Monday, 26 January 2015

Why I was very happy to see US President Obama as Chief Guest at India's Republic day function

Last updated on February 4th 2015

I saw the entire Indian Republic Day function on TV today morning. Somehow I felt very happy to see US president Barack Obama and US First Lady Michelle Obama being the chief guests at this function, http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/obama-soaks-in-republic-day-spectacle-gives-thumbs-up-for-bsf-s-motorcycle-stuntmen/article1-1310778.aspx. The reports are that the crowd at the event too was very happy to have them there.

I wondered why it was that I was so happy about them being chief guests. So here is some slightly long analysis of that:

I became an adult (18 years) in 1980 around which time I think I was able to get some idea about India's relations with other countries, both from a people-to-people point of view, and from a country-to-country point of view, based on media reports and what I would hear in my circle of family & friends. At that time (1980), I think India had an odd relationship with USA. India's great friend was the Soviet Union, especially on the military front. Diplomatically, India was supposed to be Non-Aligned and so not favouring Soviet Union or USA. But, it seems to me, the military closeness with Soviet Union, and the fact that USA had military ties with a country that India had fought three declared wars with, the last declared war being in 1971, made the relationship with USA, at a country-to-country level, a not-so-comfortable one.

But even in 1980 (in Mumbai where I lived then), the people to people contacts between USA & India were not insignificant, with me knowing of a few, only a few, people who were known to somebody known to me (so second-hand), who had migrated to (settled down) in the USA. USA was the go-to land for the well educated middle-class in India as it provided a great material life without big problems like violent racism (at least in the places the well educated Indians settled down in). In contrast, I did not know of anybody who had migrated to the Soviet Union! Neither did I know of anybody who was actively considering going to the Soviet Union for higher studies or for work. So the Soviet Union was a great friend of India but people-to-people contact between Soviet Union and India was not known within my circle of family & friends (in Mumbai).

Another big factor for book loving people like me then, was the vast number of books written in English by American authors or non-American authors who wrote about America, both fiction & non-fiction, which were easily available in libraries (bookshops were too expensive for cash-strapped students like me then). I must have read tons of such books over the late 70s and 80s, from authors like James Truslow Adams (The Epic of America, http://www.amazon.com/Epic-America-James-Truslow-Adams/dp/1931541337), Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, to Mark Twain to Robert Prisig (Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance), Joseph Heller (Catch-22) to Issac Asimov (Foundation Trilogy), Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy) to Arthur Hailey, Robert Ludlum, James Hadley Chase, Mario Puzo (Godfather), Louis L'Amour etc. besides some poetry of Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe and others. Through these books I got a decent idea about the USA. Then there were Archie and other American comics, and, of course, Hollywood movies. The comics were easily accessible through the private libraries. Hollywood movies, as a student, required some effort & money as one had to go to South Bombay/Mumbai (upper class Mumbai) where the movies were screened. Once I started working, they became a lot more accessible/affordable but time was an issue. I must also mention that working-class Mumbai & surrounding areas where I lived (Bandra (E) in Mumbai, and later, Dombivli) in the late 70s and 80s did have theatres showing English movies as a single morning show though these typically were not the latest movies. I did see a lot of Hollywood movies then (80s) on Sunday morning, as Sunday was my off day (besides two Saturdays a month, if I recall correctly).

In marked contrast, as I (and most Indians) did not know Russian, I could read only Russian books translated to English, which in comparison to American books, were typically not available in private libraries. College libraries though did have some technical books translated from Russian to English, if I recall correctly, besides having works of great Russian authors like Tolstoy, Dostoyevesky & Chekov, some of which I did read.

In the mid-80s (1984) I started my software industry career as a trainee programmer in a company in Bombay (Datamatics Consultants). Almost all the important books and almost all the action related to important innovations in software, at least in my software technical areas, were happening in the USA! I have read tons of software books and technical manuals written by Americans!

In the second half of the 80s I made two trips to America involving a total stay of around one and three quarter years in the USA. That gave me direct experience of America, and I have very fond memories of my stay there. Further, in the second half of the 80s, even when I was in India I was doing a lot of software development work involving US customers, and so had interactions with them.

Now my experience above would be somewhat similar to the experience of many educated middle-class Indians during the late 70s and 80s, especially educated middle-class Indians living in the big cities of India like Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Madras (Chennai now).

I think another factor in the 70s & 80s is the belief that political rulers of India seemed to have in the socialist model being suitable for India and not the capitalist model of the USA. My memory is not very clear on this but I think a picture seems to have been painted by the political and media powers in India then that USA (capitalist) companies were only interested in maximizing their profit and not really bothered about helping people, and so should not be trusted. I think I too came under that impression to some extent prior to me getting direct exposure to USA software companies after I got into the software industry. [Today my view is that yes, capitalist companies, including the many Indian capitalist companies in existence now, are out to maximize profits but they do provide valuable/useful products & services and these companies can be regulated to ensure that their profit frenzy does not harm people at large through laws like anti-monopoly and unfair trade practices laws. The socialist model tends to create bureaucratic setups which are inefficient and not innovative. So an optimally regulated capitalist/free market model is, IMHO, decidedly superior to the socialist model.]

So, in the 70s & 80s, though Soviet Russia was India's great friend, and India-USA relationship as countries was not very good, many educated Indians got drawn to the USA.

