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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 51, December 11, 2010

Revisiting Obama’s Visit

Sunday 12 December 2010


by Suvrat Raju

Although the mainstream media collectively swooned on President Barack Obama—when he visited India in early November—and breath-lessly informed its audience about how many rooms he had booked at various five-star hotels, there was little discussion on two key questions. What is Obama’s foreign policy record? Is it consistent with his portrayal as a progressive world leader? Moreover, what impact will his visit have on most Indians?

Obama’s Foreign Policy

SUPPORTERS of the President tend to point out that he is better than his predecessor, George W. Bush. This is correct but misses an important fact. Obama’s policies differ significantly from the policies of the first Bush Administration— when the US ruling elite believed that it could control the world by brute force—but are eerily similar to those of the second Bush Administration by which time the United States was in strategic retreat on several fronts.

Obama himself put it well in 2004: “There’s not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush’s position at this stage.” He has lived up to those words; for example, after coming to power, he persisted with Bush’s Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates. The with- drawal of “combat troops” from Iraq, which is sometimes cited to show his commitment to end the war, is not only specious, since it leaves behind about 50,000 “non-combat troops”, but also just a partial implementation of a “status of forces agreement” that the Iraqi Government forced on a reluctant Bush Administration in 2008.

At an anti-war rally in 2002, Obama explained that he opposed the Iraq war only on strategic grounds; “I don’t oppose all wars … What I am opposed to is a dumb war.” On the other hand, he consistently supported the war in Afghanistan and, earlier this year, ordered a “surge” in the US military presence there. This earned him the gratitude of his predecessor who, in a recently published memoir, explained that he was glad that “President Obama stood up to critics by deploying more troops”.

Contrary to what its supporters claim, the Afghanistan war has been deleterious for its people, and has done little to advance women’s rights. Nor is it supported by those who are genuinely concerned about these issues. Malalai Joya, a brave and independent woman, and also the youngest member of the Afghan parliament, put this succinctly: “Stop the massacres in my country. Withdraw your foreign troops so we can stop Talibanisation.” She also pointed out that “Obama is just like Bush, if not worse, because he is escalating the war and bringing it to Pakistan”.

These wars and the US drone-attacks on Pakistan—which have escalated sharply under Obama—have had horrific human consequences. In 2006, a study published in the Lancet estimated that the Iraq war had led to more than 600,000 excess deaths—a figure that is likely to have risen substantially. The tragedy in Afghanistan is no less, except that no one has even bothered to estimate the devastation caused by the US invasion.

Impact on India

“PASSE!” exclaim India’s realist leaders. A government’s first responsibility is to its own people—so the theory goes—and if that requires us to look away from the human consequences of the US policy in the Middle East, then so be it. However, this realism is just a veneer; the insensitivity that allows the Indian Government to ignore the plight of the Iraqi people also leads it to aggressively promote the interests of a small elite at the expense of most Indians.

Ten days before Obama’s arrival, the Planning Commission decided that it was in favour of allowing Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail. Does the Commission seriously expect us to believe that it reached this conclusion independently after carefully considering the welfare of the millions of workers whose liveli-hood depends on this sector? Just the timing of the decision confirms the role played by Obama’s impending visit and pressure from companies like Walmart.

The same concern for American profits, coupled with callous disregard for Indian life, was on display a few months ago when the government tried to protect the interests of US manufactures by repeatedly inserting insidious clauses in the Nuclear Liability Bill. Soon after this failed, an unnamed “senior Union Minister” told the Business Standard that “private suppliers could still sign agreements …. stating that their responsibility ended with the handover of equipment” thereby evading responsibility for an accident.

Closer to Obama’s visit, the government realised that it would be improper to publicly discuss means of subverting the law, and piously disavowed any such plans. However, the Joint Statement issued by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Obama declares that “India … is committed to ensuring a level playing field for US companies seeking to enter the Indian nuclear energy sector”. This refers to the US gripe that competitors from France and Russia have an unfair advantage over its nuclear manufacturers because access to state finances would help them avert bankruptcy in the event of a serious accident. Evidently—unless vigilant activists are able to thwart this through the use of Right to Information requests—the govern-ment plans to contractually indemnify nuclear manufactures.

The “jobless recovery” that the United States has witnessed over the past year, was a major factor in the electoral drubbing that Democratic Party received just before Obama commenced his Asian sojourn. So, in an article that he penned for the New York Times, Obama explained that his trip was aimed at opening up Asian markets—facilitating Walmart’s entry into India’s retail sector falls into this category—but emphasised that he was visiting India to also earn “billions of dollars in contracts that will support tens of thousands of American jobs.” The Indian Government and private sector promptly obliged with contracts of almost US $ 15 billion.

