The strength of cool

The strength of cool

By M.J. Akbar | 7 November, 2010

 A seller of sweetmeats can either celebrate Diwali or sell his mithai. He cannot do both. The goddess of wealth will enter his door only if he keeps his shop open, not if he goes around bursting crackers. That is the nature of his compulsion; or, if you want to get theological about it, his dharma. Barack Obama comes to India on the night of Diwali not to enjoy a much-needed holiday after the woes of defeat, but to turn the Great American Hardware Store into a mall.

He was buoyed on his long journey by some good news; the American economy had created about 150,000 extra jobs for the third month in succession. He used the opportunity to tell voters who had just humiliated him that his main purpose in visiting India was to bring back orders that would increase employment opportunity in America. He made this speech on television, just in case anyone in India wanted to know.

Obama is not landing in Mumbai because of an insatiable urge to visit sites of a terrorist attack launched from Pakistan, aided and abetted by some of the highest and mightiest in the land. If terrorism on Indian soil perturbed Obama deeply, he would have twisted an elbow or two in Islamabad, even if he did not go so far as to twist an arm, so that the perpetrators of terrorism could be brought to justice instead of roaming around promising further variations of holy war. Staying at the Taj in Mumbai is a reassuring gesture, but in the same spirit as a visit to Rajghat; obligatory rather than compulsory, a tip to local sentiment rather than an expression of solidarity. The real reason for a day in Mumbai is not a chat with students, but photo opportunities of deals being signed with private sector companies. These pictures will be played back in America as witnesses of a President doing his job at the Taj in Mumbai, not posing with Michelle at the Taj Mahal in Agra.

This is good news. Sentiment forms such a large part of the Indian psyche even in international relations that we either get hot or cold; we never understand the strength of cool. India and America need each other but, thanks to the Indian economy, an American President needs India just a little bit more today than India needs him. Indian diplomacy will be measured during the Obama visit by the answer to just one question: will Obama be allowed to roam free on a one-way street or will he give before he takes? If the traffic does not flow in both directions, then Delhi is gullible, which is far worse than being weak.

The Chinese are excellent traffic policemen; they know when to keep the lights red, even for an American President, even to the limits of exasperation. When Obama visited Beijing, he was surprised at the lack of warmth; when he encountered the Chinese at the climate change conference in Copenhagen, he discovered that they could be rude. That has not brought China-American relations to a halt. The Chinese were signalling what American media is now beginning to recognise: that, in their estimation, their leader Hu Jintao is the most powerful man in the world, not Obama. Or, more accurately, since the Chinese Communist Party no longer indulges in idolatry, Beijing is more powerful than Washington. The People's Liberation Army has not become stronger than the Pentagon, but the Chinese treasury is certainly a safer bet than American treasury bonds.

India is not in that league, and illusions will not take us there either. As a friend pointed out, there is an implicit imbalance even in the dates of the itinerary. Which American President would host a state visit from India during Christmas? We welcome a guest during Diwali. However, India pays cash for goods it needs, and that is sufficient to command respect.

What can Obama bring to India? He can start counting; any wishlist will be long. But the item at the top is the key, the rest can be sorted out by lesser mortals. Business issues like outsourcing look good in headlines, but businessmen have one advantage they do not readily advertise: they know how to look after themselves.

Obama needs clarity in his own mind, and then agreement with Dr Manmohan Singh, on a definition of security in the region. It has been Pakistan's consistent policy to provoke conflagration over a virtually settled border along Kashmir. Provocation is a game that can slip so easily out of control, particularly when terrorism is part of the game, but Pakistan has developed a vested interest in instability for a number of reasons, not least being the extraordinary share of power that the army commands in its polity. ­Security involves peace all along the Himalayas, from the Hindu Kush to the dipping range in Arunachal, and if America believes that a relationship with India is of any value then it must coordinate its policies with Indian concerns. If this does not happen, the rest of the agenda will not travel. A shop is useless without customers.


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