(Photo: Christian Haugen / Flickr)
United States President Barack Hussein Obama will begin his three-day tour of India on November 6, 2010, with a visit to the famed Taj Mahal Hotel of Mumbai (formerly Bombay). The five-star hotel of the South Asian nation's financial capitol has seen 107 years of the city's turbulent history - and, more importantly, the terrorist strikes that shook the world in November 2008.
Arriving here 20 days before the second anniversary of the tragedy, Obama is scheduled to meet some of the survivors of India's only televised terrorist offensive, which stretched over four days of national trauma. He is expected to make a statement from the building that lights up Mumbai's beach front.
What statement will his visit to the hotel itself make? What will the occasion mean for Washington and, as importantly, for official India?
For his preparatory statement there is a precedent. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a similar visit to the same hotel in July 2009. In a message she wrote down in the visitors' book, she said: "Both our people have experienced the senseless and searing effects of violent extremism. And both can be grateful and proud of the heroism of brave men and women whose courage saved lives and prevented greater harm on 26/11 and 9/11. Now it is up to all nations and people who seek peace and progress to work together."
The mainstream Indian media and the establishment, including its extra-political extension, said something similar, but with an entirely different meaning. The far right, in particular, was in the forefront of the campaign that declared in a chorus: 26/11 (with the date preceding the month, British style) was and is India's 9/11.
In the era of George W. Bush, whose ear the campaigners thought they had, their meaning was clear. The far right was saying that 26/11 signaled the start of a new phase of the war of Islam and Islamism on India. What the other campaigners wanted to say was that 26/11 must give India the same "right of preemptive attack" (on Pakistan) as 9/11 gave the US.
Nobody would now expect Bush-like sympathy for such bellicose militarism. What the same quarters seek today is more of a US-India "anti-terror" alliance in the Af-Pak region.
Security commentator and former diplomat Chinmaya R. Gharekhan writes: " The success or otherwise of the visit must not be judged by our getting some concessions on some bilateral issues. The real criterion for measuring success would lie in assessing whether or not the two leaders have reached consensus on defining the dangers that their, and other, countries faced from the Af-Pak area and how they intend to tackle it."
India's real concern in this regard is about the kind of Af-Pak Obama will leave behind after the planned US exit from the Afghanistan war. New Delhi has reason to be nervous about the talk of secret parleys between the U.S. and the "good Taliban." A takeover in Kabul by the Taliban, with whom Pakistan and its security services have always maintained close ties, will be no welcome news to any government in India.
New Delhi's concern has not gone unnoticed. Af-Pak special envoy Richard Holbrooke has sought to reassure India by acknowledging what it considers its rightful role in Afghanistan, particularly post-pullout phase. Holbrooke has been at pains to deny attempts to reach a working understanding with Taliban factions, like the one headed by Jalaluddin Haqqani, at Pakistan's prodding. The denial, however, has not sufficed to allay New Delhi's apprehensions - which reports from the front have continued to food.
Washington's overtures to India have, meanwhile, created new anxieties in Islamabad. Pakistani daily Dawn says: "Anxious eyes in Islamabad will meticulously examine how the American president manages ties with India without impacting on long-term partnership with Pakistan." Official India will be anxious, above all, over any move by the Obama administration to treat its Af-Pak policy as a fait accompli - as something New Delhi must accept after the NATO forces quit Afghanistan's killing fields.
According to some pundits, the Obama mission may try to evade the Af-Pak issue or lower its priority by putting the focus on economic and trade relations with India. They point out that the president will be accompanied by nearly 250 US business chiefs, including soft drink giant Pepsico's India-born CEO Indra Nooyi. India's Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee told American CEOs in June 2010 that, "India offers investment opportunities in excess of $850 billion over the next five years," with an envisaged investment of $1 trillion in the infrastructure sector.
The mission, say these pundits, may also address India's Pakistan-related concerns through arms sales –the president is bringing a defense deal proposal, comprising US supply of 126 fighter planes. According to Ron Somers, president of the US-India Business Council, India can be expected to spend $45 billion on military goods.
Added to this is a large volume of nuclear business, to which order-starved US companies are looking forward. The scene here is more than slightly complicated by India apparently speaking in two voices on the question of liabilities for nuclear damage caused by U.S.-supplied reactors and equipment.
India's Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Act, 2010, carries tough provisions that prospective US nuclear suppliers are not happy with. On October 26, 2010, however, India signed the international Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC), more acceptable to Washington and its corporate constituency. New Delhi has taken the curious stance that it will keep its options open on adhering to either of the documents.
Informed sources, however, hope that the US side may eventually persuade India to accommodate its point of view. This may be done by conceding India's plea for lifting restrictions on technology transfer to Indian firms. The restrictions have been imposed under an export regulation system aimed at crime control, regional stability, and non-proliferation.
Sections of opinion that insist that an "anti-terror" US-India alliance must prove itself by punishing Pakistan do not agree. Business expert and commentator Professor R. Vaidyanathan speaks for these sections when he writes: "Every additional Coke bottle consumed in India or insurance policy sold should be dependent on how the U.S. puts Pakistan on leash. We need to unashamedly and unequivocally link commerce with US pressure on Pakistan on terrorism."