Romney, Obama, Or Neither? Indian Enthusiasm For US Election Wanes

 
on October 27 2012 12:59 PM
U.S. President Barack Obama, right, conducts a bilateral meeting with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the Group of 20 Summit in Toronto on June 27, 2010.
U.S. President Barack Obama, right, conducts a bilateral meeting with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the Group of 20 Summit in Toronto on June 27, 2010. Reuters

BANGALORE, India -- U.S. presidential elections usually generate great interest and speculation in India. But this time, the country's media, elites, and middle class are less excited than usual.

The novelty of 2008, when Indians were overwhelmingly behind the first presidential nominee of either major political party who wasn't white has worn off. Barack Obama is now in office, but he and his Republican rival Mitt Romney share one trait that Indians noticed: Neither man's policies feature India in a prominent role.

The focus of this election is on domestic policy and the economy, and to the extent that foreign policy has figured in the campaign, it has been largely confined to discussion of the Middle East and the global role of China, India's geopolitical adversary. Meanwhile, the media in India right now are more preoccupied with the political battle waged by the India Against Corruption group, which seeks tougher anti-corruption laws.

“The U.S. election this time is not widely discussed in India, mainly because on a wider perspective there is not much difference between the policies of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as far as India is concerned. Whatever the difference they have is mainly limited to U.S. internal issues,” said information-technology consultant N.K. Vasanth Raj.

Corporations For Romney, Middle Class For Obama

Each candidate enjoys the support of a different segment of Indian society: the business-oriented Romney is favored by corporate types, while Obama is liked by the middle class and general public. But “no one in New Delhi is losing sleep over the cliffhanger U.S. presidential election. Neither a Mitt Romney win nor a second term for Barack Obama is likely to alter India-U.S. relations in a big way, at least not immediately,” the Deccan Herald newspaper wrote in an editorial.

India and the U.S. have never shared exceptionally warm ties, in fact. During the Cold War, India was the largest of the so-called nonaligned nations, which sided neither with Moscow nor with Washington, and bilateral relations suffered another blow when India carried out nuclear tests in 1998, which led to Bill Clinton's administration imposing economic sanctions on the country.

However, George W. Bush's administration realized the strategic role India played in the subcontinent and the huge economic potential that could benefit the U.S., so it initiated a slew of measures in 2008, bringing in unprecedented rapid improvement in bilateral ties. Sanctions were ended, and the two countries began cooperating more closely in several areas, including trade, technology exchanges, and defense.

Elements of the Indian foreign-policy establishment believe that Obama has not lived up to his predecessor's level of attention with respect to India.

At the beginning of Obama's term, New Delhi was concerned that the U.S. was getting closer to China and to India's archrival, Pakistan. “Obama, after assuming office four years ago, had initiated steps to strengthen ties with China and Pakistan rather than India. A greater cooperation between U.S. and China will never help India in the current scenario. Though he has corrected his course slightly after realizing he cannot depend on China or Pakistan, the distrust still remains,” said S.R. Keshava, head of the economics department at Bangalore University.

'No To Bangalore, Yes To Buffalo'

Some political analysts believe a Romney victory would benefit India. They contend it is the Republican Party that has always favored India, and a Romney administration's likely pragmatic, business-friendly approach would favor Indian companies looking to do business in the U.S.

American voters may well see it in reverse: The more important issue for them is the outsourcing of American jobs to developing countries such as India. It's a big issue in India, too, as almost 60 percent of the revenue from the IT sector, a major contributor to the country’s gross domestic product, comes from the U.S., bringing employment for millions. That's why a phrase uttered by Obama in a 2009 speech -- “Say no to Bangalore and yes to Buffalo” -- ruffled many feathers here.

The rhetoric may matter less than the economic reality, though. Indian IT professionals feel that the tirades against outsourcing may last only until Election Day.

“Whoever wins actually doesn’t have much say in the issue because outsourcing is decided by the needs of the U.S. industry and other global economic reasons which are beyond the president’s control,” said Vasanth Raj. Besides, he noted, “[T]he Indian IT sector is more worried of outsourcing competition from countries like the Philippines, China and South Korea, than an outsourcing ban from the U.S."

What New Delhi would really want from Washington is support in its bid to join the United Nations Security Council as a permanent member, but that remains a long shot. “India should get into the UNSC as a permanent member, but both parties in U.S. have been blocking the move though they pretend to be sympathetic to India’s demand,” said political analyst G.N. Nagaraj.

Another important aspect centers on the differences between India and the U.S. in terms of trade practices. Each country has been threatening to take the other to the World Trade Organization, alleging unfair practices, for quite some time.

The U.S. also disapproves of India’s policy toward Iran. Even as the U.S and the West are going ahead with sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, India -- an important consumer of Iranian oil -- has not gone along, despite pressure from Washington.

However, neither candidate has spelled out his stance on these issues.

Obama has been criticized for not favoring India as much as some had expected, but support for the incumbent U.S. president remains widespread. Although Romney may appear to be a better choice for India from an economic perspective, Obama is still a hero for the average Indian.

The Two Biggest Democracies

“In India, Obama has a huge fan following mainly because of his ethnicity as a black American and for his open admiration for [Mohandas Karamchand] Gandhi’s principles. The middle class and common people adore Obama as they can connect better with him as African-American than with Romney,” said G.N. Mohan, a columnist with the Vijaya Karnataka newspaper.

Obama‘s Indian visit in 2010 was a great success with the people and the media, and  his address to the Indian parliament is considered one of the best oratory performances by any foreign head of state in the country.

The killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan further boosted Obama's image among Indians as a global leader who was tough on terrorism -- and it was also seen as an indication of his drifting away from a pro-Pakistan policy.

Whatever happens on Nov. 6, though, India is ready to move on with whoever is in charge in Washington over the next four years. The really interesting thing about this election cycle as seen by New Delhi may be precisely the uneventfulness of the election for Indians. They know that their country is now an established global actor, and that it can talk to America as a near-peer.

Venkatesh "Venky" Raghavendra, a philanthropist and entrepreneur who is active in both countries, summed up the relationship in hopeful terms: "I hope there is greater emphasis on people-to-people contact between the world's oldest and largest democracies. This will further strengthen the bond between the two nations. A greater exchange of ideas, sharing of innovations and skills across these two great nations should increase in the next phase."

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