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Obama Is Playing to India's Insecurities

Barack Obama may have mangled a few Indian words in his address to India’s parliament today, but he got the important things right. Stating the obvious is often berated as a platitudinous impulse, but in some cases it can be a virtue, particularly when your audience is of a thin-skinned kind that actually craves the obvious. And no audience fits this bill better than an Indian one.

So it was that President Obama came to say in New Delhi that the United States and India can “forge a truly global partnership.” He also stated things that are obvious to Indians, but less so to Americans (although even this excessively trusting nation is starting to grow wise to the truth): “Terrorist safe havens in Pakistan” he said, “are unacceptable.” For Indians who were champing at the bit for Obama to utter the P-word in some unflattering form, this was somewhat reassuring.

If Indians have a gripe, it seems to be their belief that the U.S. views them as second-class citizens in the war on terrorism (Americans, Israelis, Britons, and others being victims of a higher strategic order).  In calling for the terrorists behind the Mumbai attack to be brought to justice (a call made in the same Pakistan-referent sentence)—and in starting his visit to India in the city of Mumbai—Obama has laid this gripe partially to rest.

What really pleased the Indians—and was, in fact, a moment that gave clear strategic definition to Obama’s trip to India—was his assertion that he looked forward to “a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.” This will have displeased China immensely, so two cheers for Obama on that score; and it will have singed Pakistan’s generals, too, offering as it did clear proof that Pakistan can scarcely be regarded as India’s equal on the world stage (however much Islamabad revels in its status as India’s rival).

More broadly, Obama appears to have applied some very effective antiseptic to Indian wounds—wounds that followed his seeming neglect of that country’s relationship with the United States in his first 18 months in the White House. (OK, so he had Manmohan Singh over to dinner, but that event had all the hallmarks of a diplomatic sop.)

What next? Ideally, the relationship between India and the U.S. should be left largely to each country’s private sector. Let the governments get out of the way of the real business—which is, of course, business.

Ann Packer is a freelance writer based in South Asia.