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Opinion: President Bush visits India

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-02-27

George W. Bush's three-day visit to India this week highlights Washington's resolve to support the Subcontinent in becoming an economic superpower and a standard-bearer for democracy in a volatile region.

India's record in promoting secularism and combating Islamo-fascism is also viewed by his administration as a model for many of the world's other 134 developing countries that are being riven by ethnic and social strife, often generated by malevolent foreign sources.

While White House officials are understandably low-key about the prospects of new bilateral initiatives during Mr. Bush's trip, India already represents a genuine foreign-policy and diplomatic success for the president.

He has acted to strengthen the economic corridor between the two countries and ratcheted up their political relationship after long years of mutual distrust when New Delhi - although nominally "nonaligned" - mostly favored the erstwhile Soviet Union in international fora, and Washington viewed Indians as prickly and quick to censure the West.

Indians remain prickly, a cultural characteristic that's unlikely to be transformed by the easy bonhomie that Mr. Bush exudes. But his ready humor, his skills as a retail politician, and his respectful courting of Indian Prime Minister Singh - a much older man than the president - during the latter's visits to America last year, have secured for Mr. Bush an enduring respect among India's politicians and businessmen.

There will be some cavilers during the upcoming presidential trip, of course, prodded no doubt by India's dyspeptic Left that views Mr. Bush's administration as neo-imperialistic and exploitative of the masses.

But these very masses will most certainly shower special affection on Mr. Bush. After all, nearly 3 million of their brethren live or study in America - they annually repatriate $10 billion to India - and more millions visit as tourists or conventioneers. Vast numbers of Indians look to America as a beacon of freedom and the most open society in the world. It is unlikely that, at the moment, there's any other country where Mr. Bush would elicit such outpouring of public sentiment.

His visit will underscore the economic opportunities and political possibilities for America in the world's biggest democracy, and its largest middle class - some 450 million people out of a population of 1.2 billion.

Mr. Bush, who has invited dozens of top American CEO's to travel with him, will be surely heartened by the fact that India's appetite for American goods, technology and investment in manufacturing and securities, and for political cooperation, seems insatiable.

India, which is coming into its own, may not be totally bowled over by Mr. Bush, of course. But the Texan's ready humor, his skills as a retail politician, and his respectful courting of Prime Minister Singh - a much older man then the president - during the latter's visits to America last year, have secured for Mr. Bush an enduring respect among India's politicians and businessmen.

There will some discordant notes, to be sure. India's dyspeptic Left will make heard its view that Mr. Bush's administration is neo-imperialistic and exploitative of the masses. But his reception will be warmed by the fact that nearly 3 million Indians live or study in America - they annually repatriate $10 billion to India - and more millions visit as tourists or conventioneers. Vast numbers of Indians look to America as a beacon of freedom and the most open society in the world. It is unlikely that, at the moment, there's any other country where Mr. Bush would elicit such outpouring of public sentiment.

His visit will underscore the economic opportunities and political possibilities for America in the world's biggest democracy, and its largest middle class - some 450 million people out of a population of 1.2 billion. Mr. Bush, who has invited dozens of top American CEO's to travel with him, will be surely heartened by the fact that India's appetite for American goods, technology and investment in manufacturing and securities, and for political cooperation, seems insatiable.

"There's unprecedented scope for American companies - including in public-relations and communications - to plant their flags in India today," said Ayesha Dahra, a well-known marketing specialist in New Delhi who represents India's largest fashion house, Satya Paul Inc.

"After years and years of making it difficult for foreign companies to do business here, India has opened up in a big way," Ms. Dahra said yesterday. "The Europeans are rushing in. I think there'll be a welcome mat for Americans. The room for growth is endless. President Bush will hear this message from everyone during his visit."

The CEO's accompanying the president are bound to read the tea leaves laid out by Mr. Bush, even if for some of them India is little more than a cheap hothouse for back-office outsourcing. While the current U.S.-India merchandise trade is a relatively puny $20 billion annually, Commerce Minister Kamal Nath predicts that it will double within three years. Within three years, too, India's overall exports will triple to $300 billion, according to Mr. Nath, an unabashed fan of America, if not of Mr. Bush.

"India has gained momentum," Mr. Nath said. "With 75% of the population under 30, we will need to increase our efforts to boost trade, and to create more jobs. We need a sounder infrastructure, too."

While America is already India's biggest trading partner, there is scope for American vendors in India's burgeoning retail market, which is soon likely to be fully open to foreign companies. Wal-Mart is angling to get in. So are half-dozen smaller American retailers eyeing the Indian middle-class's rising purchasing power as well-paying jobs come on-stream in technology, industry, telecommunications, and transportation, among other fields.

Commerce Minister Nath's concerns about infrastructure improvement are also likely to be weighed by the visiting American delegation. Some of its members are certain to put in bids for the $500 billion in infrastructure contracts that the Singh government is handing out in the next three years.

