11/05/2010, 00.00
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India as the Obama administration’s new frontier

by Santosh Digal
The first visit by the US president is an opportunity for Indians to boost their country’s economic development but also improve their human rights, this despite the Indian government’s low expectations. New trade deals between the United States, India and other South Asian nations are a strong signal against the backdrop of Chinese expansion into the region.

Mumbai (AsiaNews) – The Democratic Party’s partial defeat in mid-term elections and the economic crisis have lowered expectations about what Barack Obama’s visit to India might achieve. New Delhi has already indicated it is not expecting any "big bang"; nevertheless, it will help creating a long-term strategic framework in which to boost economic and diplomatic ties and allow the two nations to join forces against terrorism. For Washington, it is also an opportunity to send a strong signal to the Chinese, who are increasing the size of their footprint in the region. Closer to home, for the US president, this Asian trip can open new markets for US companies and create new jobs for Americans.

Obama, who is scheduled to land tomorrow in Mumbai at the start of his four-day visit, will be staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel, where he will pay tribute to the 166 people killed in the 2008 terror attacks. In India’s economic capital, he will meet top executives from 350 Indian companies, and celebrate Diwali at the Holy Name Catholic primary school, in one of the city’s southern suburbs.

On Sunday, he will travel to New Delhi for a dinner with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. On Monday, he will attend a ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace (Rashtrapati Bhawan), which he will follow up with a visit to the final resting place of the Mahatma Gandhi at Raj Ghat. Obama has always said that he considered the ‘great soul’ one of his spiritual fathers.

For Fr George Plathottam, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India for Social Communication, the visit will bring the two countries considerably closer.  “I believe Indo-US relations will improve as a result of the visit. But America needs to trust India more in its commitment to fight global terror,” he said. In fact, “The perception in India is that US could do more” against Islamic extremism. Instead, “I think the US is more concerned with protecting their economic interest without adequately recognising India’s contribution to the global economy, notably in the information technology sector,” the clergyman said.

The role of India in promoting global peace and negotiating nuclear treaties, a more credible role for New Delhi in world bodies like the United Nations, around tables discussing global issues like the environment and the economy, all this points to a need for greater recognition from countries like the United States. For Father George, India cannot and should not be treated simply as a 'useful ally' but should be regarded as a partner in addressing these issues.

The greatest strength of Obama is his own personal history, which can send a powerful message to India, where caste and class-consciousness are still very strong.

“We have to shed our idea of domination and come out of the medieval mindset. There is no harm in learning lessons of equality, freedom of expression, equal opportunities and other democratic values from countries like the US,” the priest said.

Following the same line of reasoning, Lenin Raghuvanshi, executive director of the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), made a direct appeal to the US leader, asking him “to recognise the fact that millions of Dalit people in India are still in fetters and suffering the sting of caste-based prejudices, deprivation and marginalisation”.

The PVCHR official expressed hope that the US president would also address the issue of protection for religious minorities, especially Christians who are often the victims of violent attacks by Hindu and Muslim extremists.

Nirmala Carvalho contributed reporting.

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