India's big week: A visit from Obama – and Indian-American Nikki Haley wins her election

The election of Nikki Haley as the first Indian-American governor of South Carolina isn't a particularly big deal for self-assured India. But closer ties with the US remain a focus.

David Goldman/AP
Republican candidate for South Carolina governor Nikki Haley (second from l.) watches election results come in after the polls closed from a hotel restaurant with her husband Michael, son Nalin and daughter Rena on Nov. 2, in Columbia, S.C.

The election last night of Nikki Haley as the second US governor of Indian ancestry received brief treatment on Indian cable news. Mention her victory to young Indians in the buzzing financial capital here and they smile self-assuredly.

“I’m happy India has progressed so much. And I hope there comes a point when people from the US want to move to India” and run for office, says Samir Deshpande, a college student.

His friend, Amandeep Singh, notes that Indian-origin politicians have already won high office in countries across the West, particularly Canada, so it’s not so surprising anymore.

That self-assurance within India also suggests that President Barack Obama’s midterm setback will cause little worry here about his ability to deepen US-India ties during his upcoming visit. Recent polling finds Obama remains very popular with Indians, and Indians of all classes see US-India ties moving beyond domestic politics and even geopolitics.

“By and large the feeling here is Indo-US relations are on a roll, no matter who comes to power there, or who comes to power in Delhi,” says Yashwant Deshmukh, an Indian pollster. “What is changed: Seeing the US-India relationship in the framework of Pakistan, that has gone down” among Indians.

More than 7 in 10 Indians expressed confidence in Obama and nearly two-thirds have a favorable opinion of the United States, according to a poll last month from the Pew Research Center.

No blind trust

A yet-unreleased poll by Mr. Deshmukh’s firm, CVoter, found similar popularity for Obama but slightly more nuanced views about America. Deshmukh says that the Indian respondents were favorable to the US – but cautious.

“They are thinking we should go ahead with the US, it’s a big ally for the future. But at the same time, on the question of whether we should trust the US, the majority said yes, but not blindly,” says Deshmukh.

Obama remains popular among Indians because of his global celebrity, he says. The Indian masses, he adds, tend to lionize leaders who are seen as underdogs and who have overcome societal barriers like racism.

Books about Obama – including Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars” and the president’s own biographical works – are reportedly selling like hotcakes ahead of his arrival in India on Saturday. The midterm elections, mostly a nonevent here, should do little to change perceptions of the man, says Deshmukh.

Not every country’s relationship with the US is likely to remain so unrattled by Tuesday’s results, argues Stratfor, a strategic forecasting firm in Texas.

“One of the most widespread misconceptions about the US political system is that a president who is weak at home is by default weak abroad,” reads an email from the group. “But in reality, a president who is weak at home often wields remarkable power abroad…. In fact, a weak president often has no options before him except foreign policy. This is something that the rest of the world repeatedly has failed to grasp.”

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