The view from here: India and Obama's election

From Frontline, India's national magazine from the publishers of The Hindu.

Obama’s historic victory breaks the conservative spell at this watershed moment in global affairs, but it would be wrong to pin too many hopes on him.

If India’s policymakers could secede and create a separate country, it would be a safe bet that the new state would join the ranks of a minuscule minority of the world’s nations, such as Israel, Georgia and the Philippines, which rooted for John McCain in the United States presidential election and are in mourning over the landmark victory of Barack Hussein Obama.

The mood of disappointment and foreboding that prevails in the corridors of power in New Delhi over Obama’s impending presidency is totally at odds with the overwhelmingly positive, even euphoric, sentiment the election result has generated in both the Indian and the global public.

The nostalgia that large sections of our ruling class and business elite feel for George W. Bush’s presidency cannot be explained solely by the oft-heard trite statement that Bush “may have been bad for the world, but he was good for India”; so good that, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh famously told Bush: “The people of India love you deeply.”

This, of course, is a patent absurdity. A deeply destabilised, unhappy and insecure world, which Bush did so much to bring about by waging war and spreading hatred, cannot be in India’s interest. The consequences of Bush’s adventurist policies and actions – including the global economic crisis, dangerous climate change, the massive destruction and Islamophobia (and extremist reaction to it) caused by the occupation of Iraq and war in Afghanistan, intensified rivalries with Russia and Iran, besides a more skewed global order and considerable weakening of multilateral institutions – are undoubtedly harmful for India.

They cannot be offset by the parochial “gains” from the U.S.-India nuclear deal and the deepening India-U.S. strategic alliance, even assuming these gains are real – a proposition this column has seriously and repeatedly criticised.

What our policymakers feel really threatened by is the eclipse of the era of neoconservative domination of the U.S. and the world to which they had attuned their own policies to the point of bandwagoning with Washington.

There lies the rub. The true significance of Obama’s historic victory is that it breaks the long conservative spell over U.S. society and politics – decisively and through a remarkable grassroots mobilisation process based on the promise of healing social divides, which was pivotal to Obama’s campaign. That is what makes his victory different from, say, a hypothetical win by Democrats John Kerry or Joseph Biden.

The triumph of a black in a society where he could have been sold as a slave just 140 years ago and where African-Americans could not vote barely four decades ago is itself cause for celebration.

The import of Obama’s election is all the greater because it comes at a fateful moment in world history, when multiple crises have converged – including a global financial meltdown and a ballooning economic crisis, discrediting of the neoliberal economic model, decline of U.S. hegemony, a continuing climate crisis, and major changes in the geopolitical situation. These have put a big question mark over the very notion of development as market-led accumulation of capital and material goods to which human needs must be subordinated.

In this sense, this is a generalised crisis of the bourgeois order or capitalist civilisation, whose resolution demands radical remedies: a new egalitarian economics, a new democratic politics based on mass participation and real accountability, and a new geopolitical order based on justice and equity, which demands major changes in relations between states and peoples.

New Deal? Obama has a historic opportunity to address these epochal issues. Domestically, he has the mandate to inaugurate a New Deal, by re-regulating the economy, getting the state to intervene to meet people’s needs through massive health care and social security programmes, and launching large-scale public works. In the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt energised American society and economy through his New Deal by launching public works, including 40,000 buildings, 8,000 parks, 72,000 schools and 80,000 bridges.

These dramatically reduced poverty, put purchasing power into the hands of people, promoted equity, built up the infrastructure, and generated a big economic stimulus. The entire cost of these programmes (in today’s dollars) was about $500 billion. This is only a fraction of the $2 trillion-plus that the U.S. is spending on merely stabilising the banking system temporarily.

Obama will be under pressure from the establishment, including his own advisers from the Chicago free-market economics school, to tinker with the regulatory margins and bail out corporations and banks, without breaking with the neoliberal paradigm. This would only perpetuate Casino capitalism and the cycle of destruction, restructuring, concentration and yet more destruction.

