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Monday, November 08, 2010

Obama in India

There is both a lot of heartburn as well as exultation in the Indian mass media over President Barack Obama’s ongoing visit to India.

The heartburn stems from the fact that the US of A is still unwilling/unbothered about acknowledging India’s notional Great Power tag – they won’t endorse our bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, they are still dragging their feet over granting us full and legitimate nuclear-power status, they are still too cosy with Pakistan to acknowledge that we have a right to have our problems with that country fully and officially recognized, etc. The crowing is due to the fact that while only forty years or so ago our PM had to go hat in hand for help to the US, and was insulted as the representative of a third-rate backward country, the current incumbent in the Oval Office has come to hawk his country’s wares and solicit business because he desperately needs to create more jobs in his homeland in order to survive the next election – and India, supposedly, is one of the few countries which can help him create jobs on a significant scale, both by investing in US companies and by placing large orders, especially for defence equipment.

It would be nice if our media took a closer look at the ground realities and discovered for themselves that there is little cause for either heartburn or exultation.

No matter how much we dazzle ourselves with our recent successes, whether it be the average annual GNP-growth rate or the number of dollar millionaires we are creating every year or the razzmatazz of the recent Commonwealth Games, the fact remains that India is still one of the poorest and most backward countries in the world, and carries very little clout. Decide for yourself after checking out just the following statistics: the per capita income, compared with the ten richest countries, the number of people who live below or just above the poverty line (not less than 600 million – that’s twice the whole population of the United States), the number of illiterate people, the quality of our infrastructure (consider the power and drinking water situation in the capital city; you don’t even have to think about the hinterland), the number of Indians who have won Nobels and Oscars and Pulitzers and Grammys and Olympic golds in the last 50 years (that too, given the fact that we have the second largest population), the number of people from advanced countries who want to come and study in even our ‘elite’ educational institutes, the number of Indians who want to run away to the US for a better life, and the all-pervasive corruption in our public domain. Finally take into account the fact that, unlike in the era of Gandhi and Tagore, there are no Indians around who strike the rest of the world with awe (and don’t even bother to mention SRK or Sachin Tendulkar). Even where economic and military power is concerned, China is vastly better positioned to give the US headaches – or demand its respect – than we do. So heartburns can happen only to those Indians who live in a cloud-cuckoo-land of their own imagination. We literally have miles to go before we have a right to expect that the US take us seriously as a ‘great’ power.

As for the crowing, I should like to make the following points: a) it is gross bad manners to crow over others’ misfortune, as individuals or as nations, b) we haven’t got much to crow over anyway, seeing that the US, even in these troubled times, is a larger economy than the next three (including India) combined, c) they haven’t exactly come begging, but only to do some hard-nosed business, and they are not even willing to make any significant concessions to our national interests in return, such as increasing H-1B visa quotas, which means they still feel confident enough to ram what they want down our throats, d) it would be stupid on our part to forget that we depend on them (think of the dollar inflow from NRIs and FIIs) much more than they need us.

Both Obama and Manmohan Singh will negotiate with one hand tied behind their back, so we should wish both well, and not expect too much. Meanwhile, if we really want a future US President to treat us with the kind of respect that we like to dream of, let us remind ourselves that a long, tough road of nation-building lies ahead. We might start by resolving to set up a system whereby tens of thousands of beggars will not have to be unceremoniously carted off to distant towns in order to uphold our ‘national pride’ whenever an important foreign head of state comes visiting or some event like the Commonwealth Games is being held in the capital city !


Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

I must admit I was expecting it ....

absolutely fantastic commentary on Obama's visit and global economics as it relates to this topic.

I was expecting and hoping Suvro blogs on this and at length...thanks.

the headline above was stolen from Obama's response to a question from a Town Hall meeting with students from St. Xavier's College, Mumbai


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for responding so promptly, Subhasis. But I couldn't figure out what I had supposedly 'stolen'.

I looked up the link you'd provided. Did you notice that whichever champion moron wrote out that transcript managed to misspell the President's name all through?

Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

aw! no ... I stole Obama's "I must admit I was expecting it.." from a response to a question on why US isn't declaring Pakistan a terrorist state.

On hilarious mistakes these days where Kalmadi brings Diana to the games ... I remember it was around the elections in India that Advani referred to Obama Bin Laden in a statement against terrorism.

In US, just before the democratic primaries, a TV channel went out and challenged the (already challenged) knowledge of common people of the candidates and issues. They posed the question - "Do you think Obama is a threat to the nation ?"

Almost all misunderstood "Obama" for "Osama" and said yes!

Soham Mukhopadhyay said...

Dear Sir,
I was expecting an article on your blog relating to this topic.You have already discussed these things in our class and earlier in this blog too. They are being reckoned over and over again on events such as "Commonwealth Games" and "Obama's visit to India". However I liked the style in which Barack Obama delivered his speech and interacted with those present at St.Xavier's.


