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Obama in India: Don't expect fireworks

Soutik Biswas | 15:48 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010

Posters about President Obama's visit in India

Don't expect fireworks. That's the message being sent out on the eve of President's Obama's visit to India which, incidentally, coincides with Diwali, the noisy festival of lights and pyrotechnics.

India's Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao says nobody should expect "big bang outcomes" from the visit. Talking about game changers, nothing can quite beat the civil nuclear co-operation deal which President Obama's predecessor, George W Bush, sewed up with PM Manmohan Singh in 2008. It's a tough act to follow for President Obama.

But that doesn't mean the end of headline-grabbing engagement between the two countries. As strategic affairs analyst C Rajamohan says: "Even though the US and India don't have any new big ideas, big ideas are going to thrust themselves upon the US-India relationship."

So the visit may not turn out to be a damp squib as some have predicted.

For one, President Obama's trip - the fifth US presidential visit to India since Independence and the third in the past decade - means different things to different people.

Most analysts believe that much of it is about the economy. President Obama wants India to help create jobs back home, where the economy is wheezing and the unemployment rate is hovering in double digits.

Gunjan Bagla, a mechanical engineer from India who now advises American companies curious about investing in India, says the trip is about mining the "new Wild West", as he describes India's voracious appetite for goods and services despite its chaotic systems. "It is the lure of the market that is enticing American companies," Mr Bagla told me this week. "The time is ripe for the US to export more into India." Mr Obama plans to double US exports in five years and India is one of the world's largest markets. No wonder some 250 businessmen are travelling with him to India.

Will President Obama manage to stitch up a defence deal? American companies are bidding for a lucrative contract to sell 126 fighter planes to India. And then there's the widely reported $45bn that India plans to spend on military hardware. American companies must also be sniffing for opportunities there. Boeing, according to reports, is primed to sell C-17 military transport aircraft to India in what would be the largest US defence deal to date with India.

Bilateral trade is expected to reach $50bn by March next year - and is more or less in balance. India is America's 14th largest trading partner, up from 25th in 2003. American exports to India have doubled between 2005 and 2009. Trade in services has leapt to $22bn, a sevenfold increase in the past 10 years.

But major roadblocks remain in the way of fuller trade with a country where, rosy opinion polls say, Americans are loved more than in many other places in the world. (The fabled American Dream may have weakened for many folks in the US, but for the more than 100,000 Indians studying there, it is still a powerful magnet.) Key lucrative sectors like insurance and retail, for example, have been slow in opening up.

Will President Obama push India to open up insurance, retail and banking further? India has been making noises about leaning favourably on multi-brand retail and its potential to create jobs despite stiff opposition from the communists and sections of the governing Congress party who fear the eclipse of India's millions of mom-and-pop friendly neighbourhood stores.

Obama tee shirts being sold in India shop

According to one back-of-the-envelope estimate by the US-India Business Council, $10bn in bilateral deals during the president's visit could save or create up to 100,000 US jobs. That's a decent number of jobs, and would give the president something to crow about after this week's setback in the mid-term elections.

To others, President Obama's visit is more about an increased strategic partnership with India.

Will he make a major push to support India's hopes of becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council? Unlikely, say most analysts.

Will he facilitate easier access to US technology? Indian media is awash with reports that the president is likely to lift some of the sanctions on technology, mostly concerning equipment with both civilian and military uses. If this happens, it would possibly be the closest thing to a "big bang" announcement.

Will the president make a commitment to a deeper engagement in India about fighting terrorism? India's interior secretary recently expressed his chagrin over the US not sharing enough information about David Headley, who is on trial for helping plan the Mumbai (Bombay) attacks in 2008. The president has already spoken about a review of intelligence sharing; it couldn't have come at a better time.

What about what many perceive as growing differences over security in the dangerously troubled South Asia region? India insists Pakistan is the problem. Washington says Pakistan is an integral part of the solution. In his sensational new book Obama's Wars, Bob Woodward quotes President Obama telling a meeting of aides: "We need to move aggressively on India-Pakistan issues in order to try to reduce tensions between the two countries." If this is true, India would want more clarity from the president - any mention of Kashmir, as the president surely knows, is sure to raise the hackles of India. There may be no fireworks in the offing, but who said President Obama's visit is any less interesting?


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  • 1. At 7:07pm on 04 Nov 2010, pdwivedi wrote:

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain

  • 2. At 8:05pm on 04 Nov 2010, CJ Vasani wrote:

    Most Americans are viewing this visit to India as negative as they can barely comprehend the strides that India has made. The amount of buying power India possesses right now and will have in future is monumental for all current developed economies to tap into. As it turns out with any large, extremely diverse and developing country, the consumer media (not to be confused with 'business' media) continues to pick up the eccentric (as perceived by non-Indians) events and people from India and show them to the public. While the majority of the population in the western developed has slept for the last 20 years, both India and China has risen to a stage where they significantly matter in the world economy and the world order. And please, for your children's sake, try to enlighten yourselves about these two countries / cultures and their ways, because this is just the beginning.

