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Obama's year in office: The Indian-American verdict

Last updated on: January 25, 2010 23:39 IST

Obama righted ship of state: Nikore

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In conversation with Aziz Haniffa, Indian-American community leaders from both sides of the political spectrum evaluate United States President Barrack Obama's first year in office.

Varun Nikore, founder of the Indian American Leadership Initiative, acknowledges that "it's been a difficult and challenging first year for President Obama," but exudes optimism that ultimately, it's one, "I am certain, will be viewed as tone-setting for the remainder of his presidency."

Nikore echoes the sentiments of other Indian-American Democrats who argue that Obama inherited a mess from his predecessor.

"Last year, at this time," he recalls, "we were at the precipice of utter disaster." But after a year in office, "the President has returned stability to financial markets, overseen an orderly exit from Iraq, and presented a plan of action to bring closure to our mission in Afghanistan," Nikore says, adding that Obama's steadfast and calm management "has helped us right our ship."

On foreign policy, he says, Obama realised that how the US is seen in the world dictates how effective it is as a leader.

He acknowledges "some in our community believe that India has taken a back-seat to other nations", but argues that "President Obama has a unique understanding of the new world order, which will include a rising multi-ethnic India which shares a common value set of a multi-ethnic America."

And he says the community "should feel an immense amount of pride" in just this first year of Obama's presidency because "we've seen a record number of Indian Americans appointed to senior positions in this administration."

"On many of the major decisions made in this first year, an Indian American was central to the process," he says.

Looking back, Nikore says, "We'll say that this was one [year] that raised the bar for us as a community."


Image: US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the White House in Washington and (inset) Varun Nikore
Photographs: Larry Downing/Reuters
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Bhatia gives Obama an 'incomplete' grade

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Karan K Bhatia, who was the highest-ranking Indian American in the George W Bush administration, fears that under President Barack Obama, the US relationship with India is in danger of becoming 're-hyphenated.'

Bhatia, who was deputy trade representative in the final years of the Bush administration, says, "President Bush loved and was fascinated by India."

Reminded that Obama invited Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh as the first state visitor of his presidency and accorded India the honour of the first state dinner at the White House, Bhatia acknowledges "that was a very good gesture" but stresses that there really has not been many new developments on the bilateral front.

While the visit was "marked by good symbolism," just a week or two before Obama made remarks in China "that didn't sit too well with the Indians," he says.

According to the former senior Bush administration official, unfortunately, the defining element of the US-India relationship in the last five years has been the nuclear agreement. "And that's not still not implemented," he says.

"People are still unclear as to what the action forcing event is that is going to push it over the finish line. Because, typically, a prime ministerial visit -- a head of State visit -- is the kind of thing that gives you significant impetus to get these kinds of relatively modest things done," he says, asking, "If that visit didn't do it, what is going to do it?"

Using the analogy of Washington's relations with Beijing, he says, "Today, no major foreign policy decision is made in the White House or the State Department, without thinking what will China think about this I don't know if they have that same thought process about India, and they need to."


Image: Obama lights an oil lamp to celebrate Diwali in the White House and (inset) Karan K Bhatia
Photographs: Larry Downing/Reuters
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Obama not drawn to India: Reddy

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Narender Reddy of Atlanta, Georgia, a GOP fundraiser for many years, says several remarks on outsourcing to his faux pas in Beijing in designating China as the regional power in Asia cast doubts on President Obama's commitment to a strategic partnership with India.

Reddy is a real estate entrepreneur who was the founding chairman of the Georgia Indian American Republican Council, and an elected delegate and alternate to the Republican National Convention in 2004 and 2008.

Unlike Bush, who recognised India as a fellow democracy and an indispensable regional power in South Asia, that Obama had refused to involve India in resolving the Afghanistan issue, which is of concern to India, too, shows he does not recognise India as a regional power, Reddy says.

"President Obama gave two different messages at two state dinners in November 2009," he says. In Beijing, he described China as Asia's powerhouse. Later, at the state dinner he hosted for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he said, 'India is indispensable to the US.'

Reddy, who was invited to the state dinner President Bush hosted for Prime Minister Singh, says, "Indian Americans should not be happy with such superficial events."

Reddy concedes that more Indian Americans have been appointed than in any previous administration, but asks, "How many of these appointments are really in some crucial department, like the treasury, commerce, defence and state?"

Image: Obama at the Great Wall of China with Chinese diplomat Zhou Wenzhong and (inset) Narender Reddy
Photographs: Jason Reed/Reuters
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He will rebound like Reagan: Barve

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Democrat Kumar Barve, the Maryland House Majority Leader and the first lawmaker in the community to endorse Barack Obama for the presidency, says Obama will rebound from the current low.

Barve, the longest-serving Indian-American legislator ever, feels that despite the Democrats' loss of the Senate seat in Massachusetts, which may have killed health-care reform, President Obama will come back, as Ronald Reagan did after his first year as President.

"In the history of the American Republic, one principle is constant -- executives who enact their agenda succeed in the end. And executives like this are grudgingly respected, even by their opponents. The support of friends and grudging respect of enemies is the stuff of ultimate victory."

He predicts that by November the Obama administration will "have a remarkable number of accomplishments," although now things look dismal.

Barve says, "The party that caused the mess is now reduced to being obstructionist at best, or screaming, 'You lie' at the worst [referring to Congressman Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, shouting at Obama during a joint session of Congress]."

