“How many times do you get the call, “I like to talk to you about your credit card?”
“You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.”
This was Joe Biden, the long-time senator and now US vice-president, mimicking Indian-American techies on two separate occasions in 2006 and 2012. His politically incorrect remarks were disparaged widely and attributed to his penchant for verbal gaffes; the US media made much of it, but Indian-Americans in Delaware knew their senator better and didn’t seem to mind much. This time round, expect the 70-year old Joe Biden to say Namaste in India, with an Indian accent. What he said can be re-phrased now: You can’t go to Asia-Pacific, Afghanistan or anywhere in the world without talking India and taking India along.
Indian accent in Afghanistan
An Indian accent, for one thing, will certainly help in Afghanistan where Afghans duck the daily dose of mayhem and mania to slip inside their home to watch the latest Indian family sop. The flow of goodwill for India in Afghanistan is such that even Pakistanis pretend to be Indians to get hugs from big-hearted Afghans. Mercifully, the US is showing signs of moving beyond ambivalence, and is looking afresh at India’s Afghanistan role even as it muddles through a contentious reconciliation process to square up the oxymoronic good Taliban. Biden, the flamboyant US senator known for connecting with the average Joe as opposed to the slightly distant, professorial Barack Obama, has rightfully lauded India’s role in Afghanistan ahead of his maiden trip to New Delhi, setting a robustly positive note for the first US vice-presidential trip to India in the last three decades.
John Kerry’s assurance that India’s interests will not be undermined while pursuing reconciliation has been re-affirmed by Biden. What Biden says seems to carry a lot more conviction -– Kerry apparently still carries a lot of baggage for India despite his spirited attempt to recharge India-US ties during his trip to New Delhi three weeks ago. Biden has, therefore, sent out a positive signal to India’s diplomatic-strategic establishment that Washington will not be selfishly cavalier in manouevering its exit from the violence-torn country. The red-lines have been reaffirmed by the US, with an added emphasis.
“We strongly support the role India has played in Afghanistan, leveraging its economic strength to improve Afghanistan’s economy …in projects that will help to ensure our common goal of a stable and prosperous future for the Afghan people,” Biden said in an interview to the Times of India. Earlier, a senior Obama administration official announcing Biden’s visit underlined that “India is an essential partner in a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan.” India has an “important role as a development partner and in supporting economic development in Afghanistan; also supporting institutions of the Afghan state”, he added.
Most important, the official said Biden would convey to his Indian interlocutors the US’ “view that the necessary outcome of any Afghan-led process that involves the Taliban has to be breaking with al-Qaeda, renouncing violence and abiding by the terms of the Afghan constitution.” India has ploughed in over $2 billion in multifarious reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, ranging from building roads, bridges and power stations to building the Afghan parliament and a host of grassroot development projects that are transforming the lives of ordinary Afghans.
The India Story
While some strategic dissonance will continue to persist on Afghanistan, Biden’s forceful articulation of India’s pivotal role in the Asia-Pacific theatre should find a bigger constituency in India and in the region that is dealing with the rise of China and its ramifications.
Besides seeking a strategic congruence on key geopolitical issues ranging from Afghanistan to Asia-Pacific, Biden is expected to signal easing of trade-related irritants for scaling up bilateral trade five times to $500 billion in the next few years. He is also expected to unveil an ambitious all-encompassing agenda for the India-US relationship and the US vision of India as a key global player. “The United States has welcomed India’s emergence and both nations have profited from it,” the vice president said. “India’s rise as a global economic power is one of the most powerful stories of the 21st century,” he stressed.
Doing More: Dial 456, not 123
Biden has also raised the bar for the multi-pronged India-US relations, saying that while the world’s two biggest democracies have a “tremendous capability to work together,” they should be doing more. The sentiment “on doing more” with the US is equally strong in New Delhi despite sceptics cavilling about the India-US relations drifting into a trough. But to do more, the two countries need to complete the unfinished business of the summer of 2005 when the hitherto estranged democracies made a leap of faith to transform their bilateral relations by sealing a path-breaking nuclear deal. Biden had then played a stellar role in building the Democratic consensus and winning over nuclear ayatollahs in his party to back the 123 nuclear pact. Eight years hence, it’s time to fructify the big deal, along with the larger promise of the nuclear rapprochement, and move on to 4-5-6 in the India-US relations.
Next time, dial 456, with an Indian accent, if you like; no credit card needed.
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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