Obama's Visit to India Spotlights Both Prosperity and Dire Need

Two-thirds of Indians have a favorable view of the U.S.

Nov. 6, 2010— -- Sanjay Garg was among the Indians crowding the stores here to buy gold jewelry and other precious metals on Dhanteras, the first day of a five-day festival during which Hindus pray for prosperity and good health and splurge on coins and baubles.

But the young fashion designer's good luck came in black and weighed 3,200 pounds.

Picking up his new, Indian-made Chevrolet Cruze at a Delhi showroom crowded with buyers keen to mark the special day, Garg, 30, considers the $25,000 price tag very affordable.

India, at least in parts, is booming. "We don't need to serve the white people anymore," Garg says of Raw Mango, his high-end, traditional-clothing business. "Before, everything went for export, but now we can focus on our own domestic market."

India is the first stop Saturday of a 10-day, four-nation Asia swing by President Obama, who said Thursday that he hopes to open up markets to U.S. goods in Asia. He'll find here a more prosperous nation than in past years — but one that is concerned about terror threats and how the United States handles them. His other stops are South Korea, Indonesia and Japan.

Two-thirds of Indians have a favorable view of the USA, a Pew Research Center opinion poll reported last month. But businessmen are alarmed by Obama's perceived opposition to outsourcing, a major revenue-earner for India's surging information technology sector. And then there's the Pakistan factor.

"I want America and India to be closer than America is to Pakistan now," says Sanjay Rana, sales manager at a lights shop crowded with Diwali festival shoppers on Chandni Chowk, the chaotic heart of Old Delhi.

"Pakistan is not a good country," says Rana, 48, of the neighbor and old rival that the Obama administration recently awarded $2 billion for anti-terrorism efforts.

In India, there is "the suspicion that Obama's administration is being far too solicitous of Pakistan's concerns, without doing much about Pakistan's own support for terrorism," security analyst C. Raja Mohan says.

On Saturday, Obama is scheduled to visit a memorial to the victims of a 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai by a Pakistan-based Muslim terrorist group that seeks forced conversion to Islamic law. The terrorists attacked a train station, Jewish community house and the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, killing 166 people. Obama will stay at the hotel while visiting Mumbai.

The India that the president and first lady will see has transformed over two decades.

"We couldn't get a car or a telephone, all the things that the West takes for granted," says Sanjaya Varma, a metals consultant, of the socialist-leaning state of the nation in 1988 when his company, Tata Steel, sent him to work in the USA.

When Varma and his wife came back home to Delhi in 2007, the changes were jolting.

"TV was more or less non-existent when we left, as there were just two government channels — but now there are over 500," Varma says.

India's swelling middle class is estimated at 300 million, yet is dwarfed by the nation's 800 million poor living on less than $2 a day.

Today's typical young Indian wears Levi's, Nike sneakers and a Gap sweatshirt, and sips a Diet Coke with his Big Mac and fries, says commentator Dilip Bobb in this week's Outlook, an Indian news magazine. But the young oppose the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bobb says.

Indian author Avirook Sen challenges the view that U.S. popularity may be slipping. "Why is there still such a queue for visas outside the U.S. Embassy?"

One reason may be that the government sector remains as corrupt and inefficient as ever, Sen says. Only the private sector gets things done, Varma says.

The U.S. and India, the world's most powerful and largest democracies respectively, appear a natural fit. Still, self-interest rules, Varma says with a sigh.

"America is not going to do anything for India. America wants to put out fires worldwide, but there's no fire in India," he says. "America acts in its self-interest, and right now that's to arm Pakistan."

A crucial issue in this volatile region remains Kashmir, the Indian-controlled region also claimed by Pakistan. Some Indian Muslims hope Obama can intervene.

"He's head of the most powerful country in the world; he can do anything, including resolving problems in India-Pakistan relations, and the Kashmir issue," says Muhammad Alam, 30, a bookstore employee in New Delhi's Nizamuddin district.

Of equal importance, and more immediate relevance, is the need for improvements in basic living standards, Alam says. His neighborhood, a poor ghetto 500 yards from a famous tomb Obama will visit Sunday, lacks medical, educational and sanitation facilities, he says.

"There is a complete lack of development here, possibly because it is a Muslim area," Alam says. "Many dignitaries have come here, but nothing is done."

Sitaram Yechury, a member of India's Parliament and representing the Communist Party of India, worries about India's legions of poor farmers, if, as Obama advocates, U.S. agricultural products are granted more access, and also about a loss of independence in foreign policy.

"India is being drawn into a strategic framework with the USA" that "will draw India into an area of conflict with China rather than cooperation," he predicts.

The huge consumer markets of both India and China are seen as the savior of struggling Western economies, but "the USA should play a more reasonable role in settling conflicts here, rather than taking a position to establish its hegemony," Yechury says.