Obama's passage to India
Aijaz Zaka Syed
So it takes a distant friend to spotlight the yawning gulf between two neighbors and separated-at-birth South Asian twins. Now it takes a US president to remind us about our rich, shared past and the incongruity of our present.
Let's not delude ourselves. Barack Obama did not visit India and skipped Pakistan because he loves the Indians more or he had been on a mission to spread sweetness and light in South Asia. It was a business trip. And as Calvin Coolidge argued, the chief business of the American people is business.
Twenty business deals worth $14 billion that could create, as Obama emphasised for the benefit of audiences back home, nearly 54,000 jobs for the Americans. Not a small feat at a time when unemployment in the US is hovering around 10 per cent.
Obama was here to hard-sell the US economic agenda pushing Indian firms and businesses that have been the chief beneficiaries of the outsourcing revolution, to invest back in the world's largest economy teetering on the brink for the past many years.
Global economic tide has indeed begun to turn. One never knew one would witness this amazing spectacle of the long colonised and historically exploited nations turning around to take the upper hand. Why, even 10 years back imagining a scenario where India would be in a position to help the US and other Western nations by investing back in their economies, infrastructure and jobs was impossible.
It was a rare moment of triumph and celebration for not just the Indians but the long disinherited and exploited people everywhere. But we had to spoil it with our perpetual whining and moaning.
Even as we patted ourselves on the back on our new world power status and gloated how the balance of power has shifted from the west to the east, we cribbed and cribbed, from the moment Obama set his foot in Mumbai to his departure from Delhi. As Pritish Nandy says we are a nation of cribbers: "Cribbing has become a national pastime, making us look insecure, selfish, petulant and pompous, all at the same time."
Ever big on symbolism and semantics, Obama chose to kick-start his passage to India in Mumbai and stayed at Hotel Taj, the landmark that witnessed the 26/11 carnage, in a gesture to India and its people. The speech he made in the presence of families of the 26/11 victims saw him at his eloquent best.
Yet all the television pundits and cynical eggheads of the South Block could see or hear rather was the fact that the 'P' word did not figure in Obama's fine speech. They constantly shook their heads in disappointment that the US leader talked of extremism and terrorism but did not squarely lay the blame where it belonged – at Pakistan's doorstep. Given a chance they would have the US bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age.
All through his whirlwind tour, Pakistan's ghost constantly shadowed Obama wherever he went - during his encounters with India's rich and powerful in Mumbai and New Delhi.
From business barons to St Xavier's students in Mumbai to the hard-nosed hacks in the nation's capital, everyone seemed to confront the poor man with the 'P' question, as though he was Mohammad Ali Jinnah and was responsible for the creation of the land of the pure. Everyone out there appeared to be reading from the same hymn sheet.
But it was a studious girl who walked out with the cake when she queried him about Jihad and what he thought of it. As if Obama was Sheikh Al Azhar or Ayatollah from Qom to issue a fatwa on jihad!
To his credit, Obama tried to answer the question to the best of his ability saying, "this great religion in the hands of a few extremists has been distorted to justify violence." It's a pity he couldn't explain what creates the 'extremists' though. The New York Times reporting the event noted with dismay that Obama "carefully avoided saying he was opposed to jihad."
Even after his press conference, which warned Pakistan against "safe havens for terrorists," and his powerful speech in parliament in which he paid rich tributes to Indian democracy, diversity and remarkable progress the country has recorded in the past two decades, the television fixtures continued to crib that Obama hadn't said "enough" against you know who.
Even as they admitted the speech was great and saying what he did in parliament, recalling the 2001 terror attack on parliament, was indeed something. It wasn't enough for them though. He didn't declare Pakistan a "terrorist state" in unequivocal terms. Also, the words have to be followed by action against Pakistan, they argued. Clearly, if it was in their power, the honorable ex-diplomats would have ordered the US president to launch a nuclear strike right there and then against the 'menace' next door!
What's wrong with us? And what is with our perennial obsession with Pakistan? An insecurity complex, a fear psychosis in Pakistan is perhaps understandable, given its relative smaller size, weaknesses and the history of wars lost against India. And some of our Pakistani friends indeed carry a chip on their shoulder and are rather sensitive to criticism. But our compulsive insecurity vis-à-vis Pakistan just doesn't make sense.
Why should we fear and obsess over a country that is not just smaller in size but is right now going through a serious existential crisis? It's like the mighty America losing sleep over the threat potential of Venezuela.
This is especially sad considering not long ago India and Pakistan were one country and one people. No two countries share as much as the South Asian twins do. Language, culture, music, food and faith - what unites us is much more than what divides us.
I have long admired Obama for what he stands for and seeks to represent - audacity of hope, optimism and faith in a better world. With this visit, he has added several inches to his stature in my eyes.
Instead of playing India and Pakistan against each other as visiting Western leaders often do, Obama went out of his way to demolish the wall of distrust that divides the neighbors today. He managed to stay clear of Kashmir – to the disappointment of many in the Valley – but at every step of his visit, he pushed the neighbors to talk and engage.
Even as he acknowledged the wounds India has suffered at the hands of the terrorists, he went to great lengths to underscore the complex nature of the challenges facing Pakistan like a true friend and well wisher of both the nations, repeatedly stressing India has a stake in a stable and secure Pakistan. The visitor held a mirror up to the neighbors helping them see their own warts and all – and the reality they aren't prepared to see. The world has moved on. When will India and Pakistan do so?