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  • 3. At 02:20am on 05 Nov 2010, a_ban22 wrote:

    Do not expect much as by the look of things, President Obama has only two more years to carry on and plenty of worries on not having to be counted as the biggest disaster in the White House.

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  • 4. At 09:04am on 05 Nov 2010, BakedBeans wrote:

    Mr Obama Could you please join us for a tea party ?

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  • 5. At 09:52am on 05 Nov 2010, indus wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 6. At 10:32am on 05 Nov 2010, Michael Selby10 wrote:

    The same echo chamber of the Indian media that is today minimizing Obama's trip and its possibilities will tomorrow be resounding with paeans to Obama and to the history he will be making by visiting India.

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  • 7. At 1:00pm on 05 Nov 2010, Stern des Suedens wrote:

    For Indians 'very important strategic partner in USA's international policy' has no meaning !
    Whats more meaningful (and highly unlikely to happen) is to 'officially' declare Pakistan a terrorist nation, explain why USA is giving $2bn military aid to 'rogue' elements and when will the 'strategically important' partnership translate into permanent membership in UN security counsel.

    Everything else will be just an entertainment program for Diwali vacations !

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  • 8. At 3:44pm on 05 Nov 2010, tridiv wrote:

    @7 Chinmay_BVB_Dort
    bis du wirklich BVB fan, vielleicht in Dortmund?

    back to the topic. President Obama's visit to India is a strong signal to the democratic forces of the world. Ultimately, we want a future where the world is guided by individual freedom and pluralism. In this sense, India obviously is the first address for the US and the EU. High time for US to look at India as a stabilizing factor in the region, and the world.

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  • 9. At 6:44pm on 05 Nov 2010, Pras_n_Srini wrote:

    It looks like 0bama has embarked on a "triple-clobber fortnight":

    • clobbered in mid-term House (though he managed to retain Senate, not all Dems there will want him) and State elections including his own erstwhile Senate seat
    • followed by clobbering from "queen Sonia"
    • another (collective) one coming from ASEAN

    BTW, for #3: he doesn't have to worry about being considered biggest disaster in WH--as he took that dishonour from Jimmy Carter before 2009/09/09 when Joe Wilson revealed him as lying!

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  • 10. At 6:47pm on 05 Nov 2010, Pras_n_Srini wrote:

    #6, 0bama is not "making history" by visiting India, as it is not the first time that a POTUS has done so (Ike, and Bubba Clinton did so during their terms)--though it is the first time that one visits for the "middle clobber" of a hat-trick!

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  • 11. At 09:29am on 06 Nov 2010, simrancheema wrote:

    People! It is not so much about squeezing out business agreements as oppose to building TRUST among two parties. Why? Because, business among two parties is an everyday phenomena. What we need is strengthening of bonds so that ideas, capital and human beings can flow more easily in coming decades. DO NOT CHASE DIMES AND NICKLES. Big Picture--keep that in mind.

    Welcome Mr. and Mrs. Obama


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  • 12. At 09:30am on 06 Nov 2010, krishna thanappan wrote:

    president harry truman in his book "plain speaking"called eisonhower( ww2 wartime hero) a lousy president who was sitting on his ass all the time.

    obama would go on to become the worst president of USA. he played on the gulit on white americans over slavery and got their votes. he doesnt deserve to be president at all. it is people like condi rice , a true desecndent of slavery who deserve to become president .besides, she is bright. obama is a fake president.

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  • 13. At 2:42pm on 06 Nov 2010, bnichola wrote:

