In India, a World of Hurt Over a Perceived Obama Slight

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 13, 2008

NEW DELHI, Nov. 12 -- In the days after Barack Obama's historic victory, Indians began to sound just like a long-suffering South Asian mother nagging her son abroad: Why haven't you called?

The U.S. president-elect had spoken to 15 world leaders, Indian newspapers reported, including Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of India's on-again, off-again adversary, with whom Obama was said to have chatted for 20 minutes.

So when Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh still hadn't connected over the weekend, newspapers and TV talk shows were filled with bruised feelings over what has been dubbed "the no-call incident." "Obama snubs India," read a headline on the OneIndia news portal.

"You found time to call Pakistan," chided Azhar Usman, a visiting Indian American stand-up comic performing at a New Delhi college campus Sunday. "Why not call India?" he said, wagging his finger. "We are waiting."

The issue loomed so large that Singh addressed the flap Tuesday, explaining that Obama had attempted to call him Saturday. Singh said he had been unable to take the call because he was on his way to Oman and Qatar.

Asked by an Indian reporter why Obama had chosen to "ignore India," Singh said: "That is not true. What happened was we could not establish contact because the time suggested was too short for us to interact. And I was traveling."

The prime minister's office announced plans for "a telephonic conversation" with Obama within days or hours. Early Wednesday, the long-awaited call finally took place.

"The prime minister said that relations between India and the United States were very good, but that we could not be satisfied with the status quo," said a statement released by Singh's office.

Singh congratulated Obama and said his victory would inspire "oppressed people" all over the world, sources in the prime minister's office said. He also invited Obama and his wife, Michelle, to visit India.

Obama praised the contribution that Singh had made to India's progress as a former finance minister and as the country's current leader.

The perceived slight highlights a certain ambivalence here about Obama. The Indian government has enjoyed close relations with the Bush administration, which helped it secure an unprecedented and controversial nuclear deal this year, ending its isolation on the issue.

"Often reviled as America's worst president, Bush was New Delhi's darling, courted irrespective of the popular mood," said a cover story in India's Outlook magazine last weekend.

Although many Indians celebrated Obama's win as historic, some said they were nervous about his views on outsourcing jobs to India. Obama has said he would offer financial incentives to create jobs in the United States. There is also dismay over the idea Obama has floated of sending a third-party mediator to the disputed region of Kashmir.

"India is watching closely what will happen on these issues," said Mahesh S. Panicker, a political analyst in New Delhi. "There is a mood of caution, and that's why there is chatter over the communications."

Still, many Indians said they were not worried about the no-call incident. It was Indian astrologers who first predicted victory for Obama, they said, and Obama boosted his popularity among Indians when he mentioned the Gandhi poster hanging in his office and the tiny figurine of Hanuman, the Indian monkey god, that he carries.

"We are making a mountain out of a molehill. We are a great nation and a global player. So we don't become lesser or greater because of a phone call," said Lalit Mansingh, a former ambassador to the United States. "Let's give this situation the benefit of the doubt."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company