Obama India visit evokes mixed reactions

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By Margherita Stancati
New Delhi:
US President Barack Obama addressed a joint session of India’s Parliament on November 8 evening, the culmination of his three-day visit. In his speech Obama spoke in favor of India’s membership in the United Nations Security Council, he guaranteed that the US would not leave Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban and finally spoke explicitly about Pakistan. The President also hailed Mahatma Gandhi, whom he often describes as an inspiration, and charmed his audience by attempting some Hindi. Here is a round-up of commentary and analysis in the Indian press on Obama’s speech.

Many in the Indian press hailed Obama’s address as a historic turning-point in India-US relations and others were flattered by his efforts to reach out to India’s people and culture. However, not all were impressed by Obama’s speech: some were skeptical his words would translate into concrete policies while others said the president should have kept his thoughts on Myanmar to himself.

In an, The Times of India said that with his three-day visit.Obama powered India-US relations into the 21st Century.  “It can be said definitely now: with US President Barack Obama’s India visit, the long shadow that the Cold War cast on India-US ties has been dispelled. Instead of looking into the past, the relationship has been recast for the 21st century. From terrorism to the Security Council to trade, Obama not only checked off all the key phrases during the culmination of his India visit, he put them together in an eloquent speech that wowed Parliament.”

But the editorial also warned India’s government of the need to maintain some distance from its new best friend: “In order to boost security and sustain growth, New Delhi will have to carry out a fine balancing act between maintaining its relationship with Washington and exercising strategic autonomy.”

In The Hindustan Times, Sagarika Ghose said that Obama’s UNSC and Af-Palk talk were the “least remarkable” parts of his speech for her. What she found really remarkable were the US President’s “detailed references to Indian society”- like his bahut dhanyavaad and Jai Hind. “When was the last time you heard an American President quoting from the Panchatantra?,” she asked in an editorial.

Sagarika Ghose praised the President for speaking to India’s people and for honoring the country’s culture. “For decades … the official line between India and the US has been at odds with the cultural ties between the people,” Sagarika Ghose said adding that Obama’s visit could encourage deeper cultural understanding between the people of two countries. In turn, this could boost political relations too, she added.

Obama’s personal background could have something to do with this, according to Sagarika Ghose, who said: “Obama exemplifies a generational change among Americans, who may have gone to school and college with Indians and are more familiar with them than ever before.”
Not all were swayed.

Ashok Malik, writing in The Asian Age,  questioned whether policies would follow Obama’s flourishing rhetoric. According to Ashok. Malik, the US President said what India wanted to hear. “In a sense, every symbol, every message the Indians wanted to hear was milked and put to use.” That included his reference to India having already “emerged,” his speaking in favor of India’s membership in the UN Security Council and his call on Pakistan to bring to justice the masterminds behind the 26/11 attacks.

Ashok Malik warned his readers that “Obama is an eloquent speaker though not always a substantive one. He said nice things but provided none of the commitments and the hard promises that (sections of) his hosts had wanted.”

In particular, Ashok Malik argued the US President failed to fully back India’s bid for the UNSC seat and, above all, to take a firmer position against Pakistan. “His dependence on Pakistan in terms of the war against terrorism and his refusal to look at any long-term goal beyond his re-election two years from now had made it obvious even weeks ago that his trip to India would be a limited one,” he said.

In an opinion piece in Outlook, B. Raman criticized the US President for speaking against India’s ties with Myanmar, where India is a major investor.  “Obama’s remarks on India’s relations with Myanmar were totally unjustified. Myanmar is strategically as important to India as Pakistan is to the US.”

B. Raman believes Obama’s Myamnar remarks cast a shadow on his three-day India visit. “Obama made critical references to India’s support to the military regime in Myanmar in a language, which was unwarranted and injected a jarring note in an otherwise cordial and friendly visit,” he said.

B. Raman also attacked the US President for failing to take a position against Pakistan on several issues, including what he described as “the suppression of the rights of the Balochs, the Sindhis, the Mohajirs, the Pashtuns and the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.”

“In spite of all the transgressions of the military regime and its successor,” B. Raman added, “(the US) has been pouring money into Pakistan by way of economic and military assistance.”

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