Obama's Passage to India: What He Needs to Do

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Rafiq Maqbool / AP

A man walks past a wall in Mumbai filled with posters depicting U.S. President Barack Obama

On a brisk October morning in 1947, six nuns from Nazareth, Ky., left their convent for what they thought would be the last time. Two lines of fellow sisters in starched white bonnets silently bid them farewell, while the novices sang "My Old Kentucky Home." They were headed to Bihar, in north India, where their order had assigned them to start a mission and hospital in a small town called Mokama. They were motivated by a popular sympathy among Americans of that era for India's nonviolent struggle for independence. Sister Charles Miriam, boarding the cargo ship Steel Executive in New York City, remarked as she pulled out of sight of the Statue of Liberty, "We pray that the liberty it symbolizes be realized to the fullest degree in the land to which we're going."

As President Barack Obama prepares to make his own maiden voyage to India, the two countries are going through another period defined by shared ideals. "There's a much closer relationship now and a much deeper appreciation of each other's virtues than there has been at any time in the past, except in the 1940s, which are a forgotten decade," says Ramachandra Guha, one of India's most prominent historians. "The 1940s are important because the Democrats then, particularly President Roosevelt, were very sensitive to Indian freedom aspirations." Guha sees a similar appreciation among Obama and his advisers, who plan to make the link between Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. a centerpiece of his visit. "This is qualitatively new, and it is welcome," Guha says. "In terms of the scale and ambition of our respective political experiments, we can only be compared to one another."

But is this one idea — that the world's oldest democracy and the world's largest democracy ought to be natural allies — really enough? Despite their shared ideals, the short-term strategic interests of the U.S. and India are often at odds. The Obama Administration wants to highlight strong economic ties with India, while the Indian government wants the U.S. to take a tougher line with Pakistan and support India's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

With two diverging agendas, it is unlikely that this visit will end with a dramatic announcement, as President George W. Bush's did in 2006 with the civilian nuclear-energy deal. Without something to show for this trip, the U.S. may lose ground with India, its largest ally in dealing with Pakistan and China. Still, the White House has the advantage of low expectations. There is a widespread perception within the Indian foreign policy establishment that Obama is not as friendly toward India as Bush was. Obama has a chance to change that perception, and if he does, says Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "There is much to be gained." Here is what Obama needs to do.

Shake Up the U.N. Security Council
The headline New Delhi most wants to read would be "Obama Endorses India for Security Council Seat." At a briefing with reporters in the capital on Oct. 25, senior U.S. government officials were not willing to go further than general support for Security Council reform, but political observers close to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are still hoping Obama will go out on a limb. A permanent seat might be symbolic, but it would give Singh a much needed boost at home. At 78, Singh is unlikely to serve another term as Prime Minister, and his Congress Party colleagues are already jostling for position. He will need a stronger hand to push through politically unpopular items on the U.S. wish list, like the full opening up of India's retail sector.

Extol the Indian Worker — and Consumer
Every time Obama condemns outsourcing, it sends a wave of bad feeling through India. But, despite all the fears about jobs moving overseas, it wasn't the Chinese factory workers or Indian software engineers who were the undoing of the American economy. It was the bankers on Wall Street. And who's going to spend American companies out of this recession? Consumers in India and China. "We understand that President Obama will be responding to domestic issues," says Kapil Sibal, a Member of Parliament and longtime leader of the ruling Congress Party. "All this talk about limiting outsourcing and penalizing those who do, or taking away tax benefits, is something that they would hesitate to do." Still, as the rhetoric heats up, that makes it more difficult for the U.S. to push India to open up its markets. "I don't think it overwhelms everything," says one senior U.S. official, but it is "a complicating factor."

Be Frank About Pakistan
U.S. officials may be privately pressuring Pakistan to crack down on jihadi groups operating in its territory, but India is looking for a public statement, something like the harangue that then President Bill Clinton delivered after his five-day India visit in 2000. Obama is unlikely to go so far, but he should find a way to convey to India that he is aware of Pakistan's unreliability as an ally. "There is no one here in Washington that is oblivious to the fact that Pakistan is playing a double game," Tellis says. Failing to get that message across could put India's role in Afghanistan — it has already contributed $1.2 billion in reconstruction aid — in doubt. "If the U.S. fails to rein in the Pakistani military establishment ... it may be increasingly difficult for India to sustain its presence in Afghanistan," says Vishal Chandra, a researcher on Afghanistan at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.

Make a Personal Connection
At the very least, Obama might look for an India-U.S. connection somewhere in the far-flung branches of his family tree. Singh, for his part, has a daughter in the U.S., a human-rights lawyer who helped document U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib. And those nuns from Nazareth? Most of them did eventually return to their old Kentucky home. Their hospital in Mokama, meanwhile, has survived decades of rural gang warfare and established one of India's first HIV-screening facilities. They also built a nursing school that trained hundreds of Indian nurses, many of whom emigrated to the U.S., becoming a familiar presence in American hospitals. Their American children have grown up to become doctors, lawyers, soccer moms and — in my case — a journalist. As any traveler to India will tell you, journeys in that country tend to lead in unexpected directions.

— With reporting by Madhur Singh / Mumbai