On the face of it, Barack Obama has much to look forward to when he visits India this weekend. His poll numbers at home may be at a low ebb, and his party may have been shellacked in Tuesday's midterm elections. But the U.S. president remains popular in the world's largest democracy, if not his own. According to the Pew Research Center, three out of four Indians say they have confidence in Obama (only two out of five Americans said the same in a July Washington Post-ABC News poll). The president will likely receive rapturous applause when he addresses India's Parliament, an honor denied to President George W. Bush on his visit in 2006. One of New Delhi's best known restaurants promises to unveil its much-anticipated "Obama platter," and the president's hotel in Mumbai is keeping a $11,250 bottle of Scotch handy, just in case.
But among India's commentariat, the lack of enthusiasm in the run-up to the president's visit is palpable. Some are disappointed by Obama's decision not to visit Sikhism's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The White House blames this on a packed schedule, but the popular view in India suggests a president fearful of covering his head with a cloth, as custom demands, lest he bolster the persistent myth in red-state America that he is a Muslim. According to one prominent commentator, TV anchor and columnist Barkha Dutt, Obama's presidency has traveled from "audacity to anxiety."
Nor are Indians thrilled by what many see as the United States' pampering of Pakistan, which received a $2 billion injection of military aid last month. A spate of newspaper stories and op-eds have suggested that Washington did not pass on intelligence about the Pakistani-American Lashkar-e-Taiba operative David Headley that could have helped prevent the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, which killed 166 people. Against this backdrop, Indians are bristling in advance at the thought of being asked to make nice with their Western neighbor. "Do we ask [the Americans] to kiss and make up with Osama bin Laden?" the widely read columnist Vir Sanghvi asked.
On Afghanistan, Obama's decision to announce the withdrawal of U.S. troops beginning in July 2011 and to back negotiations with elements of the Taliban hasn't earned him many friends in New Delhi. Simply put, Indians worry that they'll be left to bear the brunt of resurgent Pakistan-backed radical Islam in the region.
The United States and India's economic relationship is strained as well. On paper, the two countries are fast becoming close friends: Counting both goods and services, the United States is India's top business partner, with trade between the countries more than tripling between 2002 and 2008 from $19 billion to $66 billion, a whisker ahead of India's trade with China. But Indians are still smarting over an immigration bill passed by the U.S. Congress in August that makes work visas more expensive for software professionals, who are the symbol of India's economic rise. Not surprisingly, the president won't be visiting Bangalore, India's software capital. According to the Times of India, the (private) American organizers of a business summit for the president in Mumbai upset Indian CEOs by asking whether their companies were involved in outsourcing, a politically sensitive subject in job-starved America. Some detect a snub in Obama's perceived eagerness to keep a distance from anything that might play poorly with voters back home.