THE BLOG

Is Obama Pro-Pakistan and Anti-India?

There is no denying that a section of Indians view President Obama with suspicion. There is among them a lurking, and for reasons of political correctness, unarticulated fear that he could be sympathetic toward Pakistan, which, in many contexts, is a code word for Islam.

Obama's paternal lineage, his formative years in Muslim-majority Indonesia and, of course, the extreme right-wing propaganda, contributed to the impression that he could be a closet Muslim, or at least sympathetic to Muslims.

Obama's highly publicized speech on Islam and the West, his conciliatory overtures toward radical Islamic countries and the priority his administration has given to helping Pakistan are being inexplicably interpreted as a snub to India.

Obama's own unwitting contribution to this impression has been his oft-expressed intention to wrest concessions from India to placate Pakistan's insecurities so the latter could turn its attention and resources to countering the immediate threat of Islamic terrorism on its western border. While one can legitimately quibble about his so-called Kashmir policy, it is ridiculous to attribute it to either Obama's special sympathy toward Islamic Pakistan or his antipathy toward "Hindu" India.

Before we examine if the president has any special connection to Muslims in general, it is pertinent to clear the slate about his attitude and policy toward India. At the outset, if Obama has not made dramatic announcements or speeches concerning U.S.-India relations, it is because bilateral relations have reached such a level of maturity that they needn't be embellished with platitudes.

If anything, President Obama has left it to his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- whose disposition toward New Delhi is beyond reproach -- to nurture the relationship. The fact that the Obama White House quickly reversed its initial intent to include India in special envoy Richard Holbrooke's scope of operations (along with Afghanistan and Pakistan), testifies to the new president's sensitivity to India's responses.

In sum, people who think that Obama is not giving India its due fail to see that the strategic partnership between Washington and New Delhi has reached such a level that it can be taken for granted. As for Obama's relationship with Islam, one has to look, not into his fictional religious or cultural sympathies, but his life experiences.

He may have had emotional and intellectual curiosity in Africa and Islam thanks to his absentee Kenyan Muslim-turned-Catholic-turned-atheist father, whom he met just once when he was 10 years old. In popular imagination, Obama's relationship with his polygamist father acquired larger-than-life dimensions, thanks mostly to the title of his book, Dreams From My Father, which, incidentally, was all about race and his quest for an identity.

But Obama's understanding of the world and its many cultures, his empathy for the poor and defenseless, his trust in reason and reasonable dialogue even with enemies, comes from a much more dependable and indelible source: his mother, Ann Dunham Soetoro.

Here I'd like to refer to a very thoughtful op-ed recently in the New York Times by Michael A. Dove, an anthropology professor at Yale University, in which he writes about how his colleague and friend, Soetoro, an accomplished anthropologist herself, may have shaped Obama's worldview.

He says Soetoro, who worked in Pakistan and Indonesia, completed her 1,043-page dissertation, Peasant Blacksmithing in Indonesia: Surviving Against All Odds, in 1992 after 14 years of research. Dove considers it "a classic, in-depth, on-the-ground anthropological study."

The most instructive thing he says about Soetoro's life and work is the lesson they convey: "No nation -- even if it is our bitterest enemy -- is incomprehensible. Anthropology shows that people who seem very different from us behave according to systems of logic, and that these systems can be grasped if we approach them with the sort of patience and respect that Dr. Soetoro practiced in her work."

That should sum up where Obama, the man and the president, is coming from.

It is this secular, compassionate and multicultural outlook that made Obama comfortable with people of different hues and persuasions. He made lifelong friends with diverse backgrounds, who are fiercely loyal to him till this day and are happy to remain incognito, resisting the temptation to acquire 15 minutes of fame that would come to any FOO (now, that's clever, you must admit).

And what about Obama's alleged proximity to Pakistan? This assumption is based on three Pakistanis he befriended while he was 18 or thereabouts, and on his visit to Pakistan during the same time.

But people who draw conclusions from these facts conveniently ignore the second leg of his South Asian journey, when he visited Hyderabad in India, possibly to visit the other South Asian he was friends with since his days at the Oriental College in Los Angeles, Vinai Thummalapally, who has been appointed U.S. ambassador to Belize.

Perhaps Obama, who had a clear idea where he was heading politically even during his Harvard days (when he started writing his book), anticipated the song and dance his detractors would make about his visit to an Islamic country. That's probably why he didn't mention the Karachi days in his Dreams.

Being respectful toward Islam or being responsive to Pakistan's predicament doesn't make President Obama anti-Indian. That kind of zero-sum worldview is antithetical to everything he was raised to believe.