Sunil Adam Headshot

Obama's Job Hunt in India

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Did it take a "shellacking" at home for President Obama to cry "salam Bombay"? If the Indian media's interpretation of the U.S. president's visit is anything to go by, that may indeed be the case.

The seemingly 16-year-olds who pass for Indian TV news reporters made snide comments about Obama's apparent apologetic rationalization of a visit to a country that most Americans see as stealing their jobs. One said, "Obama is on a job hunt" in India, another discussed if "India is a part of Obama's bailout package," and yet another pointedly asked the president at a press conference what India got in return for 53,000 American jobs created on account of the $10 billion in deals that were announced. How about F141 GE engines for light combat aircraft, 10 Boeing C-17 military transport aircraft, 30 Boeing 737-800 commercial aircraft and the lifting of restrictions on high-technology transfers? But the president didn't mention all this -- out of politeness, perhaps.

But the mood of the Indian reporters and TV pundits, who labored nonstop throughout the three-day visit of the American first couple, took a decisively ecstatic turn when the president delivered his piece de resistance during his address to a joint session of the Indian parliament -- that the U.S. "looks forward to a reformed U.N. Security Council that includes India as a permanent member."

For India, which took 16 years to get enough votes to win back just a nonpermanent slot at the Security Council just last month, the American assurance sent the political, diplomatic and media establishments into delirious delight. Never mind the fact that you are better off heeding the "Repent: End is Near" warnings you see on I-90 than holding your breath for a Security Council reform.

But the unreality of India's ascension to the "Great Power" status does not dilute the import of the American gesture to the future of U.S.-India bilateral relations, which President Obama characterized as a "the defining partnership of the 21st century." Unlike the previous two American presidents, who learned only in the latter half of their tenures that flattery goes a long way in New Delhi, President Obama has proved to be a fast learner. "India is not simply emerging; India has already emerged," he said. "The United States not only welcomes India as a rising global power, we fervently support it, and we have worked to help make it a reality." That certainly seemed to turn a page as far as India is concerned.

For nearly two years, India and its protagonists in the U.S. have been concerned about the Obama administration's apparent neglect of relations with New Delhi. Things got off to a bad start at the very outset when the Obama White House had to hastily abort its move to appoint a special envoy to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India when New Delhi, in a typical overdramatic reaction, publicly took exception to clubbing the three together.

Despite the presence of a sympathetic Hillary Clinton at the State Department, India remained wary of the new president who, during the campaign, said he would persuade India to do more to accommodate the concerns of Pakistan so that the latter could focus more on the situation in Afghanistan. Candidate Obama even expressed the view that resolving the Kashmir issue was key to diverting Pakistan's full attention to the war against al-Qaida and the Taliban. The new administration was also not entirely happy with India's role in Afghanistan to bolster its friendly relations with the Karzai government, mainly because it did not sit well with Islamabad.

On the bilateral front, there was the new president's clarion call to punish companies that were sending American jobs abroad, which seemed to target India, a major beneficiary of outsourcing. And finally, there was President Obama's misgiving, which he harbored since his days in the Senate, with regard to the civilian nuclear deal that President George W. Bush signed with India with considerable flourish and fanfare.

Despite all these irritants, if the "strategic partnership" between the two countries did not go south, it is because of even more powerful countervailing factors. First, U.S.-India business relations have deepened to the extent that there are strong business lobbies in Washington and New Delhi that have helped rein in the negative trajectory. The second factor is the surprising personal chemistry between the young American president and the avuncular, scholarly and soft-spoken prime minister of India, established during their several meetings last year.

The third factor is the growing realization by the Obama administration of the intractable nature of the Pakistani morass, which cannot be worsened by anything that India does or does not do. Perhaps, that's why, despite his strong belief that New Delhi should hold talks with Islamabad, President Obama seemed to tamely acquiesce when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during their joint press conference, flatly said India cannot engage Pakistan when it's military refuses to give up its terror agenda.

The fourth reason is China's aggressive display of power in the Asia-Pacific region at a time when the U.S. seems economically enfeebled and strategically preoccupied, and the consequent imperative for Washington to maintain equilibrium of power in the Indian Ocean region.

But the final catalyst that probably played out even as President Obama boarded Air Force One on his way to Mumbai was the dire need to bolster trade relations in a desperate bid to create jobs back home. The midterm elections have made clear that job creation is the only way the president can keep his come 2012.

It is therefore quite plausible to assume that President Obama, by dangling American support for India's place at the high table, about which the Indian political and bureaucratic elites have been salivating for decades, would have received firm assurances for a quick end to New Delhi's foot-dragging on opening up the lucrative retail and financial sectors to American companies. Read thousands of jobs back home. That hard negotiations, if not quid pro quos, preceded the last-minute declaration of support can be gauged from the fact that the president told an Indian agency reporter in an interview before he left Washington that the Security Council membership issue was quite "complicated" -- diplomatese for "No way, Jose."

That's retail politics on the international stage.