Mr. Singh went to Washington, and all I got was this lousy biriyani

November 30, 2009

A version of this was published by the Daily Pioneer on Dec 1. Here is the URL:

Mr Singh went to Washington, and all I got was this lousy biriyani

Rajeev Srinivasan

It is not clear why some are disappointed by the non-event of the Manmohan Singh visit to Washington. On the contrary, a sigh of relief is in order, as there was no major faux pas, which is customary when the PM and his Sancho Panzas sally forth abroad. No, the soporific, meaningless joint statement was better than the abject surrender of some major national interest, as in Havana 2006 and Sharm-al-Sheikh 2009.

It is mystifying exactly what was expected, anyway, from the First State Visit to Obama’s Camelot (Obamelot?). The First State Visit is just a diplomatic air-kiss. The best metaphor for it was the fact that the dinner was gate-crashed by a couple named Michelle and Tareq Salehi, a blonde in a bright-red, diaphanous sari-like concoction, and a tuxedo-clad (one assumes) Arab. That these people waltzed right past the massive security, and even got photo-ops with the Obamas and the Veep, would be appalling, if it weren’t comical. So it has come to this – the Federal Bureau of Investigation reincarnated as the Keystone Cops. Or maybe it just shows the level of attention and due diligence the Obamistas paid to the Manmohan First State Visit.

It is hard to decide whether the Obamistas are as bumbling and ineffectual as they appear to be. Yes, they did kowtow in China like their life depended on it: the sound of bowing and scraping could be heard clear across the Pacific. They have made a hash of Af-Pak policy. Obama accepting the undeserved Noel Peace Prize made them look pathetically self-indulgent. Their huffing and puffing on healthcare and climate change has produced little result. Sic transit gloria mundi! Their dithering and apparent confusion are startling, and almost makes one wish for the supremely confident, overbearing Ugly American of yore. Well, almost.

Then again, maybe the Obamistas were intentionally insulting the Indians. If so, they have given some very clear messages lately. First, the trip to “Asia”, which ended up being primarily a trip to China, with the Chinese dong a lot of finger-wagging on economics. There was the statement in Japan that defined Asia as East Asia. That presumably means India is part of the Middle-East, with the clear implication that India-Pakistan-equal-equal is back in full force. Then there was the joint statement with strongman Hu in Beijing where Obama virtually sanctified the idea that China would be the ‘keeper’ of India, by asking China to intercede in ‘South Asia’.

There was the surprise resurrection of the vicious and vituperative Robin “I do not see the accession of J&K as final” Raphel – till recently a paid agent of the Pakistanis – to oversee the distribution of untold new billions to the ISI. Later, there was Richard Holbrooke groveling to the Pakistanis in a two-hour press conference and explaining that the First State Visit did not mean that Obama was going to favor India over Pakistan.

Despite the prognostications about India’s economic superpowerdom, no Obamista has ever suggested a G-3 or G-4 (US, China, India and Japan, the four biggest economies in 2025), but there sure is a lot of noise about a G-2. Do they know something we don’t know? Do the Americans intend to ensure that India will never reach the economic status is deserves? Is that why they made no progress on the much-ballyhooed nuclear agreement? Is that why both China and the US do so much for Pakistan, so as to contain India and keep it a supplier of raw materials and a market, never a competitor?

However, there is at the end of the day a sad realization all this is not the Americans’ problem. Obamistas are maximizing utility for themselves, as they should, and India simply does not rate very high. It is up to India to figure out and articulate its value and market its friendship as a must-have – Marketing 101, which the Pakistanis have figured out, whence the new Obama largesse.

India doesn’t have a strategic intent: it doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up. Its Nehru-jacket clad, pot-bellied and chicken-legged mandarins try to muddle through. That is not a recipe for long-term success, nor for long-term alliances. If India were to articulate, for instance, that the Indian Ocean Rim is its domain where it will enforce Pax Indica, the Americans would respect it.

The real problem is that a generation of Indians have internalized the idea that India is a second-rate power that needs a godfather. This is why we wasted precious years mouthing hot air about non-alignment with a lot of third-rate banana republics. Instead we should have got them to align with us!

If India cannot articulate a vision about its being one of the poles in a multipolar world, it does not deserve any respect. It deserves – as Obama demonstrated – vague platitudes and a few kebabs and biriyani thrown in. India needs to push itself forward as a future Numero Uno. That will get the world’s attention. Someone begging for admission to the nuclear club or to the UN Security Council won’t get it; when India demonstrates that it will move forward relentlessly without these, they will be offered to it on a platter. It’s like Woody Allen said: he wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would have him.

907 words, nov 29th

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