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Obama Heads To India
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Obama Heads To India

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Obama Heads To India

Obama Heads To India
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President Barack Obama begins a four-country diplomatic tour starting in India. To learn what this trip means for the relationship between America and India as well as what India's most pressing concerns are, host Michel Martin speaks with Anand Giridharadas, The New York Times columnist and author of “India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking.” Also joining the conversation is Siddharth Varadarajan, strategic affairs editor of India's national newspaper The Hindu.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Ahead of President Obama's trip to India this weekend, we'll talk about Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. That is later.

But first, today, what does the president hope to get done on his first trip to South Asia? He's been focused on the midterm elections, of course. And one of the centerpiece issues of that election was the ailing economy.

Tomorrow, he lands in a country with an economy that is booming. India now boasts more than 50 billionaires and the most expensive single family home on the planet. At the same time, the city of Mumbai is the cultural and financial capital of India and also is home to Asia's biggest slum. Here's a part of what Mr. Obama said at the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue earlier this year.

President BARACK OBAMA: The United States values our partnership not because of where India is on a map, but because of what we share and where we can go together. India's indispensable to the future that we seek.

MARTIN: Now, the president on Wednesday said that the whole focus of the trip is to, quote, "open up markets so we can sell more goods." Joining us are Anand Giridharadas. He's a columnist for the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times online. Also with is Siddharth Varadarajan, the strategic affairs editor and the New Delhi bureau chief for the national daily Hindu newspaper. Thank you both for joining us.

Mr. ANAND GIRIDHARADAS (Columnist, International Herald Tribune and New York Times Online): Thank you.

Mr. SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN (Strategic Affairs Editor and New Delhi Bureau Chief, The Hindu Newspaper): Thank you, it's a pleasure.

MARTIN: So, Anand, if you would start. Is this trip important to India?

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: I think it is important to India. It's important to both countries which have a history, over the last several decades, of alienation because of Cold War politics. And those politics fell into the past in 1989, but the relationship took a while to warm up.

And from the Clinton years through the Bush years, there was a real warming. And in particular, George Bush, who has, as we all know, a kind of penchant for simple overriding ideas like democracy, a lot. And saw in India a country that proved a lot of his points, and did went out on a limb and did a lot to cement that relationship and then they reciprocated.

MARTIN: But why indispensable? President Obama used the word indispensable. Why indispensable?

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: In a way, these are two countries at opposite ends of the economic spectrum, different parts of the world that are, in my view, the two great Democratic experiments, very different Democratic experiments.

The American one came much earlier, the Indian one is, in a way, the most challenging Democratic experiment on the planet in terms of testing in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multilingual society in which very few people have something in common can you still make this system of by the people, for the people work.

MARTIN: And, Siddharth, you're in India now, and it's always hard to assess, you know, the public opinion in a country as large as diverse as India is, but I am curious if there is excitement, interest in this visit by the president?

Mr. VARADARAJAN: There is interest and excitement, but it's not so much as a mass level. I mean I think it's more at the level of policymaking circles, businessmen, those who follow foreign policy. I mean there is some awareness of the unique personality of Mr. Obama, and there was a lot of excitement when he won the election.

But I think since then, the Indo-U.S. relationship hasn't exactly set the Ganges on fire under Mr. Obama. And I think for that reason, there are some misgivings about how warm a relationship Mr. Obama wants in India. And I think for that reason, there are some keenness to be able to probe him and see how the visit goes, what he brings with him, what he expects to take away.

MARTIN: Well, you know, President Obama has made a number of significant gestures toward India. For example, when the prime minister came to the United States, the president held the first state dinner of his administration for him, which was of course a very grand affair.

The president is also visiting India for three days, that's the longest consecutive period he's spent in any one country as president. So I understand that these are symbolic gestures. Are there other substantive issues that Indians feel the president has not touched upon?

Mr. VARADARAJAN: You know, there have been some differences, some divergences between the two sides. For example, on economic issues and communication and they gear on the tendency of President Obama and American politicians to use the outsourcing issue as something as a stick to beat India with. I think there has been (unintelligible) recognition on the American side of the rather raucous nature of Indian democracy, where decision making can be delayed and when a decision on certain economic and trade, religious matters is at stake (unintelligible) the liking of the United States.

So I think that there are these - plus, on Afghanistan, there are some misgivings about the American relationship with the Pakistani military, for example, and their willingness to put pressure on the Pakistani armed forces to sever their links with extremist organizations. So there are a bunch of issues which have, in a sense, given rise to misgivings. But at the same time I think, you know, Indo-U.S. relations, there's a high degree of continuity.

I think there's some anticipation about whether (unintelligible) Obama can pull a rabbit out of the hat - a big announcement or something which will indicate that there is still a lot of chemistry, a lot of, you know, big decision making power left from this relationship. Right now, it seems more like the continuation of a process.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about President Obama's upcoming visit to India with Siddharth Varadarajan of The Hindu newspaper, one of the largest newspapers in India. Also with is Anand Giridharadas. He is a columnist for the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times online. And he's also the author of a forthcoming book called "India Calling."

So, Anand, on to some of the substantive differences between the two countries or points of disagreement between the two countries, could you just tell us, are there some substantive things that India hopes to accomplish with this visit?

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: I think what India hopes to accomplish is just building on what Siddharth eloquently said. I think this is something that Washington actually doesn't really know, that's really important, that a lot of Indians feel dissed by Obama. And yet you're right, the gestures have been there at a personal level. He's very complimentary, the speech you played, et cetera. So, why do people feel dissed?

I think there are two things to mention in addition to what Siddharth said. The first is India was treated as an exceptionalist nation in the Bush years. And whether it is exceptionalist or not is beside the point. Once you're treated that way, it's hard to go back.

I went to Secretary Clinton's press conference in Bombay about a year and a half ago. And I was struck by, in her press conference, the language had changed so much from the Bush years.

If you took the transcript, you could have substituted the word India for Korea, Brazil, any emerging economy. There's not this transcendent sense that India has some meaning beyond being one of many rising powers that the U.S. wants to do business with. And that's a shift that Indians have felt very palpably.

MARTIN: Are you saying that India is seeking a sense of a sort of a deep cultural, political, economic relationship in the same way that, you know, Great Britain feels that it has that kind of relationship with the United States? Tell me - help me understand what it is you're talking about.

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: That's precisely the point, although it's not so much something that was initiated by Indians.

So in the Bush years, I can't tell you how many Bush administration officials who literally described India as the Great Britain of the 21st century and the Great Britain of India, America's new special relationship. That language has gone. And India feels it.

MARTIN: What is being sought? What would be desired?

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: I think the economic point is an important one. There's a lot of - two sides of it. One is, a lot of the American pressure on all developing countries is, open up your banking sector, open this, open that. Let Citibank in, let people in.

There's not always a sensitivity about the difficulties the countries have in doing that very quickly. If India opens up the banking sector, it would be paralyzed by strikes for the next three years. There's not a subtle sensitivity to those issues.

And then on the economic side, outbound from India, you have outsourcing and things like that, and the U.S. shows a lot of reluctance about opening its markets in that sphere. And there's truth on both sides of this. But there's a sense in India that India should open everything up to U.S. companies. But when Indian companies want to go to the U.S., there's hesitation and doubt and fear.

MARTIN: Siddharth, before we let you go, and I do want to, again, note and thank you for being willing to talk with us while Diwali is going on and we're hearing the explosions and the firecrackers in the background. So thank you for being willing to put up with all this.

But one thing we really haven't talked about is security for the visit and national security more broadly. I think many people will remember that India is probably still recovering in some ways from the attack on the hotels in Mumbai in November 2008. Is there concern about security?

Mr. VARADARAJAN: As far as the visit goes, I think the security situation is pretty locked down. I think the Indians have learned a lot from the attack, which happened in Mumbai in 2008. So I don't think that's an issue of concern necessarily.

But why the question of how India and the United States can work together to deal with the threat of terrorism, I think that's a big issue on the agenda. And, you know, there was this case recently of a guy called David Headley, who was a double agent.

And this guy was making multiple visits to India before and after the attack in Bombay, which the American side knew about because they were tracking this guy. They knew he was doing work for the terrorist organization. And they never informed India in time. They told them only after they finally decided to reel him in.

But there are questions being asked even within government, but especially at the level of the media, about how willing is the United States to cooperate with India in the fight against terror. And I think that this is an issue which Obama probably will be expected to clear the air on when he's here.

MARTIN: And, Anand, the final thought from you, in part, because as we mentioned, you have a forthcoming book where you talk about the India of your grandparents and parents' era and comparing that to the India of today. And all of the various sort of technological and cultural changes which we are seeing.

I'm always curious about the fact that we just had these elections and another first in the United States, Nikki Haley is the first woman of South Asian descent who will lead a state. She's going to be the governor of South Carolina, following on the success of Bobby Jindal, who's the governor of Louisiana.

We also have this television season, for better or for worse, we have a number of, you know, Indian-American characters or characters whose South Asian heritage is, you know, visible and part of the story line. I am wondering whether these developments in the U.S. are affecting the relationship between the two countries in any way.

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: I think, in a way, what's happening is a leveling of a certain cultural playing field. So if you live in India and you turn on the TV at any hour, there's a certain number of Indian people on TV and there's a lot of American people on TV. There's, you know, Rachel and the gang in "Friends" and there's "Seinfeld" and there's "Two and a Half Men."

And that familiarizes Indians with how Americans are, how they think before they even have their first diplomatic gathering in a way that the reverse often doesn't happen. We don't often watch a lot of Chinese shows and all of that in this country.

And the more you kind of normalize other people in American popular culture, the kind of less it becomes a special event and more of it becomes kind of ordinary to think about having relationships with all these countries. So I think, yes, it does, at the level of the subconscious at least just make other people more normal to us and increase the prospect of good relations.

MARTIN: Anand Giridharadas is a columnist for the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times online. As we mentioned, he's the author of the forthcoming book, "India Calling." Also with us, Siddharth Varadarajan. He is the strategic affairs editor and the New Delhi bureau chief for the national daily Hindu newspaper. And I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. GIRIDHARADAS: Thank you.

Mr. VARADARAJAN: Thank you very much.

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