community, immediately acknowledged the relationship between the two countries was changing. “The United States sees Asia, especially India, as the market of the future,” he said. “There still exists a caricature of India as a land of call centres and back-offices that cost American jobs. But these old stereotypes, these old concerns, ignore today’s realities.” That reality, of course, is that the US could once afford to ignore India, it no longer can. Previous American leaders such as Bill Clinton and George Bush may have been able to charm their hosts with warm talk of the shared interests and common values of the world’s largest democracy and the planet’s most powerful nation, though Mr Bush also brokered a vital nuclear deal.
But Mr Obama’s visit comes as America finds itself politically divided, its economy stumbling and the nation increasingly anxious about its waning hegemony. By contrast, India, where the economy is growing at eight per cent and which is poised to become the world’s third largest economy, is buoyantly confident of its soaring future. It is the sort of confidence that Mr Obama and the US could badly use. If the president, on his first foreign trip since the Democrats suffered badly during last week’s mid-term elections, came to India looking for an economic boost, then India wanted America’s recognition of its growing economic and geopolitical importance. For all its swagger, India can at times appears oddly insecure and in need of reassurance.
The US leaders visit appeared to do that on several fronts. Mr Obama said the US would support India’s membership of four global non-proliferation organisations, a move that will reassure Delhi - left out of these groups after its 1998 nuclear tests - that Washington is finally recognising its global ambitions. For now, however, the US has not backed India’s call for a permanent place on the UN Security Council, though Mr Obama did reveal export controls would be relaxed to make it easer for specialist Indian firms to do business with the US.
“India is looking for endorsement of its playing a larger role in world affairs,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, said ahead of Mr Obama’s visit. In a city where Bollywood deities receive almost as much adulation as the real Gods, a global celebrity as charming as Mr Obama was never going to have trouble winning over ordinary Indian people. Ahead of his visit, T-shirts bearing his image had been moving from the market stalls almost as quickly as workers had been scaring off monkeys and removing loose coconuts from Mani Bhavan, the house where Indian independence hero Mahatma Gandhi stayed while in the city and which Mr Obama visited yesterday. Later today he will fly to Delhi to address the parliament and hold formal talks with India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh.
Whether his three-day visit will ultimately be judged a success by everyone in India, remains to be seen. Right-wing commentators were yesterday quick to seize on the fact that the president failed to mention Pakistan when he spoke about the attacks launched by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants. At the same time, Mr Obama – just like David Cameron, when he visited India this summer – is unlikely to make any public mention of the disputed territory of Kashmir, an issue that continues to fuel burning resent within the subcontinent. If Kashmir is raised in talks between officials, it will be as part of questions about the US’s broader policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is something India feels desperately concerned about, just as it does about the US bilateral relationship with China.
Ahead of his visit to India, after which he will travel on to Indonesia, South Korea and Japan, Mr Obama had been criticised over its cost, which one Indian news outlet pegged at $200m a day. He will have hoped that the deals agreed with India and the headlines they will earn back in the US will have made it worth it. India will be pleased by Mr Obama’s recognition that he could not afford to stay away.