Posted by: John Elliott | November 7, 2010

Obama opens up after a dull first day in India

President Barack Obama’s three-day visit to India began to take shape today when a series of events in Mumbai and Delhi have shown different sides of the world’s most powerful politician.

Last night a London friend messaged me on Facebook asking how he was doing on his first day in India. “Not brilliant so far,” I replied, “dull droning speeches, and he trotted out pre-packed list of job-creating contracts for US companies. Seemed his mind was in the US not in India”.

Billboard welcome in Mumbai - photo AFP/GETTY

But I updated that today as he ended his time in Mumbai and flew to Delhi for the more political side of his trip. “He’s done better, much better, at Q&A sessions with school kids and students, away from his dreadful tele-prompter,” I wrote, “very focussed and relaxed – though inevitably not satisfied everyone on Pakistan”.

Yesterday’s sessions were far too stage-managed (in contrast to the lack of direction two weeks ago). Almost as soon as he arrived in Mumbai, his aides trotted out a $10bn package of 20 contracts – some old, some new, and some not yet concluded – which Obama later said would bring more than 50,000 jobs to the US.

Those that were not new included two for GE – an $820m order for Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter engines announced a month ago and $750m power station gas turbines announced (by Anil Ambani’s Reliance Energy) a week or so ago. Still awaited are an IAF $4.1bn Boeing Globe-master transport aircraft order, and a big railway locomotive contract that has two US bidders (including GE). The most recent order was from Spice Jet, a private sector airline, for $2.7bn Boeing aircraft – but airlines are adept at trotting very long-term orders out at headline-grabbing times.

Obama’s US worries

The contract list and its job-creating potential therefore need to be taken with a pinch of salt. With hindsight however, they did enable Obama to clear the decks of his worries about his drubbing last week in Congressional elections, and about allegations in the US that his trip is costing American taxpayers $200m a day.

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Job creation in America was his main theme yesterday and he aimed at least a third, if not a half, of a speech to businessmen at audiences in the US, stressing how his trip was generating jobs. “The whole focus,” Obama had said just before leaving Washington, “is on how are we going to open up markets so that American businesses can prosper, and we can sell more goods and create more jobs here in the United States.”

Obama and his wife Michelle also paid homage at Mumbai’s Taj Hotel yesterday to those who lost their lives in the November 2008 terrorist attacks. The Taj was the focal point of those attacks along with the Oberoi Hotel, where Obama addressed the business meeting.

But his speaking style was deadpan at the Taj, where he lacked emotion, and with the businessmen, where he lacked verve. This was vastly different from the inspirational orator who won the 2008 presidential election. He spoke from notes at the Taj, but was blighted by his two teleprompter screens at the business meeting and at his main address to students this morning where, as we have seen on tv for months, he swings his head from side to side, drops the end of his sentences, and fails to inspire.

He did however impress Indian businessmen. Anand Mahindra, who runs the Mahindra autos-based group, has tweeted: “He was energetic, attentive, curious&made the right intellectual connections. Has the makings of a great President but needs to win a 2nd term! Above all, I appreciated his informality & sense of humour. Frankly I believe leadership and a sense of humour are inseparable”.

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When Obama answered questions from students this morning at a free-ranging “town hall” style meeting at St Xavier’s School in Mumbai (right – FT photo), he appeared thoughtful, and focussed on his young audience and on what they could aspire to in the future.

A little earlier he had danced (above – AP photo) with young children during the Diwali festival – emulating Michelle Obama who enchanted schoolchildren yesterday. He also talked on a video-link up with villagers in Rajasthan about how e-conferencing can help them develop and sell their crops.

With the students, he dealt with questions well, walking around the crowd with a microphone and swigging water from a plastic bottle, having been introduced by Michelle Obama who encouraged the audience to realise they had the chance to influence what happens to future generations.

Pakistan an irritant

Yesterday he was criticised by commentators for not nailing Pakistan’s responsibility for the Mumbai attacks when he spoke at the Taj. Today he was criticised for again not condemning the country enough, when asked by a student why the US did not treat Pakistan as a terrorist state.

However his remarks were apt for both occasions. At the Taj, he talked about the horrors of terrorism in general and how it had to be fought. With the students, he gave a tutorial on the need to give support and friendship to Pakistan because terrorism was a “cancer that could engulf that country”. He also significantly said that India-Pakistan talks could maybe start on “less controversial issues”, meaning that Pakistan should not insist – as it has again today – that the disputed territory of  Kashmir should be tackled first.

He will come back to terrorism and Pakistan again tomorrow, first when he speaks at a midday press conference and then in an address to the Indian parliament later in the day. That will be after he has had extensive talks with political leaders, who will be urging him to be more firm with their increasingly unstable neighbour.

Obama is also expected formally to announce tomorrow that three Indian public sector defence and space organisations – the DRDO defence research establishment, ISRO space research organisation, and Bharat Dynamics defence equipment manufacturer – will be removed from a list of international entities that are banned from buying US high tech equipment useable for both civilian and defence purposes. The US is also to back India’s bid for a membership of the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

These moves all follow on from President Bush’s 2008 nuclear deal with India and should have been implemented long ago. The delay in implementing them is, in Indian eyes, an example of how it cannot fully trust America.

India’s politicians and opinion formers will however never basically accept that the US’s avowed friendship with India is real and genuine until it finds a way of toughening its support-based influence on Pakistan, along with a more pro-India stance.

Obama has said that the US and India have one of the “defining relationships of the 21st century” – India is waiting for him to prove it.

Until he does so, the US will not get all the job-creating defence contracts it wants – notably an $11bn IAF fighter jet order – nor will it get defence communications and other agreements it is promoting because Delhi deeply distrusts Washington.

Tackling that is possibly Obama’s prime target tomorrow. He would win eternal praise if he backed India’s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, but the counter-terrorism and the Pakistan issues are paramount.

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Responses

  1. John,
    You’ve presented a lucid assessment of President Obama’s visit to India so far. I do however think that the press generally, is being too harsh while evaluating what the US President has been saying here and in the US before his trip. He has complex issues to resolve ( many of which were handed down to him – much like a snake off a bamboo pole!) and he needs the support of all to lick them. Can the press give him some time, before coming down on him like a ton of bricks?!

  2. How could one expect anyone to criticise its own creation? Regards, BK

  3. After George W. Bush pushed for the Civil Nuclear deal with India, any future US President will find it tough. It was a landmark deal, the issues of it not withstanding. President Obama will find it tough to outdo the previous president and it would only lead to undue complications.

    I personally feel that though India, which has a geo-political stake because the events unfold in the neighbourhood, it has to move beyond its Pakistan obsession and try to define its relationship with US on different terms. The reality is that though US is giving billions of dollars of aid to Pakistan, the brunt of it truly is borne by the taxpayers in US. Indian merely has to be vigilant that its not caught unawares of the the actions of terrorists and continue its agenda of economic growth.


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