Sunup said...


When President Obama said that India is not emerging, but has emerged, it set me thinking. Of course, our nation has advanced a lot since say 15 to 20 years ago, but it's all in bits and pockets. The hinterlands, especially in the poorer belts, are still the same as they were at the time of independence (discounting the rise in per capita mobile phones). The poor are still poor and have to struggle a lot to earn their square meal. But then I guess no one counts the poor these days. All everyone thinks of is the rising middle class and their purchasing power.
As soon you ride away from any major Indian city, you are transported some 20 years backwards. Such is the disparity in growth, development and facilities.
We have the golden quadrilaterals and we brag about it. But what about other roads? Last week I traveled from Bangalore to the coastal town of Mangalore. One has to cross the Western Ghats to reach Mangalore, and the ghat section is named Shiradi Ghats. There was nothing that could be called a 'road' on that section. The monsoons had washed off the poorly laid bitumen/tar and there were gaping potholes all over. I couldn't sleep a wink though I was traveling on the supposedly king of Indian roads, the Volvo multi-axle B9R bus. Imagine the plight of the lesser fortunate travelers who have to depend on the leaf-spring suspension ordinary buses. So many countries in this world have mountain roads, but they don't wash off with each rain.
There are so many other examples. Sir, you have really said it well that we indeed have miles to go before we can call ourselves as 'emerged'.



Suvro Chatterjee said...

I was watching Lok Sabha channel on TV tonight. One stark (and to my mind shameful and defining) diference was that while the President of the United States spoke extempore, our Vice-President, the Lok Sabha Speaker and other high dignitaries had to read out prepared speeches! I'd like all my readers to think about what that means...

Soham Mukhopadhyay said...

Dear Sir,
Exactly Sir. This is too what I noticed on the Lok Sabha channel. Moreover Barack Obama had a charisma in his speech which was lacking in the prepared speech of the Vice president. Barack Obama is projected as a hero in their country as well as all over the world. Why isn't it so in our country? Why aren't our union cabinet ministers being projected in such a manner? The news channels highlighted the arrival of Barack Obama like a superstar- would the same thing happen to our president? This year when the rail budget was declared Mamata Bannerjee's speech seemed like a unprepared elocution of a class two school girl? This happened in front of the whole Lok Sabha. Why doesn't she bother to enhance her pronunciation? I don't understand!


Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

this is a 'one of a kind', exceptional case Suvro.

Obama has always been an absolute marvel in extempore. Unprepared, un-propped, he takes the questions and does a intro, analysis, discussion and conclusion in reasonable time frame - he's good, very very good at this. Even historically significant and challenging speeches like the inaugural speech have been extempore with few cues and notes in-between.

he has used this extraordinary skill in winning battles like those with Hillary Clinton in the democratic primaries. Among other seasoned politicians, he even managed to get under the skin of 'slick willy' Bill Clinton and irritate the heck out of him while he was in full force supporting his wife.

It was said then and before in the key to winning political battles - "it shouldn't show that you are sweating."

Obama uses his extraordinary public speaking skills to pull this off excellently every time.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Oh, by the way, Sunup, while agreeing broadly with your concern, I think you are looking all the time at the wrong (and tiny) set of people when you say 'no one counts the poor these days'. In fact, most people who matter have to think of the aam aadmi all the time - even if not in sympathetic and charitable terms - from the CEO of the MNC trying to sell fertilizer to the minister who has to worry about the votes to the tycoon who has to spend millions on his personal security out of fear of those who have been driven into crime out of sheer economic need!

I'd venture to say that it's only young 'educated' India working in airconditioned city offices and lounging around in pubs and malls who don't think of them - but that merely shows how ignorant and blind this 'smart set' is. And what would their number be anyway, one million, five, twenty...? What fraction is that of 1200+ millions?

Tunnel vision is not a good idea.

Rajdeep said...

Thanks! It is heartening to read one sane article after hundreds of insane ones!
Best regards.

Anand Tiwari said...

Dear Suvro da,

Excellent post covering all aspects of the topic. The only comment i have after watching the coverage of Indian news channels is that the onus of solving India's problems lies with the Indian Government and not with the USA. President Obama is primarily responsible to look out for the interests of the USA. The Indian government and leaders need to look out for Indian interests. The hindi drama news channel 'Aaj Tak' had the following headline: "Obama aaye, kyaa laaye?" This headline itself showcases Indian mentality. It seemed as if President Obama was some sort of Santa Claus who was expected to bring goodies for India. Maybe Aajtak should have said
"Obama aaye,
kyaa laaye
Agar kuchch nahin laaye
to kyon India aaye"

India needs to grow up and take responsibility for shaping its own destiny. Nobody is going to alight from the heavens and solve India's problems. For example: Why not start by planting a few trees in every backyard instead of complaining about how unpredictable the weather has become?

Sunup said...


