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Fact and friction

Rahul Singh (PERSPECTIVE) / 14 December 2012

MOST INDIANS were thrilled when Barrack Obama became the first African American President of the USA, four years ago.

And they were just as happy when he was re-elected recently. Despite the fact that two of the politically most prominent Indian Americans, governors Bobby Jindal and Nick Haley, were Republican supporters of Mitt Romney, the majority of Indian Americans in the US voted for Obama.

Why this overwhelming preference among ethnic Indians for Obama? At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, let me hazard an answer. I believe Indians see him as being, like them, a fellow “coloured” and therefore empathise with him. They know that African Americans faced an uphill struggle for equality with their Caucasian masters. A bloody civil war was fought for the abolition of slavery in the southern American states and a long civil rights struggle, led by Martin Luther King, who was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, eventually resulted in the fulfillment of King’s “dream”. But both he and President Abraham Lincoln, fell to assassins’ bullets, as indeed did Gandhi. Obama was in a very real sense the inheritor of the moral values of Lincoln and King. Indians, too, have faced racial discrimination, first in India itself at the hands of the British and also when they ventured overseas. Hence, they have a feeling of shared racial solidarity with Obama.

I will go a step further and say that another reason why Indians identify with Obama is his smartness and great intellectual ability. He is probably one of the cleverest and most academically qualified American presidents ever. The only president who comes to mind who can match him is Woodrow Wilson.  

Till fairly recently — certainly till the end of the colonial era — many “whites” considered themselves intellectually superior to  the “coloured” people.   The white colonialists were undoubtedly militarily superior, which is how they built their colonial empires. This military superiority was illogically taken to imply intellectual superiority as well. Obama destroyed that myth, just as Indians have done the same by becoming the highest earning minority group in the USA, through being smart and hard working.

Obama also has genuinely warm feelings for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whom he has praised for being one of the most scholarly leaders in the developing world. When Obama became President, Manmohan Singh was the first prime minister to make a state visit to the US, which was reciprocated the following year by Obama.

The American president has also supported India’s case for getting a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. India, in turn, has  provided defence contracts worth over $9 billion to American companies. In addition, India’s Information Technology (IT) industry employs some 35,000 American workers, while Indian companies have pumped in $30 billion in investments into the US economy in the last five years.

Over 100,000 Indian students study in American universities, the second highest in number after Chinese students. Clearly, when Obama described ties between his country and India as “one of the most defining partnerships of the 21st century” he was not exaggerating.

However, there is a downside in this relationship: The outsourcing issue. Obama made this a major campaign plank, repeatedly saying that American jobs had been “Bangalored” by Indians. He was of course referring to India’s IT capital, Bengaluru (earlier called Bangalore) and how Indian companies like Infosys and Tata Consulting Services (TCS) had been able to get Indians to do the same work as Americans, but at far lower rates. Obama made it sound almost like those jobs had been unfairly usurped from Americans.

But isn’t that what competition is all about?  And hasn’t competition been the holy grail of the US and of capitalism in general? Obama needs to seriously consider this fact.

Rahul Singh is the former Editor of Reader’s Digest, Indian Express and Khaleej Times



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