Obama and India FDI

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Indian Protesters burning FDI poster at demonstration
Indian Protesters burning FDI poster at demonstration

New Orleans President Obama continues to sightsee and glad hand his way across India on his sales trip for US business interests, soft shoeing around the issue of jobs being outsourced to India, even as he argues to the US press that by meeting his sales quota over there, he will create jobs over here.  What’s really up on the subcontinent?  Thanks to ACORN International’s Dharmendra Kumar who directs our Delhi operations and the work of the India FDI Watch Campaign, which has long been one of our signature efforts in India, we have a pretty clear view.

Dharmendraji shared a report filed by Maulik Vyas Maulik in Sunday’s Economic Times on Obama’s remarks to Mumbai business leaders:

President Barack Obama today said India should lift restrictions on foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail, saying old concerns that small shopkeepers would be impacted ignore today’s reality.

Mr Obama, while addressing the US India Business Council summit in Mumbai on Saturday, Obama flirted with the issue that raises bogey in India by saying, “Here in India, many see the arrival of American companies and products as threats to small shopkeepers and to India’s ancient and proud culture. But these old stereotypes, these old concerns ignores today’s reality.”

“Going forward, commitment must be matched by steady reduction to barriers in trade and foreign investment from agriculture to infrastructure and from retail to telecommunications,” he said.

Those present including commerce minister Anand Sharma and planning commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia would have surely taken note of the US President’s hint that opening up the retail industry among others could mean better bilateral trade between the two countries.

A “hint” from POTUS is hardly persuasive and simply saying that restriction on FDI for multi-brand retail “ignores today’s reality” is hardly going to change the debate in India or sway any opinions one way or another in the Parliament.  If this was the boost that business was hoping to get from Obama, they were definitely left holding a big fat hot air bag.

Obama’s speech before Parliament in Delhi on Monday was even more general and obscure on this point.  This is all he said that came within a kilometer of pushing for FDI modifications in his speech:

Together, we can resist the protectionism that stifles growth and innovation.  The United States remains—and will continue to remain—one of the most open economies in the world.  And by opening markets and reducing barriers to foreign investment, India can realize its full economic potential as well.

It’s actually such a delicate carom off the bank that I should probably say that I think that was his pitch, and along with probably less than 20 Americans and probably more than one million Indians, I read every word.

FDI aside, where Obama obviously gave business what President Clinton once called in a conversation with me “a big wet kiss,” he clearly let the press go white hot on this while realizing that the “reality” of the politics in Parliament is still between “no go” and “go slow” on any modification in either multi-brand retail or finance (which was never mentioned anywhere at any time, so Wall Street, back of the bus, chumps!), and handled the politics accordingly both in the US and India.

The speech was actually well received in India and more interesting for other reasons to me at least.

In his Delhi speech Obama actually “represented” in a way that he has been unwilling or unable to in the United States in these polarized times.  The other day I was asked by a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor about how Obama might see India and our issues “as a community organizer.”  I had replied essentially that he was a long way from Kansas now and playing “a different game.”

In his speech rather than recoiling from his past as a community organizer, as he has over the last two years, he embraced it both humbly and eloquently:

Throughout my life, including my work as a young man on behalf of the urban poor, I have always found inspiration in the life of Gandhiji and in his simple and profound lesson to be the change we seek in the world.  And just as he summoned Indians to seek their destiny, he influenced champions of equality in my own country, including a young Martin Luther King [ Images ]. After making his pilgrimage to India a half century ago, Dr. King called Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance “the only logical and moral approach” in the struggle for justice and progress.

So we were honored to visit the residence where Gandhi and King both stayed, Mani Bhavan.  We were humbled to pay our respects at Raj Ghat.  And I am mindful that I might not be standing before you today, as President of the United States, had it not been for Gandhi and the message he shared with America and the world.

Using the expression “urban poor” is a signal to the troops!  His comments on Gandhi and King restored a little, dare I say, hope, in place of my pique the other day when he was quoted widely as saying his visit to Gandhi’s Mumbai house and seeing King’s signature on the guestbook was “cool.”