What is ironic is that the latest National Sample Survey estimates suggest that the period between 2005-08 saw, as the Economic and Political Weekly pointed out, “the lowest rate of employ-ment generation in the last three decades” in India. Under these circumstances is it acceptable for the Indian Government to encourage the export of capital to the richest country in the world? Could these billions of dollars not have been used in productive sectors of the Indian economy to generate domestic employment?

Defence contracts accounted for a large part of this investment. However, as the New York Times explained candidly, these defence agreements are also strategically significant: “The United States is eager to strengthen military ties with India, partly to make it a counterweight to China.” US economic hegemony has been on the decline but its military supremacy remains unquestioned. So, by forging anti-China military alliances with India and other Asian nations, the United States is just playing to its strengths.

Finally, what of Obama’s promise to support India’s entry into the UN Security Council (UNSC) as a permanent member? Whether or not permanent-membership will translate into tangible benefits for Indian citizens is debatable but, in any case, this is likely to take several years. What is important is that, in return, the Joint Statement declares India’s immediate support for US objectives in the Security Council: “as India serves on the Security Council over the next two years … [Indian and American] dele-gations in New York will intensify their engagement and work together.” This engagement will help ensure that “all states … comply with and implement UN Security Council Resolutions”. This, of course, does not refer to Israel that is in violation of dozens of UNSC resolutions but is meant to guarantee Indian compliance on Iran. Furthermore, the Indian Government will probably use the chimera of a permanent seat as an excuse to avoid participating even in modest multilateral actions, which do not meet with US approval, such as the Brazil-Turkey-Iran initiative.

Scope for Resistance

OBAMA’S major foreign policy achievement has been to restore American soft-power. So he was not met with protests of the kind that greeted Bush. However, this does not mean that the Indian people have been taken in by the propaganda campaign unleashed by the mainstream media. In two separate public demonstrations in Allahabad, on the November 8, I was surprised to find that almost everyone I spoke to was suspicious of Obama’s intentions. The task of Left and progressive forces in India is to convert this suspicion into determined opposition to the alliance between the Indian ruling classes and US imperialism.

It is necessary to identify the issues on which this battle can be fought. For example, the defence pacts are egregious but, in the short run, we cannot resist them effectively. In my opinion, there are three areas that hold great potential for popular mobilisation—retail, nuclear cooper-ation, and higher education.

In discussing the issue of FDI in retail, it is important to emphasise that companies like Walmart are likely to be far more aggressive than smaller Indian chains like Big Bazaar which have, so far, been unable to make a large dent on the retail sector. In Mexico, Walmart first gained a toehold in 1991 through a joint venture with a Mexican company called Cifra. Within 10 years, not only had Walmart taken over Cifra, it had gained control of almost half the retail market! With the help of its deep pockets, and a pliant Indian Government, Walmart is likely to affect the livelihoods of lakhs of people employed in the retail business. The Left must take up this struggle with urgency, not only to prevent these ruinous developments but also to keep out the fascists.

The issue of nuclear cooperation—sometimes mistakenly perceived as “technical” and hence distant from the concerns of most people—is a second potential battleground. The Indian Government would like to purchase several nuclear plants from multinational suppliers and set them up in various parts of the country. However, it has not accounted for the fact that the people living in these places are unwilling to give up their land and are unconvinced by the government’s assurances on safety. In Jaitapur (Maharashtra) and Fatehabad (Haryana), large movements have come up to resist the proposed nuclear plants. The Left can play an important role in weaving these struggles into a broad anti-imperialist front. It can also use this issue of energy policy to ask larger questions on the kind of development that India’s rulers have been promoting.

The entry of foreign universities into India constitutes a third possible site of resistance. Kapil Sibal made a revealing statement to the Business Week just before Obama’s arrival: “Harvard and Yale are world-renowned institutions... they have no hunger. It will be institutions that have hunger … that will come —those that want to establish themselves as global universities.” In other words, the Government would like to open up the higher education market in India so that second rung foreign universities can make easy-money. More established institutions are unlikely to set up campuses but will try and outsource some of their low-end research. This will damage the extant higher education system.

On the other hand, this also provides the Left with an opportunity to galvanise the student movement, which is languishing in many parts of the country. The student movement, although it represents a numerically small segment, can play a pivotal role because it can be engaged on other abstract questions including broader debates on the education system.

The pro-imperialist policies that the Manmohan Singh Government is planning to implement will have a pernicious effect on the vast majority of Indians. So these struggles have a crucial defensive role. However, they will also provide progressive forces—especially if they can ask deep questions and articulate alternative visions—with an opportunity to strengthen their position in the unorganised sector and among farmers and students. This historic opportunity must not be squandered!

Suvrat Raju is a physicist and activist based in Allahabad. This is an expanded version of an article first posted on

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