Regarding extempore versus prepared speeches -- I have seen quite a few of our politicians speak extempore eloquently at similar or bigger occasions. Like former prime ministers A.B. Vajpayee and Chandrasekhar, Union Minister Kamal Nath, to name a few. I guess the ones who read out speeches that day in Parliament were not great orators. Or maybe they would have spoken extempore in their mother tongue. I really don't see anything more to it.



Dipayan G said...

Dear Sir,

One question which hasn't been addressed to in this blogpost is: Would the people of the US have treated Dr Manmohan Singh, our Prime Minister, the same way if he were visiting the USA during Christmas, as the people of India have treated his American counterpart, Barack H Obama and the First Lady of the US, on their trip to India during the festival of Diwali?

And, talking about growth and development, the first thing we need to develop in ourselves is a strong work ethic. Without that, however grand the measures undertaken might be, the result will still be far, far away from grand. The US, Germany, Japan are three countries which stand out in terms of their work ethic.

We are into the 63rd year of Independence(very soon we'll be into the 64th) and yet we are still a developing nation. But let's not be cynical and complaining all the time. It won't help. Change will come by eventually if we stay positive and are persistent enough. It's true, the task of nation-building ahead of us is quite daunting and intimidating, but that's only because we still haven't been able to tap the potential of our manpower. And yes, everything won't turn out as we'd like them to be. It's also true that we have had tags like "barbaric", "uncivilised', "backward", and "Third World" associated with us since the British Raj. While we have managed to do away with the first two tags (though stuff like honour killings, female foeticides prove otherwise), we are yet to shed the last two.

And yes, news channels like Aaj Tak are doing nothing but creating a laughing stock of themselves, unknowingly though.


Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

ok, Dipayan's comments and the foodie in me led to some digging and research.

check out the Obama Foodorama blog and the article, "The State Dinner in Honor of India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: The Menu With Wine Pairings; China & Flowers - http://obamafoodorama.blogspot.com/2009/11/state-dinner-menu.html

I would have liked more meat and hard liquor - but don't pay attention to that. I never did and won't ever rise to be head of state, so my preferences are not worth noting and don't matter.

Having said that, I don't see any reason to complain about this or suggest it could have been better -

The State Dinner Menu

Potato and Eggplant Salad
White House Arugula with Onion Seed Vinaigrette
2008 Sauvignon Blanc, Modus Operandi, Napa, California

Red Lentil Soup with Fresh Cheese
2006 Riesling, Brooks "Ara," Willamette Valley, Oregon

Roasted Potato Dumplings
with Tomato Chutney
Chickpeas and Okra


Green Curry Prawns
Caramelized Salsify
with smoked Collard Greens
and Coconut Aged Basmati
2007 Grenache, Beckmen Vineyards, Santa Ynez, CA

Pumpkin Pie Tart
Pear Tatin
Whipped Cream and Caramel Sauce
Sparkling Chardonnay, Thibaut-Janisson Brut, Monticello, Virginia

Petis Fours and Coffee
Cashew Brittle
Pecan Pralines
Passion Fruit and Vanilla Glacee
Chocolate-Dipped Fruit

outside - DC in Christmas is usually a bitterly cold and heavily snowed place. Definitely no warmth like Diwali in Delhi, no fireworks either.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Yum yum, Subhashis, though, like you, I'd have liked more non-veg. stuff on the menu (maybe it was arranged with an eye to our PM's age and health - remember he's had a repeat cardiac bypass...)

But let's get the discussion back on track. Today's edition of The Telegraph says in a front-page item that George W. Bush's just-released book reminiscing over his presidency spares all of 208 words on India - the same Bush who, some Indians had once exulted, had gone all out to put the Indo-American relationship on a 'special' footing! In fact, Pakistan gets far more attention in the 195,000-word book. As I shall repeat, Indians with brittle and bloated egos, who salivate over little pats on the back from sahibs, had better accept the fact that they have a long way to go before they are taken seriously on the world's stage, the 'achievements' of people like the Ambanis, SRK and Tendulkar notwithstanding... that's not cynicism, only a cold douche or a wake-up call!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I hope the recent humiliation meted out to our ambassador Meera Shankar at a US airport in the name of a 'security check' (does anyone remember how a major pop icon like SRK was dealt with in the same way not very long ago?), the official American insouciance over it, and India's whimpering 'protest' (which falls far short of demanding an immediate, unqualified apology) reminds a lot of us that our unworthy dreams of being treated as a Great Power soon are nothing but a mirage. As a columnist wrote in The Statesman on Sunday the 12th (header article, p. 7), 'I wonder how China would have reacted to this kind of humiliation'. Funny, indeed, that we never hear of such things being done to the Chinese, lots of whom keep flying to and from the US all the time.

A sad reflection: had Indira Gandhi been in the PM's chair today, I don't think she'd have spared the Yankees so easily. We were much less 'advanced' and well-off in her day, but she had something called pride, and a backbone...