Barve acknowledges that "times have not been this tough since 1932 [the peak of the Great Depression]," but reiterates that "even an anxious electorate will have more respect for a President and the side that rolled up its sleeves than the side that is rolling out the invective."

"In American politics," Barve claims, "the whiners always lose in the end."


Image: Obama dances with wife Michelle at the Commander-in-Chief Ball and (inset) Kumar Barve
Photographs: Gary Hershorn/Reuters
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Administration has given Indians short shrift: Khan

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Republican Suhail Khan, who was a top official in the Department of Transportation in the George W Bush administration, says he feels for his mother, who changed parties and became an ardent supporter of Barack Obama, and the thousands of Indian Americans who voted for him. The country was in a sorry state and President Obama had largely ignored Indian Americans, despite their sacrifices during the campaign, he says.

He asserts that Indian Americans have a moral right to stand up, be heard and "convey our concerns to the President."

Indian Americans came out in record numbers and voted in a majority for Obama, but he is "yet to engage Indian Americans in any meaningful way," says Khan.

Khan also complains that Obama is yet to meet Indian-American leaders to discuss crucial issues, or even visit a temple or mosque, or appoint an Indian American to a cabinet or sub-cabinet level position.

Khan says Obama should remember that there is value to meeting Indian-American community leaders, because "whether the issue is health-care reform, civil liberties, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the US-India relationship, Indian Americans have an opinion."

He says Indians "are a resource, not just for money and votes, but for help in bettering our country, growing our economy, enhancing our national security, and helping bring peace to the world."


Image: Obama leaves after urging Wall Street to roll back executive bonuses and (inset) Suhail Khan
Photographs: Jim Young/Reuters
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First year has helped resurrect US image: Karthikeyan

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Hrishi Karthikeyan, co-founder of South Asians for Obama, which campaigned for then candidate Barack Obama, says the first year of the presidency has helped America resurrect its damaged image in the world, and helped restore civil liberties and the rule of law in the country.

Karthikeyan, an attorney by training, says President Obama "has done a lot, both in terms of projecting a new image to the world --- one of cooperation and multilateralism and constructive alliances -- but also respecting civil liberties and restoring the rule of law."

Even in terms of foreign policy, particularly involving US-India relations, he says doubts about the Obama administration's commitment to the envisaged US-India strategic partnership were erased after it accorded the first state visit and dinner to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

"It showed that President Obama understands the increasing role our two countries have to play within the next century," he says.

He feels Obama took tough decisions to pull the country back from the precipice.

"If you think about where we were a year ago and where we thought we might be, we certainly have come back from the brink and things have started to stabilise a bit," he says, admitting there is a long way to go.

Speaking of contributions to the community, Karthikeyan points to Obama's appointment of Indian Americans to senior positions in his administration. "He wants to reach out and identify the best and the brightest, regardless of background or color and wants to make sure that he's not just drawing from the traditional pool of talent," Karthikeyan says.


Image: Obama and Hillary Clinton tour the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo and (inset) Hrishi Karthikeyan
Photographs: Larry Downing/Reuters
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Obama has shown ability to juggle many issues: D'Souza

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Selma D'Souza, a veteran Democratic Party activist, says that despite facing the most difficult circumstances, particularly a labouring economy, in his first year President Obama has done admirably.

"It been a while in the history of the United States when a President has had to address so many tough issues so quickly," she says, asserting that by taking them on he has shown his critics they are wrong.

Along with Ann Kalayil, D'Souza was among the founding members of the Indian American Democratic Organization in Chicago, and the first Indian Americans to support Barack Obama more than a decade ago when he ran for the state senate.

D'Souza says that in his first year Obama brought the country back from the brink. "Economists predicted this recession a few years ago, and while no one really wanted to give tax dollars to save the banks and the car industry, which were failing due to their own mismanagement, the Obama administration had no choice."

As someone who has interacted with Obama for more than a decade, she says he has a personal knowledge of South Asia and was familiar with the Indian and South Asian American community for years. So, D'Souza says, it was no surprise that he decided to "set the right tone by honouring India with the first state visit of his presidency."


Image: Obama greets third and fourth grade students at a school in Maryland
Photographs: Jason Reed/Reuters
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He is making the transition from campaigning to governing: Teppara

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Dino Teppara, the new chairman of the Indian American Republican Council, says President Obama's first year "was marked by some very high points and some very low moments."

A Capitol Hill veteran, Teppara worked for Congressman Joe Wilson, (South Carolina Republican) for seven years, the last two years as Wilson's chief of staff and counsel.

At the outset, Teppara credits Obama with continuing what he describes as "President Bush's legacy of appointing Indian Americans to high-level positions in his administration."

"However, there has been a steady downward slide since his inauguration, which marked the high-water mark of his first year," he says, claiming that Obama's poll numbers "indicate the fastest drop in approval ratings for a President in his first year in more than half a century."

He also predicts that climate change, health care and the proposal to give green cards to illegal aliens from Mexico in just six years while Indians wait 8 to 10 years, will make the American people revolt.

Since he heads the IARC, Teppara says it will fight for legally working Indians who are passed over for illegal aliens.

"We're going to fight for our community members who faithfully followed our immigration laws," he says.


Image: Clinton with US Aid Administrator Rajiv Shah at the Port-au-Prince airport and (inset) Dino Teppara
Photographs: Hans Deryk/Reuters
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