    Really. After Bush and his two wars (one illegal and completely unnecessary) and economic crisis which started while he was in White House. Bush who started bailout spending (which economist believe was necessary [notice distinction, economist not politicians. Do you ask your local representative if a health procedure is necessary. Most smart people would take the opinion of a medical professional, an expert in such matters, over a politician…however, not Americans]. Then, a tea party movement, who had no issues with deficit spending under Bush. Yes, go to war and give a tax break (...that would balance your budget (oh, and attack as unpatriotic anyone who challenges war and stifle media in lead up to war). At least with stimulus, the government will get some of its money back. It will never see the money back on the wars. There is a big part of your deficit tea party people.
    Americans are like kindergarteners with short term memories and no historical reference. They have no idea of long term sacrifice or long term planning. That is why crisis will always befall them. The rise in gas prices had a huge impact on them, even though they suffered through the embargo in the 1970s. Other countries took action to make sure that would not happen to them again and to lessen the blow on a rise in prices. However, for Americans, that would require a long term outlook and planning and when have Americans ever had that. So, they continue to make the same stupid mistakes. The Republicans and their too much regulation mantra got the Glass Seagull Act (enacted after Great Depression) repealed (with help of some Democrats who brought their nonsense, but Rep. platform). Then, of course there was new economic crisis. It is laughable. When I would ask Republicans, which particular regulation we should get rid of, if there are to many, they could never name one. After all, America is reactive, not proactive. Every regulation is enacted after some abuse resulting in some disaster or another. Think Enron and Sarbanes Oxley. Now, they no longer so too much regulation, the new catch phrase is “government is too big.” Ask the idiots where government should be cut permanently, that is another matter. It is a recording without thought or consideration. It is as though they were programmed by Fox. Clearly, Americas lowered academic performance year after year does have repercussions and is reflected in the opinions and general knowledge of its populous. As can be seen here.
    The fact that the majority of Americans voted to put back into power the same party that got them into trouble is a conundrum for the rest of the world. And, this might be a revelation for some, but because it was a majority does not mean they are right. You could have a minority in one who is right and a majority in the millions who are wrong.
    In the end, time will tell. However, the general knowledge of those expressing the opinions is itself telling. After all liberal democrats are now communist. If you do not even know the tenets of communism and cannot tell the difference, how do you even start an intelligent conversation. A conservative Republican is not a faschist. Some overlap, but clearly distinct.

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  • 14. At 4:04pm on 06 Nov 2010, breed11 wrote:

    I just read a comment below that says Obama shouldn't be president because he doesn't have slave 'anscestory',like Condolezza Rice lol I don't even know what that means.

    Anyway, I think we're overstating India's place in the global economy. The only emerging power that matters at the moment is China. India has the fifth largest economy in the world, that's not surprising or impressive considering the unnecessarily large size of their population. Fact, there are more poor people in India than in Africa. Plus, just look at the laughable commonwealth games.

    If the US truly wants to improve its employment prospects, reduce the rate of outsourcing. But, more importantly, lets get a free trade agreement between the US and EU, it won't be like NAFTA because they'll be no poor country to suck all the manufacturing jobs.

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  • 15. At 4:25pm on 06 Nov 2010, BJStokes wrote:

    I like how one individual out of 6 billion states, "America doesn't understand the importance of India". As an American, I can say I believe India to be a great nation, a nation that has morals, beliefs and culture that is beneficial to the world. Nearly every post has a negative slant to Barack Obama visiting India. Can it not be interpreted as a great meeting between nations that could only serve to build a closer alliance and understanding. And we get criticized from Pakistan and India both for not choosing 'their side' to the Kashmir conflict. Are Indians and Pakistani's asking America to choose who is right? Likely not. Is it possible that Kashmir could be an automonous, free area. Similar to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, neither will give up Jerusalem, why not let it be similar to Vatican City or Washington D.C. With it being the capital of both nations while self-governing by shared co-operation of both its Palestinian and Israeli citizens. Heaven forbid two countries may get along (India and Pakistan).
    My best wishes to those that look upon the Presidents visit Asian tour as an optimistic opportunity.

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  • 16. At 9:09pm on 06 Nov 2010, Pulkit wrote:

    @Haters: Keep on hating.

    Obama is in India to help the ailing U.S. and that's that. Expecting too much out of this trip is simply irrational and trying to undermine India's importance on the global stage is downright silly.

    India may not be as bold or decisive as China but it's a world power in its own right and the U.S. needs a "free and democratic" market to expand into - something China isn't.

    Moreover, it is mostly about the money and the power. If stronger ties will bring more money to the U.S., then I don't see the problem here. Furthermore, the on going issues with China aren't really helping you guys over there, Mr. breed11.

    I'm fairly optimistic about this visit. It's helping both the countries broaden their partnership and create more jobs - what's wrong with that?

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  • 17. At 9:58pm on 06 Nov 2010, jbrl wrote:

    USA is the Superpower of the World and the President wields a lot of power.The Power to take on Taliban,Missile Shields,Iran and the Wall Street,Biggest Banks bailout etc are the power of USA.Innocent Indians are dying and tens of thousands of innocent,helpless Indian's have died and many more Wounded in Terrorism of death.Pakistan's ISI,Army,mullah's,Jihadi's,Alqaeeda murder helpless,innocent people and if
    Pakistan does not deliver on Terrorism ,also on Nato Soldiers and Afghanisthan's innocent civilians then USA in the Cold War is partially if not wholly responsible.If only US citizen's and Soldier's lives are only important then there is no room for a helpless,innocent people in this World other than US,European Nato Citizens who have the best chances
    of Survival,freedom and prosperity

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