One would not know from reading American newspapers that George Bush — who has become, we are (not altogether convincingly) told, something of a pariah in many parts of the world — had a second triumphal visit to India last week. It would certainly be safe to say that Bush has been keeping a rather low profile since he left the White House in January. Many of those who voted for Obama did so from the conviction that America had seldom had so poor a President as Bush. Whatever the limitations of every other candidate, many people were altogether clear in their mind that Bush and the doctrines that he embraced had to be jettisoned. Indeed, the Nobel Peace Prize conferred so strangely upon Obama has also been understood as a repudiation of Bush even more so than as an affirmation of anything that Obama might have done, other than bringing some degree of intelligence and honesty, as well as reasonable command over the English language, to the most powerful office in the world, that of the Presidency of the United States of America.
In the ten months since Bush relinquished the Presidency, he has made only two overseas trips, to South Korea and India. He is not likely to receive a warm welcome in most European capitals. His presence is everywhere a liability to the political leadership, except in India. His state visit to India in 2006, though predictably and for good reasons opposed by many intelligent people, was nevertheless viewed in India and among Republicans as a considerable success. On the present trip, Bush not only met with a slate of government officials, business executives, and policy types, but he also addressed the annual “Leadership Summit” hosted by the Hindustan Times. No one, apparently, found it incongruous that Bush should have been pontificating on, of all things, leadership: of course Bush would say that he knows a thing or two about leadership, among them how to bring a country to ruins, or how to push a reluctant world into a tumultuous war. If Indian newspapers accounts are to be believed, Bush received a standing ovation both as he came striding into the hall and as he emerged from it after sharing his wisdom with a fawning crowd.
There is but little question that the United States remains the middle class Indian’s idea of the good life. Many commentators in India are inclined to argue that Bush, moreover, is the best American friend that India has ever had, certainly the American President most receptive to India’s aspirations. Whatever his hostility to the countries that to him represented ‘evil’, Indians are aware that Bush never doubted that India fell on the good side of the divide. It is commonly supposed that Bush endeared himself to India’s politicians and elite with his energetic support for the civil nuclear cooperation agreement that was finally pushed through months before he left office. Bush respected the integrity of India’s ambitions in this and other domains and, as Manmohan Singh gratefully acknowledged, was instrumental in putting an “end [to] India’s nuclear apartheid.”
There is, however, much more to the embrace of Bush found in India’s business and political circles than the hand of friendship offered by him to India. In a cliché-ridden world, Bush found much truth in the idea that the world’s two largest democracies should be friends rather than adversaries. In his address last week, he unabashedly pronounced India “a force for stability and peace in one of the most strategically important regions in the world.” Bush’s simple-mindedness, many Indians are inclined to think, makes him capable of seeing things that Obama, brewing over the decisions that have to be made, overlooks. In a strange way, Obama is more versed in realpolitik than Bush. Both Bush and Obama, in their own ways, have taken the high moral ground, but Obama is, from the Indian standpoint, worrisome. Obama is seen as a proponent of a nuclear hierarchy, though of course his positions are couched in the language of respect for international law (including the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to which India is not a signatory), and the intelligence he brings to his job conjoined to his notions of moral probity makes him unusually dangerous.
That Bush should have been so warmly welcomed on the eve of Manmohan Singh’s state visit to the United States tells yet another story, a story of the strands of individualism and resistance that luckily have never disappeared from the Indian landscape. I should like to say as well that Obama has been amply warned that a way with words will not earn him much mileage in a verbose culture. When diplomacy perhaps demanded that Bush should have been kept at arm’s length, and certainly not been given access to political leaders, Indians did the very opposite. This, perhaps, is the saving grace of Bush’s visit to India.
For the text of Bush’s speech at the State Dinner in his honor at Rashtrapati Bhavan (The Presidential Palace) in 2006, see the companion post on this blog entitled ‘My Man Mohan: Dons of Democracies at Dinner Together’, 10 November 2009).