Ahead of Obama Visit, a Report Card on India

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The scoop for the Bharatiya Janata Party regime in India is perhaps getting President Barack Obama to visit in the first year of its five-year term. The Narendra Modi government won the nationwide general elections in May 2014 by a majority of 282 seats out of 543, its few friends increasing in number throughout the last ten months. President Obama and wife Michelle arrive in India on 25 January for a three-day visit that will include talks between the US president and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On 26 January, Obama will attend India’s Republic Day parade as the chief guest. The couple will then go to Agra to see the iconic Taj Mahal. And more detailed talks.

The Modi government came to power standing on an anti-corruption plank. However, little has been really achieved in this area, except that the government – at the instance of the Supreme Court – has called for fresh tenders to mine coal as the previous government’s licenses were attacked as based on bribery and/or favoritism.

The new government has experienced a few embarrassments – MP statements and the orders for state governors to resign, making Prime Minister Modi unhappy with his leaders and officials. Meanwhile, Modi’s master strokes were downsizing the government and inviting leaders of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation- primarily India’s immediate neighbors) countries to his swearing-in ceremony. The invitees included Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and then Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapakse, both contentious figures in India.

Domestically, Modi has tried to erase lethargy in the government and its bureaucracies, a cultural shock, that is not yet fully effective. His officers now turn up for work at nine in the morning, often work through holidays, have been told to clear their files on a day-to-day basis, sign papers on time and keep their offices clean. This also means no taking bribes, no nepotism and no favoritism. Modi’s nineteen “Don’t”s for all bureaucrats ask them to ensure that all policy decisions are guided solely by “public interest” and that they operate with total “political neutrality.” But this does not mean policies do not reflect the party’s right-wing pressures.

One of the first controversies that hit the Modi government arose over its abrupt order to Governors of several states to move. The Governor’s post is decorative and political, not elected, and the rudeness with which it was done was criticized as was the recent sacking of the head of Defense Research Development Organization, well-known scientist Avinash Chander. The justification, “He is too old,” was not a reason anyone bought. Of course, there have been other moves: the denigration of the planning commission, the removal of German language from the school curriculum, and inclusion of “Vedic science” in school courses, ending a four-year Baccalaureate course in Delhi University. Modi’s ministers argue India had aviation and plastic surgery some five thousand years ago. Some, including religious leaders in the cabinet, have been known to give hate speeches; some elected parliament members have even come out with dictums to “Hindu women”…that they should bear four children. Meanwhile, rapes have not decreased; safety of women has not increased; poverty has not decreased; surveys say Indian children of ages six to fourteen can neither read basic languages, nor count; some social services have been cut; and funding of non-government organizations have been curtailed.

Modi’s Clean India campaign has not really spruced up any city; his minister says it will take three years to clean up the River Ganga, which Modi sees as a mother. So terrible is it that a hundred bodies surfaced recently at a river bend one cold, foggy morning a few weeks ago.

Modi’s popularity is such that his party has won several state elections in the last one year, including in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan. It failed, however, to win a majority in the large state of Maharashtra where it formed a state government with the help of allies in December. The party also won elections in the tribe-dominated state of Jharkhand. Delhi, the capital of the country and an independent state, has been its bête noire. Delhi rejected the BJP one year ago, choosing to elect a novice party which did not form a government then. The city goes to the hustings again in February, and this time, a more confident BJP has inducted into its ranks, a charismatic former police official who last year was with the Aam Admi Party (AAP), projecting the lady as the future chief minister of the city.

Modi’s foreign policy has been effective and mostly popular. Pakistan and China are two countries that keep provoking India along its two large borders. Even as India is more vigilant on its borders with China, Modi’s trip to China was seen as an effort to reduce aggression in the border disputes. The Chinese have welcomed his openness to Chinese investment in infrastructure and they have committed to invest US $ 35 billion. The Line of Actual Control will now be actual, says India’s new Home, Foreign and Defense ministers, with no more tolerance of provocative intrusions. India’s defense budget – to be revealed in March – is expected to be huge.

On his visit to Japan, Modi managed to convince Japan to commit to US $55 billion investment in India. He invited the Japanese to invest in his dream project to build 100 smart cities, along with the High Speed Train network in India. His visit to Australia was hugely successful.

But most successful, perhaps, was his US visit last year.

Although Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did take part in Modi’s coronation, the Modi government’s relations with Pakistan are frosty. Foreign Secretary-level meetings have been cancelled. Cross-border terrorism is a major issue, especially after the 16 December terror attack on the Pakistani army school. Terror is too close to home, says India. A Pakistan court granting bail just a day after the school killings to militant commander Zaki-ur-Rahman of Lashkar-e-Taiba, accused of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks which saw 166 people dead, did not go down well with India. Though Rahman’s bail has been stayed by the top court in Pakistan, India has stepped up border security.

The PTI news agency reports that the US has asked Pakistan to ensure that “there is no cross-border terror incident during the trip (Obama visit) and hinted of consequences if any such attack is traced back to the country.” The warning has been issued “keeping in mind the record of Pakistan-based terror groups that have regularly carried out terror strikes coinciding with visits of high-profile dignitaries to India from the US,” the agency says.

“…we will do everything that is possible to ensure his (Obama’s) stay here is comfortable, is something that he will cherish for a long, long time,” said External affairs ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin at a briefing in New Delhi this week.

Obama comes to India with the appointment of a new ambassador, the first envoy of Indian origin, Richard Verma. Verma, a national security expert, has served in the State Department and the US Air Force and been an adviser to members of Congress. The 46-year old envoy took charge just ahead of the Obama visit. The appointment has received high praise. It is interesting that as assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs under Hillary Clinton from 2009-11, Verma led the Obama administration’s negotiations with Congress for new sanctions on Iran while working for passage of the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia. He received the Distinguished Service Medal, the State Department’s highest civilian honor. Now that President Obama has managed to convince his senators that getting Iran to the negotiating table is better than sanctions, and he has Europe’s support in this, several possibilities open for the USA. The sanctions have greatly affected India’s oil imports and it will be a huge plus for the Modi government if sanctions on Iran are eased.

India’s liability clause, enacted after the Bhopal disaster, which makes corporations responsible for industrial accidents in their plants, has been an issue with US power companies wanting to sell nuclear power reactors. The Modi government is pro-nuclear energy and pro-nuclear weapons. An arms negotiator at the helm of US affairs in Delhi might be able to convince India to amend the law for the USA. For both the parties, the Obama India visit takeaway has to be the nuclear and arms business, and more US investment in India’s infrastructure and education sector. The Obama visit is being watched with great concern by the entire region.