Then the dissolution of the Soviet Union happened in December 1991, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dissolution_of_the_Soviet_Union. A little before that in the same year (1991), India faced a huge economic crisis, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1991_Indian_economic_crisis. India could make its way out of that crisis only through IMF help which came with conditions for economic reform (move to more free market model, I presume). So the early 90s seems to have been a very tough and game-changing period for India, in terms of its economic model and its relationship with Russia. India moved closer towards a free-market model and so got closer to USA in terms of the economic environment. Soviet Union ceased to exist and the new states of erstwhile Soviet Union, including Russia, were going through a great churn.

I think this early 90s period is when India as a country started moving closer to USA. The relationship with Russia continued on military hardware but without becoming a block to relations with USA.

Over the years, from the early 90s to today (early 2015), the people-to-people contact between USA and India seems to have grown by leaps and bounds, along with the Indian-American community in the USA having acquired a significant influence in the USA political sphere. Country-to-country relationship between USA & India also seems to have grown significantly during this period.

[About India's current relations to Russia, I am of the view that Russia is a time-tested and so trusted and great friend of India. India should continue to reciprocate this friendship with Russia. Better relationship with USA should not mean that India's friendship with Russia reduces. BTW I should add that as I now live in a spiritual town (for over a decade now), I have interacted with Russians & Americans who live in the same town (Puttaparthi, India). For example, I know an elderly Russian lady named Anna and a slightly less elderly American lady named Anne. Though I am able to converse comfortably in English with Anne, and have limited conversation with Anna (Da/Yes/OK, Nyet/No and Sairam :-)), all three of us are able to co-exist quite peacefully.]

Today, in January 2015, for the first time, a US president was the chief guest for India's republic day function. I think that is a clear indicator of how close India and the USA have come, from the 70s and 80s period that I described earlier. As democracies and former colonies of Britain (though the independence from colonial power is separated by close to two centuries), both countries have a lot in common, even if, from material progress point of view, there is a vast gulf between USA and India today. Also, as US president Obama said in his joint presser with Indian PM Modi yesterday, the India-US relationship getting closer is a reflection of the people of the USA and India having got closer.
From http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/afp/article-2925437/Modi-Obama-announce-nuclear-breakthrough-talks.html:
"In addition to a personal friendship, we are also reflecting the warmth and affection between the Indian people and American people," said Obama.

"It's not surprising that we have a friendship because hopefully we are reflecting the values of our peoples."
--- end short extract from dailymail ---

So, in my life I have grown close to USA and its people over these decades, and I think that would be the case with many, many educated and even not-so-educated Indians. Therefore it was truly fitting, and a very happy event for me, to have this closeness between many in India and many in the USA reflected by having US President Barack Obama and US First Lady Michelle Obama as the chief guests at India's republic day function.

Another reason for me being very happy with it relates to how Barack Obama has embraced people of various races and cultures, over the years of his US presidency. Many of his speeches on world platforms are world statesman-like speeches. He and the US first lady being African-Americans/blacks makes it more special. No offense meant to USA whites or other races, at all. I have had the privilege of having very good relations with many USA white people, and have great regard for them (and for other USA non-white people even though I have not had any significant interactions with them, so far).

But the current US presidential couple comes from a race that has been discriminated against quite badly in the past in the USA. Indians came under European colonial power rule for around two centuries, and so were quite badly discriminated against by the European colonial power then. That the chief guest for India's republic day function was not only the US presidential couple, but a couple who overcame the history of discrimination to rise to this top level, was great satisfaction for an Indian like me, as we Indians too have had to fight our way to material success and position overcoming the history of discrimination and suppression. It was an icing in the cake that the Indian counterpart to the US president, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, himself rose from a humble tea-seller position to the top post in India. I think Narendra Modi & Barack Obama being the top two democratically elected leaders gracing India's republic day function is a great triumph of twenty-first century democracy as it demonstrates its ability to allow determined & talented political leaders to rise to top positions from any section of society.

Hope my explanation for why I was very happy today about the Obamas being chief guests at India's R-Day function was not too long :-)

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An update on Jan. 30th 2015

Yesterday's The Hindu carried this article, The new entente with the U.S., http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-new-entente-with-the-us/article6831127.ece, by Amitabh Mattoo, a Professor of Disarmament and Diplomacy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

A couple of short extracts and comments:

In 2001, President George W. Bush called him (Robert Blackwill, former US ambassador & Harvard academic) to his ranch in Texas and said: “Bob, imagine: India, a billion people, a democracy, 150 million Muslims and .... Wow!” More than a decade after President Bush’s first exclamation, India-U.S. relations have truly reached their ‘wow’ moment.

[Ravi: Very interesting!]

President Barack Obama’s visit is so obvious a watershed in India’s foreign policy, and so overwhelming a development, that voices of dissent are mute or feeble. Not since India signed the treaty of peace, friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union in 1971 has New Delhi aligned itself so closely with a great power. More important, outside the Left, both within India and in the U.S. the consensus across the mainstream of political opinion favours stronger relations between the two countries.

[Ravi: A very happy change of attitude, IMHO.]

----end extracts----

Ravi: The other parts of the article are also interesting. So readers may want to read the entire article.

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