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Analysis: Don't underestimate the shift in US-India economic relations.
NEW DELHI, India — A scant 10 minutes after U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in India, he'd already made a few foes with his emphasis on jobs for Americans and reluctance to talk tough on Pakistan.
Though he stayed at Mumbai's Taj Mahal Hotel as a symbolic gesture, his speech commemorating the victims of the Nov. 26, 2008, terrorist attacks on India's financial capital neglected to mention "the P-word."
And though he mentioned Pakistan during his visit, it was not until his speech to the Indian parliament today that he struck the right note for Indians, saying "We will continue to insist to Pakistan's leaders that terrorist safe havens within their borders are unacceptable, and that the terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks be brought to justice."
Meanwhile, his advocacy of a permanent seat for India on the United Nations Security Council was probably not aggressive enough for Indian leaders, saying only, "In the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member."
But the economic achievements of the so-called "salesman-in-chief" may wind up meaning more for U.S.-India relations than tough talk or a host of promises of strategic partnerships. The reason: This time it's America asking India for help, and that may change the dynamic between the two countries.
Calling India "indispensable to addressing the challenges of our time," in a joint press conference with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi today, the U.S. president outlined a raft of political moves intended to complement the business deals his delegation cemented in Mumbai. Yet even the biggest agreements — such as the removal of barriers preventing the sale of sensitive technologies to Indian space and defense organizations — appeared to be at least partially concessions to facilitate trade.
"There's a perception that there is a little less asymmetry in the relationship," said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of New Delhi's Center for Policy Research. "This is the kind of give and take you expect between two powers who are mutually dependent on each other. In that sense there's a psychological shift that's significant."
Obama will take home about $10 billion in deals ranging from $1 million to $4 billion in size that are estimated to create more than 50,000 jobs in the United States. And according to the Confederation of Indian Industry, that's just the tip of the iceberg. India's buying of U.S. military and nuclear hardware and civilian aircraft could create more than 700,000 jobs in the U.S. over the next 10 years, the business lobby claims in a recent report.
And what is the U.S. giving? Apart from the lifting of export controls and supporting India's membership in the Nuclear Suppliers' Group, Obama and Singh announced that the two countries had agreed to expand cooperation in space exploration, clean energy research, health, agriculture and higher education. Among the concrete steps to emerge from the bilateral talks will be a new joint research center in India focused on alternative energy, a joint disease detection center and agricultural initiatives designed to rejuvenate the fading gains of India's "green revolution" — which was fueled in part by American scientists.
But the most important step forward in the India-U.S. relationship might be in the subtext. By coming to India primarily as the leader of a business delegation — and in the supplicant role of seller, rather than buyer — Obama recognized India's global ambitions, and its ability to attain them. As Harold McGraw, chairman of the McGraw-Hill Companies, put it, "He was selling. Yesterday, he was salesman-in-chief." And that, more than the public statement he made in his joint press conference with Singh, is proof positive that the U.S. president doesn't "think India is emerging. It has emerged."