Sitting by the seaside north of Bombay, I watched history unfold on the screen of my laptop. When I woke on November 5, counting the votes in the U.S. election had just begun. While there were early leads for Obama, it was still too soon to be sure. Over the next four hours, state after once-Republican state went to him. And then suddenly, there it was: a solitary headline that popped up on Google News.
“Barack Obama wins presidency, making history.”
Minutes later, someone told us there was a TV nearby. We turned on Doordarshan, the Indian Government-run channel. Obama is about to speak, said the announcer, and, “I can’t wait! These American politicians, they always speak so well!”
I don’t know about that, but Obama then gave a measured, gracious victory speech. To me it summed up the man: dignified and passionate, thorough and thoughtful. I expect his Presidency to have those shades.
Then over breakfast, a friend asked: “But will Obama be good for India? Everyone says McCain would have been better for India.” Note that my friend actually preferred Obama to McCain. But he was caught between a belief that Obama would make the better President for the United States, that that McCain might have been the better President as seen from India.
The supposed reasons for this? That Obama has spoken against outsourcing whereas McCain has no objection to it. That McCain supports the nuclear ties now established between the U.S. and India, while Obama has criticized them. That Republicans are more in tune with the Indian “mindset,” whatever that is, than Democrats are. That Obama would be more inclined to be “even-handed” between India and Pakistan, whereas McCain would “tilt” toward India.
These are arguments I have heard, in one form or another, from Indians in the U.S. as well as election watchers in India. And I think they deserve further examination.
First, outsourcing. I don’t know enough about the mechanics of outsourcing, but it now has momentum of its own. Businesses know that outsourcing saves them money, and I can’t see how that can be turned around. Nor indeed, if it should be. India’s share of the outsourcing pie is worth $64 billion today. We will lose that only when operators in other countries manage to undercut us. That’s going to happen eventually: salaries in Indian BPO outfits are rising, and eventually entrepreneurs in China or Poland or somewhere else will find a way to offer the services we do, but for less. If we are then unwilling or unable to compete, or to learn new skills for new challenges, we should indeed lose business. But until that happens, I cannot see how one President or another, even by trying to impose tax incentives and penalties, can influence company decisions on outsourcing. Can you?
Second, “even-handedness” between India and Pakistan. I have never understood this complaint. Why would we want it any other way? Why should an aspiring superpower, which is what we believe we are in India, hanker for a U.S. “tilt”? Why would such a country not say to the world, “This is how and who we are. Tilt or not, that’s up to you.” And after all, what has an apparent U.S. tilt toward Pakistan done for that country? Every day, Pakistan grows more fractured, violent, and desperate. Is that the payoff from a tilt?
Third, nuclear ties. Again, I don’t know the intricacies of the famous nuclear deal. I don’t know enough to make up my mind on whether it is good for India or not. I suspect I’m with millions of other Indians in saying so. So I think of it in other terms. In the time that we’ve been hearing about it, India has suffered a string of terrorist attacks: most recently, assaults on Christians in Orissa and non-Maharashtrians in Bombay, and bombs in Assam. I choose this as a backdrop for the nuclear deal deliberately, because I sometimes wonder exactly how it will benefit India. Is the deal going to stop the violence that takes so many Indian lives? Clearly not. How then do we measure what’s good for this country?
In other words, if we are trying to decide whether McCain or Obama would have been better for India, let’s also pay attention to doing well by India and Indians, period. Is that best accomplished by a nuclear deal? Or by bringing peace and justice to Indian lives as a number one priority? Your answer may be different from mine, but who the U.S. President is, is irrelevant.
Fourth, the “mindset.” I suspect this refers to a yearning for capitalism, entrepreneurship, and free markets—to the way they are supposedly a natural fit both for Indians and for the Republican Party. There is some truth to some of this, but just this: I believe that India’s process of economic liberalization has stirred a wellspring of entrepreneurial energy, and that can only be good for the country. Perhaps that’s why Renée Nielsen, chairperson of Republicans Abroad, India, told the Hindustan Times disconsolately that the Obama victory “is the wrong result for America and India. A Republican President is far better for India economically.” This because “a Republican fully free market economy is preferable to protectionist Democrat policies.”
Yet this argument now has to be judged, as indeed it was during the U.S. election, against the great economic meltdown of 2008. The current spell of Republican rule in the United States has lasted eight years. Was the economy “fully free market” in that time? In fact, has it ever been so? Can we say that the Republican Ronald Reagan was “far better for India economically” than his Democrat predecessor Jimmy Carter? Besides, the eight Bush years have culminated in the greatest American and worldwide financial crisis in 75 years. How was Republican President Bush good for anyone economically?
The “fully free market” and its supposed economic miracles are myths, and I wish the Hindustan Times had called Nielsen on that. I see little evidence that Republicans have done more for the Indian economy than Democrats. If President-elect Obama manages to lift the U.S.’s slumping economy, that will also be good news for India.
On a slick TV show last night, I heard that Obama would be “tough with Pakistan” on terrorism, and that’s “music to South Block’s ears.” But on the other hand, he has “linked” Afghanistan and Kashmir, which is “disturbing” for India.
Yes, so now we’re supposed to believe that seasoned Indian bureaucrats are shouting excitedly: “Yippee, he said he’d be tough with Pakistan!” While others mutter in despair: “Dammit, he linked Afghanistan and Kashmir!”
And if you believe that, there’s a bridge for sale. It transports you to the alternate universe in which McCain is “better for India” than Obama.
|A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.|