On the heels of a bruising election, President Barack Obama is undertaking his longest foreign trip that will take him to several Asian countries including India. Some media accounts of this trip, primarily Fox News and its affiliates, has focused on an un-sourced report that erroneously suggested the President's trip to cost $200 million per day. The fact is that the true costs of Presidential foreign trips are kept a secret for security reasons. The General Accounting Office, about a decade ago, had released one report on President Clinton's foreign trips. It showed that the cost of such trips total in the tens of millions nowhere near the exaggerated figure of $200 million per day. The hullabaloo over such triviality is once again robbing Americans of an opportunity to engage in a civic dialogue about India and its strategic importance to America.
India is not just an exotic country thousands of miles away. The Indian diaspora in the U.S. is 2.7 million strong. Over a dozen Indian Americans are part of the Obama administration and two Indian Americans have been elected Governors. India is neither the caricature on NBC's Outsourced nor the heartless gloom portrayed in Slumdog Millionaire. In his book The Argumentative Indian, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen presents a succinct description, "India is an immensely diverse country with many distinct pursuits, vastly disparate convictions, widely divergent customs and veritable feast of viewpoints."
India is the world's largest democracy. It is thus not coincidental that America, the world's oldest democracy, shares a bond with India, which transcends economics. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton alluded to this by assuring the people of India that they "should know they have no better friend and partner than the people of the United States." The Obama administration has stated that it wants to deepen its relationship with India on four strategic areas -- energy and climate change; economics, trade, and agriculture; education and development; and science, technology and innovation. And yet progress has been anemic.
Progress is complicated by a sluggish U.S. economy, particularly in the area of job creation. Politically it helps the President to rail against U.S. companies that outsource jobs to India but strategically such outbursts are not helpful. Outsourcing is not the reason why U.S. businesses, despite posting healthy profits, are not hiring. The fault lines remain in the banking and financial sector. Obsessing on the ills of outsourcing belies a pertinent fact that America is now the preferred destination for outsourcing. India is third. In 2007, 20% of InformationWeek 500 companies reported that they've taken back outsourced work. The recent rise of prosperity in India has dampened the lure cheap labor.
Beating up on outsourcing will only make Indians reluctant to open up their markets to American exports. President Obama has correctly identified exports as one of the major sources of new jobs in the U.S. The rising upper and middle class in India offers new opportunities to sell American products. This explains why the President has a large contingent of business leaders in tow. Companies such as Boeing, GE, Caterpillar and Harley-Davidson are all looking forward to seal large deals with their Indian counterparts. Hopefully, the President will be able to impress upon these businesses that such deals should ultimately generate employment in the U.S. The President's legacy and reelection depends on such successes.
During this trip to India, President Obama is expected to visit the tomb of Mughal emperor Humayun, which was commissioned by his wife Hamida Banu in 1562. The tomb is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is precursor to the architecture and vision that inspired the Taj Mahal. By visiting this site, President Obama is giving a nod to India's pluralistic history, a history shaped by a rich inter-religious and cultural interaction between Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. This is not to suggest that the interactions between the faith communities have always been egalitarian. But the somewhat natural tensions between the faithful did not prevent them from cooperating to create great art, music, literature and philosophy. Prior to the British colonial rule, India was the world's economic superpower. Interestingly, Humayun's tomb also connects India to Pakistan. For it is here that many Muslims took refugee during their arduous migration to Pakistan. The symbolism is powerful as America's Af-Pak policy will partly hinge on the role India plays or does not play.
Disappointingly, President Obama will skip visiting the Golden Temple, the holiest site for Sikhs. To enter the temple, all male visitors are required to cover their heads. He fears that his head covering will be mistakenly linked to the persistent rumors that Obama is a Muslim. Caving into fear-mongers only emboldens them. Sikhs have paid an unfair price for their mistaken identity. They have been targets of anti-Muslim discrimination. And a few days after 9-11, a Sikh was killed in Arizona by a man who mistook him for a Muslim.
There is a lot riding on Mr. Obama's visit to India. Americans can and should hope that President Obama's visit opens up new opportunities for badly needed exports. Indians are hoping that President Obama will support India's bid to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, a step that will help solidify India's ascendency on the world stage.
Professor Parvez Ahmed is a Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor of Finance at the University of North Florida. He is also a frequent commentator on Islam and the Muslim American experience.
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