Obama's Mixed Signals For Pakistan and India

At only five days into his transition period, Barack Obama may have already made several mistakes in his relations with the countries of India and Pakistan that could cloud his relationship with two of the most powerful and influential nations in that part of the world.

Obama’s first odd move was to appoint Google financial adviser Sonal Shah to his transition team. Shah, a well-known 40-year-old economist and Indian American, is controversial in Pakistan for having links to a Hindu nationalist political party as well as a few other extremist groups based in India.

As soon as Obama brought Shah onto his team, tongues in Pakistan began to wag about the “controversial” economist for her connection to VHP-America. The Pakistani news service Daily Times pointed to connections between VHP and a group suspected of sponsoring riots that targeted Muslims and Christians in Gujarat, India.

Vishwa Hari Parishad (VHP) and its student wing Bajrang Dal are believed to have been involved in the massacre of over 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat and for the last three months have been carrying out a sustained campaign against Indian Christians in Orissa.

In that same editorial, Daily Times piece, Khaliid Hasan voiced more concern over Shah’s addition to the Obama team.

Sonal Shah has been the national coordinator for VHP-America and her father has been associated with the Overseas Friends of the BJP. Further, her organisation IndiCorps works with a VHP-sponsored initiative called the Ekal Vidyalayas – or single-teacher schools with a curriculum steeped in instilling hatred against non-Hindu religious minorities. Ekal Vidyalayas have played a key role in anti-minority violence in the states of Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. IndiCorps founders also have a close relationship with controversial Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

There are also some connections between Shah’s family and the Hindu nationalist party Sangh Parivan. This group has been accused of being xenophobic, possibly even verging on fascist. But whatever the case, Sangh Parivan, is certainly quite a strict party less interested in working with others than in forcefully promoting what they consider traditional Indian Hindu values and power. Of those connections, the Hindustan Times said that Shah “has well established rightwing leanings.”

Whatever Shah’s connections, this seems an odd choice for Obama to make if he wants to stave off controversy in an already controversial and troubled spot of the world. And once again, we seem to find a Barack Obama that constantly surrounds himself with people that have extremist leanings and connections.

Another mistake that Obama has already made concerning that part of the world is the fact that during his initial rounds of phone calls to world leaders, he excluded Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yet did call Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari.

India is also a bit put off by the claims that Obama may focus on the Kashmir conflict as his first issue to tackle in the Sub Continent. Word has leaked out that Obama intends to try to intervene in the Kashmir conflict as a sop to Pakistan and to India’s consternation.

Indian apprehension about what Senator Obama may have in mind for Kashmir is palpable. Suggestions the Obama administration might seek to intervene and force a settlement of the Kashmir dispute, holding that out as a carrot to Mr Zardari for Pakistan to commit itself more forcefully to defeating al-Qa’ida and the Taliban, got a swift response yesterday from Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

“This is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan,” Mr Mukherjee said bluntly, thereby effectively ruling out any intervention by Washington.

It seems a bit presumptuous of Obama to promise Pakistan that he’ll “solve” the Kashmir problem without bothering to mention the fact, or even giving a call to, the government in India, isn’t it? Further, many Indians feel that a U.S. led Kashmir peace deal will be dead on arrival. Kashmir is seen as a minefield in Indian politics and an Obama misstep in this delicate internal issue could set back a decade of improved U.S./Indian relations.

Worse, India had already been wary of Obama during the campaign over his anti-free trade stance and his signaling that any future trade agreements will be weighed down with labor standards and social demands.

India’s leaders had developed a great working relationship with George W. Bush and there is fear that this will be instantly lost under Obama.

The greatest scepticism about an Obama presidency lies among Indian strategic elite, who are focused on promoting India’s economic and political interests in the wider world. They found an ally in that cause in Bush. Whatever Obama’s ethnic credentials, India’s government has detected in his statements reason to believe that he will be less supportive than Bush.

India is an upcoming international power and Pakistan is still highly important to our War on Terror but Obama has already put them both at raised eyebrows with his inexperience and lack of knowledge of the situation there. Let us hope that these mistakes made so early in Obama’s administration are not harbingers of things to come in clumsy American dealings with two of the most important allies in Asia.

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