The end of his speech to Parliament and to the Indian people was Obama at his best.  Importantly he chided the government on not standing up for democratic principles as much as needed, which is important.  On some of his partnership projects, I’m clueless, but the end of the speech is the kind of sentiment, I was hoping for.  I hope the President can put substance to it:

Now, in a new collaboration on open government, our two countries are going to share our experience, identify what works, and develop the next-generation of tools to empower citizens.  And in another example of how American and Indian partnership can address global challenges, we’re going to share these innovations with civil society groups and countries around the world.  We’re going to show that democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for the common man—and woman.

As the world’s two largest democracies, we must also never forget that the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others.  Indians know this, for it is the story of your nation.  Before he ever began his struggle for Indian independence, Gandhi stood up for the rights of Indians in South Africa [ Images ].  Just as others, including the United States, supported Indian independence, India championed the self-determination of peoples from Africa to Asia as they too broke free from colonialism.  And along with the United States, you’ve been a leader in supporting democratic development and civil society groups around the world.  This, too, is part of India’s greatness.

Every country will follow its own path.  No one nation has a monopoly on wisdom, and no nation should ever try to impose its values on another.  But when peaceful democratic movements are suppressed—as in Burma—then the democracies of the world cannot remain silent.  For it is unacceptable to gun down peaceful protestors and incarcerate political prisoners decade after decade.  It is unacceptable to hold the aspirations of an entire people hostage to the greed and paranoia of a bankrupt regime.  It is unacceptable to steal an election, as the regime in Burma has done again for all the world to see.

Faced with such gross violations of human rights, it is the responsibility of the international community—especially leaders like the United States and India—to condemn it.  If I can be frank, in international fora, India has often avoided these issues.  But speaking up for those who cannot do so for themselves is not interfering in the affairs of other countries.  It’s not violating the rights of sovereign nations.  It’s staying true to our democratic principles.  It’s giving meaning to the human rights that we say are universal.  And it sustains the progress that in Asia and around the world has helped turn dictatorships into democracies and ultimately increased our security in the world.

Promoting shared prosperity.  Preserving peace and security.  Strengthening democratic governance and human rights.  These are the responsibilities of leadership.  And, as global partners, this is the leadership that the United States and India can offer in the 21st century.  Ultimately, however, this cannot be a relationship only between presidents and prime ministers, or in the halls of this parliament.  Ultimately, this must be a partnership between our peoples.  So I want to conclude by speaking directly to the people of India watching today.

In your lives, you have overcome odds that might have overwhelmed a lesser country.  In just decades, you have achieved progress and development that took other nations centuries.  And now you are assuming your rightful place as a leader among nations.  Your parents and grandparents imagined this.  Your children and grandchildren will look back on this.  But only you—this generation of Indians—can seize the possibility of this moment.

As you carry on with the hard work ahead, I want every Indian citizen to know: the United States of America will not simply be cheering you on from the sidelines.  We will be right there with you, shoulder to shoulder.  Because we believe in the promise of India.  And we believe that the future is what we make it.

We believe that no matter who you are or where you come from, every person can fulfill their God-given potential, just as a Dalit like Dr. Ambedkar could lift himself up and pen the words of the Constitution that protects the rights of all Indians.

We believe that no matter where you live—whether a village in Punjab [ Images ] or the bylanes of Chandni Chowk…an old section of Kolkata [ Images ] or a new high-rise in Bangalore—every person deserves the same chance to live in security and dignity, to get an education, to find work, and to give their children a better future.

And we believe that when countries and cultures put aside old habits and attitudes that keep people apart, when we recognize our common humanity, then we can begin to fulfill the aspirations we share.  It’s a simple lesson contained in that collection of stories which has guided Indians for centuries—the Panchtantra.  And it’s the spirit of the inscription seen by all who enter this great hall: ‘That one is mine and the other a stranger is the concept of little minds.  But to the large-hearted, the world itself is their family.”

This is the story of India; it’s the story of America—that despite their differences, people can see themselves in one another, and work together and succeed together as one proud nation.  And it can be the spirit of the partnership between our nations—that even as we honor the histories which in different times kept us apart, even as we preserve what makes us unique in a globalized world, we can recognize how much we can achieve together.

Big finish!  We’ll try to hold him to it at home and abroad!