Yet, the logic of Obama’s promises on health care, education, taxation and social security, and his $200 billion package of economic measures under discussion, is such that he will be impelled to discard that paradigm – if he remains true to his word. These measures include expenditure on roads, ports, bridges and other public works.

Progressive climate policy Obama will probably adopt a far more progressive policy than the Republicans on energy and climate change, with a promised investment of $150 billion over 10 years to develop renewable sources.

Under Obama, the U.S. is likely to take a less hostile approach to the Kyoto Protocol. But his earlier proposal to put an economy-wide cap on greenhouse gas emissions, and get industry to buy carbon credits from the government, might be diluted given the domestic economic crisis. Obama can be expected to opt for a better civil liberties policy, probably outlawing torture and severe interrogation methods, and closing down Guantanamo Bay detention camp. He will probably also relax immigration and citizenship policies, making life easier for America’s 12 million illegal migrants. This too is welcome. However, whether he moves to dismantle intrusive surveillance and other harsh provisions of the PATRIOT Act is an open question.

Obama is likely to face stiff resistance to all his progressive measures. Much of his economic agenda will depend upon the Cabinet appointments he makes and the advice he listens to. Going by present indications, the two top candidates in the running for the Treasury Secretary’s post are former World Bank chief economist Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, chairman of the New York Federal Reserve. Neither inspires much confidence of a break with deregulation and other neoliberal policies. So the jury is still out on this issue, although a change of direction seems likely.

Positively disturbing is Obama’s very first appointment: Rahm Emanuel as the White House chief of staff. Emanuel is a conservative Democrat, a Washington “insider” and a former investment banker, who has been close to the family of Chicago mayor Richard Daley, a controversial political operator. Emanuel will control access to the President.

On foreign policy and security issues, Obama is likely to adopt a far better posture than the Republicans. He promises a less arrogant U.S. and a return to a multilateralist and cooperative approach. This will be a welcome departure from the Bush-McCain agenda. Although he promises to set a 16-month timetable to withdraw troops from Iraq, the U.S. is likely to maintain a substantial military presence in Iraq, including bases and “advisers”.

Obama is likely to induct more troops and intensify the war in Afghanistan. Unless this is done in cooperation with Pakistan, and under its initiative, this could turn out to be highly problematic. Obama’s original remarks favouring unilateral strikes in Pakistan against Al Qaeda-Taliban militants are unlikely to be helpful although he has tried to revise them.

It is on Iran, Russia, nuclear weapons and Son-of-Star-Wars-style ballistic missile defence that Obama’s role would be extremely positive. If he begins a dialogue with Iran, stops expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) close to Russian borders, delays the deployment of Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) in Poland and the Czech Republic, and renews the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) due to expire next year, while de-alerting and disarming a substantial number of nuclear weapons, he will have made a major contribution to defusing rivalries started or aggravated by the Republicans.

It may be unrealistic to expect Obama to take a major initiative on resolving the Palestinian crisis. His bizarre statement on an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel does not speak of a high level of engagement with that fraught issue. But a detente or settlement with Iran could change the face of West Asia. The central issue in all this is whether Obama is prepared to acknowledge that the neocon project has failed and that U.S. power is in decline and will shrink further in the future. This remains an open question. Obama’s agenda may turn out to be mixed, not radical enough.

One thing is clear, though. Indian policymakers must stop viewing Obama through a Republican-tainted prism or by narrowly focussing on his statements on Kashmir, outsourcing and nuclear proliferation, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

If they want to engage Obama, they must address broad-horizon global and regional issues such as West and Central Asia, multilateral institutions, a Bretton Woods-II, and structural changes in the global financial system, including strict public regulation, controls on capital mobility, and a global economic reconstruction programme. It is unclear if they can rise to the challenge.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran journalist and peace activist from India.