x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Mr Obama leaves India, but South Asia's fears remain

It took a distant friend to spotlight the yawning gulf between two neighbours. It took the US president to remind them about their rich, shared past and the incongruity of the present.

It took a distant friend to spotlight the yawning gulf between two neighbours. It took the US president to remind them about their rich, shared past and the incongruity of the present.

Still, let us not delude ourselves. Barack Obama did not visit India and skip Pakistan because he loves Indians more. He was not on a mission to spread sweetness and light. It was a business trip. And as Calvin Coolidge said, the chief business of America is business.

Twenty business deals worth $14 billion (Dh51.4 billion) could create, as Mr Obama emphasised for the audience back home, nearly 54,000 jobs for Americans. When unemployment is near 10 per cent in the US, this is no small feat.

Mr Obama was in India to sell the US economic agenda, pushing Indian businesses that have been the chief beneficiaries of the outsourcing revolution to invest back in the world's largest economy, which has been teetering on the brink.

The global economic tide has indeed begun to turn. Who knew that long-colonised nations would take the upper hand so quickly. 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 unthinkable.

This could have been a moment of triumph, not just for Indians but for long-disinherited peoples everywhere. But Indians helped to spoil it: even as the country patted itself on the back for its new status as a world power, commentators complained from the moment that Mr Obama set his foot in Mumbai until he departed from Delhi.

Ever big on symbolism, Mr Obama chose to kick-start his passage to India in Mumbai and stayed at Taj Hotel, the landmark that witnessed the carnage of the Mumbai attacks, in a gesture of strength and support for India and its people. The speech he delivered in the presence of families of the victims saw him at the height of his eloquence.

Yet all the pundits and cynics of South Asia could hear was the fact that the "P" word did not figure in Mr Obama's fine speech. They shook their heads in collective disappointment when the US leader talked of extremism and terrorism, but did not squarely lay the blame where they thought it belonged: at Pakistan's doorstep.

Pakistan's ghost shadowed Mr Obama wherever he went. From business barons to students at St Xavier's in Mumbai to hard-nosed hacks in New Dehli, everyone confronted him with Pakistan when his trip was about far more than India's rival relations. It was as if some thought he was Mohammad Ali Jinnah himself, and that he had to answer for the creation of the so-called land of the pure.

One studious woman even made the mistake that so many Americans have made, addressing Mr Obama as if he was a secret Muslim by asking him what he thought of jihad. To his credit, Mr Obama answered the question gracefully and to the best of his ability: "This great religion in the hands of a few extremists has been distorted to justify violence."

Even after his press conference, in which he warned Pakistan against creating "safe havens for terrorists", and his powerful speech in Parliament in which he paid tribute to India's democracy, diversity and the remarkable progress in the past two decades, the pundits continued to hedge: Mr Obama hadn't said "enough". He didn't declare Pakistan a "terrorist state" in unequivocal terms. His words had yet to be followed by action against Pakistan, they argued. Clearly, if it was in their power, the honourable pundits on television would have ordered the US president to launch an attack immediately against the "menace" next door.

Pakistan's fear of India is perhaps understandable, given its relative smaller size and weaker military. But India's compulsive insecurity, which reared its head repeatedly during Mr Obama's visit, just doesn't make sense any more.

Why should India fear and obsess over a country that is not just smaller in size but is going through a serious existential crisis? It would be like America losing sleep over Venezuela.

This continued obsession is especially tragic given that India and Pakistan were one country and one people not too long ago. Arguably, no two countries share as much as these South Asian twins. Languages, culture, music, food and, for some, even faith. What unites them is much more than what divides them.

Mr Obama went out of his way to demolish the wall of distrust that divides these neighbours today, instead of playing India and Pakistan against each other as visiting western leaders often do. 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 neighbours to engage.

Even as he acknowledged the wounds India has suffered at the hands of terrorists, he went to great lengths to underscore the complex nature of the challenges facing Pakistan. These were the words of a true friend and well-wisher of both nations, repeatedly stressing that India has a stake in a stable and secure Pakistan.

Mr Obama's visit held up a mirror to two South Asian neighbours, helping them to see themselves more clearly, warts and all. It was a reality that many weren't prepared to see. But the world is much bigger than their old grievances. The world is moving on. When will India and Pakistan?

 

Aijaz Zaka Syed is an Indian writer based in Dubai who has written extensively on the Middle East and the Muslim world