Obama's India Trip: What U.S. May Get in Return

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Jason Reed / Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh participate in a joint news conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, November 8, 2010.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have met seven times since March 2009, and they seem to be getting comfortable. On Sunday in Mumbai, Obama tried his hand at Indian folk dancing during a Diwali celebration at a local school. The usually sober, scripted Singh, meanwhile, jauntily fielded questions at a joint news conference on Monday. "We're not afraid of the K word," he said in response to a question about Kashmir. And he bluntly defended his country's much-maligned outsourcing industry: "India is not in the business of stealing jobs from the United States of America."

A few hours after Singh's Yankee plainspokenness, Obama delivered a speech to India's Parliament with a subtlety and political skill worthy of the nation's great statesmen. Obama flattered India's pride in its past, recalling Swami Vivekananda's visit to Chicago in 1893; he showed Gandhian humility, saying, "I might not be standing here before you today" had it not been for Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's influence on the U.S. civil rights movement; and he candidly addressed the differences between the U.S. and India, pointing out India's failure to live up to its ideals and speak out for human rights.

Obama then exceeded the Indian government's expectations for the trip and delivered the two most important items on India's wish list: he endorsed India's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and used strong language toward Pakistan, saying he would "insist to Pakistan's leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders are unacceptable." Here's what the U.S. can look for in return:

A new dialogue on human rights
Obama, in one of the most surprising parts of his address, spoke forcefully about India's support for Burma's military dictatorship, wading into a potentially tricky subject. India has in the past often chafed at any discussion of human rights in the U.N. or in bilateral discussions as an infringement of its national sovereignty. But Obama put his comments in the context of India's own democratic tradition, saying that as the Burmese government suppresses free elections, "the democracies of the world cannot remain silent." That rhetoric "wasn't the kind of lecturing that Indian diplomats hate listening to," says Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, so she expects it to be more effective. "This is something that the Indian government really needed to hear."

Breathing room on Pakistan
On the morning of Obama's last day in India, the New York Times reported that David Headley, who is accused of playing a key role in planning the November 2008 terrorism attacks in Mumbai, was working for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Pakistan while also attending jihadi training camps. But New Delhi downplayed what could have been an embarrassing confirmation of the common criticism among foreign policy experts in India that the U.S. has not done enough to pressure Pakistan to crack down on terrorism — always fodder for the conspiracy theorists who believe that Headley was a U.S. double agent. In an interview with TIME on Monday, a senior Indian government official praised the "excellent intelligence sharing" by the U.S. since the Mumbai attacks and dismissed the reports about Headley as "all in the realm of speculation." This may be a sign that Obama's tough language on Pakistan has won him a bit of breathing room to continue the Administration's stated policy — to privately pressure Pakistan while publicly affirming the nation as an ally — without the complication of second-guessing by India.

A more level playing field
Consistent with the Obama Administration's message for this trip, the 200-strong business delegation from the U.S. has been trumpeting the huge opportunities for exports to India's billion-strong consumer market. "The size and growth rate of India's population alone make India a terrific investment opportunity," PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi told reporters. But privately, they have also been clamoring for India to lift the remaining restrictions on investment, particularly in financial services and retail. Obama's political success in New Delhi may help. "Diplomatically, everything that we thought he would not do, he did," says Suhel Seth, a marketing expert and longtime adviser to Indian Big Business. That puts Obama in a better position to push for more open markets and perhaps make good on his promise of delivering jobs by raising exports, Seth says. Having won over a tough audience in India, however, he'll face an even tougher one back home.