Skip to main content

Why India feels jilted by Obama

By Ravi Agrawal, CNN
updated 11:07 PM EDT, Sun April 6, 2014
Poll officials carry voting machines in Nagaon, Assam, on Sunday in preparation for the national election.
Poll officials carry voting machines in Nagaon, Assam, on Sunday in preparation for the national election.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama predicted U.S.-India friendship would be defining alliance of 21st century
  • India and U.S. have been at odds over Crimea and Iran, says Ravi Agrawal
  • India blames the U.S. for the arrest of diplomat whose nanny complained of exploitation
  • Agrawal: U.S. needs to hit reset button and take advantage of elections to patch up relations

Editor's note: Ravi Agrawal is CNN's New Delhi Bureau chief and was formerly senior producer of the network's "Fareed Zakaria GPS." Follow him on Twitter: @RaviAgrawalCNN

New Delhi (CNN) -- When I left India to move to America 13 years ago, the President of the United States was George W. Bush, a man who was often internationally lampooned for mismanaging two wars and tainting Washington's image abroad. But moving back to India this month, I've been struck by the number of Indians who look back wistfully at the Bush years.

For Indians, Bush is considered a better friend than President Barack Obama. In fact, right now, Indians don't see Obama as much of a friend at all.

It didn't start off that way. In the early days of his presidency, in 2009, Obama marked India's Republic Day by saying Indians "have no better friend" than the people of the United States. A year later, when he visited New Delhi, he famously predicted India and the U.S. would form "the defining partnership of the 21st century." At the time, Obama won Indian hearts and minds as he chowed down kebabs at the city's famous Bukhara restaurant. The chefs created a special platter that exists to this day -- the Obama platter. (There was already a Bill Clinton platter, as well as a Hillary one.)

Ravi Agrawal
Ravi Agrawal

Today, the platters have gone cold: New Delhi feels jilted.

Instead of a defining partnership, Indians couldn't quite define where they stood. Talk of a G-2 -- a U.S. mega-alliance with China, an idea which didn't come from Obama -- inflamed old feelings of jealousy. Washington's impending pullout from Afghanistan, along with its generous aid to Pakistan, has stoked angst. But the real low point was reached late last year when an Indian diplomat in New York was arrested and then strip-searched for allegedly underpaying her nanny.

Obama likely had no prior knowledge of the case or the arrest, but still, the perceived American high-handedness turned out to be too much for India to digest.

New Delhi revoked privileges to U.S. interests in the country, and across India, there were anti-American protests. Regardless of the merits of the dispute, Indians wondered: If they had no better friend, was this the treatment they deserved?

The sense of betrayal is mutual. Washington feels let down, too -- and with some good reason. When Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine this year, India chose not to side with the United States but to abstain on a U.N. General Assembly resolution against the Russian action. (Russia is, incidentally, India's largest supplier of arms.) When Washington sought to coalesce support for stringent sanctions against Iran, the surprise spoiler turned out to be New Delhi, which said it needed Iranian oil.

What happened to what was promised to be a close friendship between the world's two biggest democracies?

Frosty India and U.S. relations?
A new age for India's Anglo-Indians

One could look to history for answers. Since its independence in 1947, India -- scarred by centuries of invasions and interventions -- has been a reluctant global player. Its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, co-founded the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of nations that aspired to steer clear of great powers and their geopolitics.

But 67 years on from its creation, India is now itself an aspiring great power, already among the top 10 economies in the world. Indian diplomats routinely express their hopes for India to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, joining the ranks of Russia, the United States, China, France and the United Kingdom.

And yet India's foreign policy has remained aloof, lagging well behind its growth. The country has about the same number of diplomats abroad as Singapore, a country with a population 1/250th of India's. The United States, with a population one quarter of India's, has 10 times as many diplomats. How can India make or maintain friendships when it has always stayed at home?

Instead of the past, Indians and Americans should look to the future and the potential it could bring. A recent Pew survey shows that despite recent troubles, Indians trust and like America. For every Indian expressing an unfavorable view of the U.S., four Indians are favorable. By another four-to-one margin, Indians say the U.S. is the world's leading economic power, not China. By a margin of 21 percentage points, Indians are more favorable to the United States than China.

The data should not be surprising. India and the United States have more in common than they have differences. One may be a parliamentary system, the other presidential, but both celebrate and cherish democracy, however chaotic and frustrating it can be. At any given time, nearly 100,000 Indians pursue degrees in the United States. Many of them stay on and contribute to American society and business. Strategically, as Washington competes for influence in Asia with China, it will find a natural ally in New Delhi.

U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama tour through Humayun\'s Tomb in New Delhi on November 7, 2010.
U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama tour through Humayun's Tomb in New Delhi on November 7, 2010.

Obama's early rhetoric was spot-on: The two countries share common ideals. But can they share a friendship and nurture it? Both sides need to take a long, hard look at the world around them and wonder what kind of role they want to play and who can help them do it.

As Indians head to the polls Monday to elect a new government, foreign policy is not a campaign issue. It rarely is anywhere. People tend to vote for the things that tangibly impact them: the economy, taxes, infrastructure, education, health care. But whether Indians realize it or not, the next few weeks could offer a chance to rejuvenate a troubled relationship.

Whoever India's next Prime Minister is, he or she has an opportunity to start afresh with the United States. Washington has already opened a door to this, suggesting that Narendra Modi, the current favorite for PM, will be allowed a U.S. visa. Modi was denied one in 2005 for his alleged complicity in Hindu-Muslim riots 12 years ago. More than 1,000 Muslims were killed. Modi was chief minister of Gujarat at the time, the state in which the riots took place.

The last time Washington tried to hit the reset button -- with Russia -- things went awry. But the stakes are too high to not try again. If it gets this one right, Obama will be vindicated: This century's defining alliance may yet be the one between the two biggest democracies in the world.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT