President Barack Obama met many of India’s hopes and aspirations towards the end of his three-day visit to Mumbai and Delhi, but he also challenged the country to change attitudes and policies if it really expects to be accepted as an emerging world leader.
In a powerful speech to India’s Parliament yesterday, the president came down firmly on India’s side in relation to Pakistan terrorism and involvement in Afghanistan, and also broadly backed its ambition to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
But as soon as he had drawn applause from the assembled members of India’s two houses of parliament over India’s future membership of the council, he bluntly stated: “Now, let me suggest that with increased power comes increased responsibility”. That especially applied to those (implicitly, like India) “that seek to lead in the 21st century”.
He said this meant ensuring that “the Security Council is effective”, and went on to a list of issues that India might not find easy to meet. Though India shares Obama’s expressed wish to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, it has always refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Obama specifically mentioned.
Obama also challenged India to forsake its friendship with Iran, when he suggested it should join the US in condemning the country’s nuclear weapons’ ambitions. He went on to say India should condemn the military regime in its neighbouring country of Burma (where rigged elections have just been held), especially the regime’s suppression “of peaceful democratic movements”. India will be loath to do this because of regional priorities, including China’s growing role in the country.
Obama then seemed gently to be chiding India about some of its domestic failings, such as corrupt politicians, elections, and development schemes, and its poor education system. He said democracy should “deliver for the common man” and that “every person deserves the same chance to live in security and dignity, to get an education, to find work, and to give their children a better future” – something that hundreds of millions of Indians do not have.
The US views on NPT and Iran were not new, but it was significant that Obama linked them directly to India’s desperate wish to become a permanent member of the council after it finishes a two-year temporary membership. How and when the UN will be reformed, and the council membership opened to new countries, is not clear. It could take years, during which time the US will be able constantly to remind India of the Obama conditions.
But these strictures did not detract from a general welcome for the Obama speech at the end of what overall can be seen as a successful presidential visit. Obama has clearly been captivated by India, as has his wife Michelle. He also has a specially close relationship with Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, who he respects.
Following contracts and other initiatives announced when the visit began two days ago, a wide range of joint agreements have been signed. India is obtaining increased access to high technology in the space and defence fields, even though the US has not got all it wanted in terms of either defence contracts and agreements or enlarged foreign direct investment access to India’s defence, retail and other industries.
Manmohan Singh also refused to agree with Obama that India should re-start talks with Pakistan on border and other issues.
Speaking at a joint press conference a few minutes after Obama had made the talks request, the prime minister firmly said that “you cannot simultaneously be talking and at the same time the [Pakistan] terror machine is as active as ever before”. Once Pakistan moved away “from this terror-induced coercion, we will be very happy to engage productively with Pakistan to resolve all outstanding issues.”
A joint communiqué was issued, echoing the earlier statements. It marked the massive progress made since 2001 when President George W. Bush and prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee took tentative steps towards what they hoped would be a lasting partnership between the two hitherto-distant countries. Within a couple of years, that led to what was called the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP).
The visit ended with a formal banquet (above) in the presidential palace’s formal Mughal gardens. As Obama flies on to Indonesia, he will be satisfied that he has been able to announce 50,000 or more jobs back home (some say 72,000) stemming from Indian contracts with US firms. India has discovered that the president is steeped in admiration for its ancient history, as well as for its independence leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi. Both countries have laid the groundwork for immensely closer relations in the coming years, even if they do not always agree on matters such as Iran and Burma.