Beyond the question of domestic development, the president will hear concerns from the Indians about their unresolved territorial and diplomatic disputes with neighboring Pakistan, particularly over the mountainous Kashmir province that both countries claim. He will hear, too, about other key issues such as the transfer of American nuclear technology to meet the energy needs of a rapidly industrializing, but still poor, nation.

While America is already India's biggest trading partner, there is great scope for American vendors in India's burgeoning retail market, which is soon likely to be fully open to foreign companies. Wal-Mart is angling to get in. So are half-dozen smaller American retailers, who salivate over the Indian middle-class's rising purchasing power as well-paying jobs come on-stream in technology, industry, telecommunications, and transportation, among other fields.

And while Indian moralists sporadically vent their spleen over perceived licentiousness in Hollywood movies and television programs, those shows - mostly in the English language - continue to be widely popular in a country of 15 major languages and 874 dialects. Some of India's Communist commissars are known to prefer New York wines over their California counterparts, and American spirits over libations from France (whose president, Jacques Chirac, visited India last week to sell military jets, if not foie gras, and predictably muttered mischievous thoughts about les Americains).

Mr. Bush may not be necessarily viewed as an emissary of American popular culture. But his personal faith may resonate well in a country that is largely God fearing and family oriented. Also likely to resonate well is the presence of Laura Bush; her background as a librarian and as a first lady who emphasizes reading among young people, will go across well in a society where education is prized.

What Indians are also certain to appreciate is that the Bush visit offers a sterling endorsement of Indian Prime Minister Singh's decision to pursue free-market policies. It offers tacit tribute to Mr. Singh for standing up to shellacking by local Communist recidivists who stubbornly hew to shibboleths and slogans of an earlier - and discredited - era when big government fostered vast bureaucratic corruption and political venality.

Of course, it's not going to be all marigold garlands, caparisoned elephants, curries and mango juice. The president will also hear concerns from the Indians about their unresolved territorial and diplomatic disputes with neighboring Pakistan, particularly over the mountainous Kashmir province that both countries claim. He will hear, too, about other key issues such as the transfer of American nuclear technology to meet the energy needs of a rapidly industrializing, but still poor, nation.

He will be cautioned that, however inviting its economic prospects - Deutschebank predicts that India's economy will be behind only the US and China in another 25 years - India is still a developing country. Its gross domestic product is barely $700 billion, well short of the $2 trillion that is generally considered the benchmark for a country to be considered an economic giant. Some of India's Asian neighbors have far outstripped its economic record, which was adversely affected by long years of Fabian-style socialism and the concomitant dominance of a corrupt bureaucracy that required licenses for virtually every economic activity.

Mr. Bush's political career did not parallel that period. He was scarcely born when India obtained its independence from Britain 58 years ago. He will be only the fifth president to travel to the Subcontinent, whose population of 1.2 billion people - including a middle class of 450 million - is exceeded by only that of Communist China next door.

But unlike Dwight Eisenhower in 1959, Richard Nixon in 1969, Jimmy Carter in 1978, and Bill Clinton in 2000, Mr. Bush will see an ancient country that is shedding the socialist legacy of founding father - and India's first prime minister - Jawaharlal Nehru.

Mr. Bush will hear that to successfully overcome that debilitating socialist past, India will need more foreign direct investment from American sources. Currently, India gets just about $4 billion in FDI annually, compared to $54 billion for China, and $8 billion for Thailand (which has a population of 65 million). He will, to be sure, be encouraged by the fact that a bright spot is India's tourism sector, which fetched $4.9 billion in 2004, a gain of $1.6 billion over the previous year. More Americans than ever before are visiting India.

The significance of more FDI lies in the fact that more American money can translate into more jobs. Mr. Bush will undoubtedly be told by Prime Minister Singh that the fundamental objective of India's economic development needs to be poverty alleviation. Infrastructure development is another priority.

Still another priority needs to be irrigation and water supply. Primary education and health care are also critical. Deficit reduction needs to take place. The cohort of those living in extreme poverty is growing. That means some 400 million Indians earn less than the equivalent of US$2 a day, the largest such group in the world. The technology revolution and the development of energetic securities markets have not much helped this cohort.

Mr. Bush will glimpse this cohort as his motorcades course through the capital city of New Delhi, and then Agra - site of the Taj Mahal - and Hyderabad, a southern city that's emerged as a hub for technology, along with neighboring Bangalore.

The president will be lavishly feted. His hosts will toss encomiums in the traditional mellifluous Indian manner. They will apply the auspicious red vermilion paste to his forehead, and they will compose poetry for his wife. They may not expect him to dance with village belles as Mr. Clinton famously did six years ago, but Indians will expect Mr. Bush to be ebullient in a country where Americans are hailed for their good cheer, and have never been shunned.

The president leaves for home on March 3 and makes a pit stop in neighboring Pakistan, an American ally in the global campaign against terrorism - but India's traditional rival with whom three major wars have been fought since independence in 1947.

Perhaps the collective mood in India may change after that. Mr. Bush is expected to attend a cricket match with President Musharraf. What will they talk about? But then again, Indians may take heart from the knowledge that Mr. Bush himself is a baseball man.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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