Have No Fear, Things Won't be so Bad

Sometimes mere words are not enough to capture the feelings associated with a particular moment. The election of a black American president on Tuesday has defied the skills of the most gifted wordsmiths. Historic, epochal, the dawn of a new era -- each syllable has tripped over its own inadequacy to do justice to this momentous event. I met prominent white Americans who had grown up in the racially-segregated South, and they had tears in their eyes, because they were witnessing a moment they had never believed would come to pass in their lifetimes.

When the American television networks called Barack Obama the winner at 11 pm, I was struggling to cross Times Square in New York to get to a TV studio, and I found myself consumed by the excitement and emotion of the throngs around me. My own reaction, after 32 years of watching American presidential elections up close, was of wonder, mixed with a palpable sense of relief. Because like many who wished for this outcome, I had still feared that too many white Americans, in the privacy of the voting booth, would be unable to bring themselves to put a black family in the White House. By voting their hopes and not their prejudices, Americans outdid themselves and earned the admiration of the world. This was, quite simply, the soul of a great nation being reborn.

The election of Barack Obama will, I have no doubt, have a transformative effect on the rest of the planet. I have written earlier in this space about how it will dispel the negative stereotypes about America, while reinforcing the great American myth of a country where, quite literally, anyone can become anything. Obama's election will make it impossible for America's critics to caricature the country he leads, and provide an invaluable public relations boost to America's "soft power."

But what about India? On the one hand, Indians, as people of colour ourselves, largely share in the enthusiasm for Obama. There are other details that are breathlessly passed around -- the miniature Hanuman locket he carries with him, the portrait of Mahatma Gandhi from which he derives daily inspiration in his office, his fondness for daal (which he has said he can cook pretty well himself, though he is unlikely to be given the chance in the next four years). My mother read his autobiography and excitedly noted the references to samosas and chapattis. Given that the president-elect's own late mother had worked for the Ford Foundation in New Delhi, and that his friends and classmates include several desis, it's clear that Obama is more sensitive to, and knowledgeable about, India than any previous American president.

On the other hand, there are those who argue that Obama, as an idealistic Democrat, would not be "good for India" in the way that his Republican predecessor has been. They point to three areas. First, the entrenched Democratic support for nuclear non-proliferation, and a corresponding disinclination to support exceptions for India. Second, the risk of increasing protectionism: many worriedly cite Obama's comments that he would reward American companies that keep jobs in the US, a potential threat to India's outsourcing businesses. And finally, some see in his references to Kashmir -- he has cited the need to resolve Pakistan's differences with India on Kashmir so that Islamabad can focus on the threats of its homegrown militants -- the potential for unwelcome meddling in our neighbourhood. Let's look at each of these.

On the nuclear front, Obama voted for the Indo-US deal, as did McCain. The only additional issue that might arise on his watch could be a new American thrust to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress had been unwilling to do. If the US signs, pressure will undoubtedly fall upon India to do the same, especially since the Treaty cannot come into force without India's (and Pakistan's) signatures. But what's wrong with signing the CTBT? Former prime minister Vajpayee had already promised to do so years ago. And CTBT or no CTBT, any responsible Indian policy-maker knows perfectly well that a de facto test ban is in force, because any nuclear test we conduct will instantly attract the kind of sanctions that nearly crippled our nuclear programmes in the wake of the Pokharan blast. Signing the CTBT will change literally nothing in reality for us; in any case, if the US signs it, it would be unthinkable for India, the land of Mahatma Gandhi, to be the lone holdout on a vital step to make the world safer from nuclear war.

The threat to outsourcing is also exaggerated. Obama will certainly keep his promise to provide tax incentives to American companies that keep their employees in the US. But at a time of economic downturn, few companies are going to be able to afford to overlook the benefits of getting business processes conducted abroad -- benefits likely to be far greater than the tax dollars gained by not doing so. Instead of over-reacting to a campaign promise, we should wait and see how it is implemented. It is unlikely the actual numbers will provide any cause for alarm.

On Kashmir, some worry that Obama's comments suggest he would be more intrusive on Pakistan's behalf, thereby emboldening those in Islamabad who think they can enlist Washington's support for their view of the conflict. While the issue demands more space than this column has left, this is an over-interpretation of his remarks. My reading of Obama's position -- buttressed by extensive contacts with many of his close advisers -- is that he sees all too clearly how Pakistan's creation and encouragement of fundamentalist terror in the name of Kashmir has turned into a severe threat to Pakistan itself. As an American leader, his principal concern in our region is ending the al-Qaida-Taliban menace on Pakistan's Afghanistan border, and he sees peace with India as a vital means to this end. Surely this is an opportunity for creative Indian diplomacy to seize? More on this in a future column.

(Originally published in the Times of India on November 9, 2008)