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Epitaph on an Extravaganza

Obama’s Indian Outing

by P. SAINATH

Now that the media’s gush and drool over the Obama visit has run dry — thanks to other far more interesting events — it might be worth looking at a couple of ‘outcomes’ that much of our media seemed pretty taken with.

‘Twenty deals worth 10 billion dollars that create over 50,000 jobs.’ That was the headline repeated with breathless excitement, especially on the first day of President Barack Obama’s visit to India. These were jobs to be created in the U.S., with Indian money. But we were generously excited nonetheless. Here was a chief executive to be admired. Going out and getting the job — and jobs — done. A little perspective might help. Fifty thousand jobs are about what the United States has lost every week, on average, since December 2007. That is, for a straight 140 weeks.

This figure too, is a conservative official estimate based on numbers put out over three years by the official United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). On that same basis, the Associated Press reports the U.S. as having lost 7.5 million jobs in 35 months since December 2007. That is, over 7,000 jobs each day on average. Anaemic upward blips in private sector employment in a few months has changed nothing. And in reality, the bulk of those jobs have been lost since September 2008m at a rate far worse than 7,000 a day.

Even that is challenged by some economists who say the country’s actual unemployment rate is way above the officially stated 9.6 per cent. The AP report does mention that “There were 14.8 million people unemployed in (this) October. Adding those people to others who are working part-time but would prefer full-time jobs and those who have given up looking for work, nearly 27 million are ‘underemployed.’ That’s 17 per cent of the labor force.” Even of the 14.8 million ‘officially’ unemployed, the BLS tells us that about 46 per cent of those were jobless for 27 weeks or longer and 31 per cent were unemployed for 52 weeks or more. The U.S. needs to be creating over 3,00,000 jobs each month to get out of the mess. Nope, 50,000 jobs, if they actually materialize, won’t change much. But they do make a half-decent headline after a poll debacle. A good question, though, was why this was thought to be so important here, for us.

Leave aside how many Indian jobs the $10 billion of Indian money creates. It is not clear how many of those 50,000 jobs will come up in the United States proper. Or if there will really be 50,000 at all. Quite a bit of that manufacture you’re paying for could happen in countries other than the United States or India. Meanwhile, the U.S. Federal Reserve’s announcement — 24 hours after the mid-term elections on November 2 in the United States — that it would buy up over $600 billion of U.S. debt, came as a gift for corporate America. And still without any obligation on them to create any jobs. Nor do we know how much of our $10 billion, a trifling sum in comparison, will go towards jobs and how much of it towards corporate profit in both the United States and India. The year the U.S. saw its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, American CEOs took home bonuses worth $18 billion. Since the meltdown, more than a trillion dollars have been poured down the gullets of a corporate world that created few, if any, jobs. So what employment will they create with $10 billion? But it did give a beleaguered Mr. Obama a headline for home. Fifty thousand jobs, wow! a whole week’s worth. All perfectly normal blather. What was curious was our media’s excitement over it.

Far more important, was the cohort of over 200 corporate CEOs visiting India alongside the U.S. President. President Obama is, in his view, in the critical phase of ‘rebuilding’ his bridges with corporate America. The cosiness of this group tour was only part of what’s been going. And the approach itself was plainly in view for quite some time before his November 3 nightmare. Mainstream U.S. media argue that he has ‘alienated’ the corporate world and Wall Street and you cannot run America that way. In reality, Mr. Obama was voted to power amidst huge outrage over the September 2008 meltdown and the role of Wall Street and bankers in that collapse. (Mr. McCain had a five-point lead in the Reuters-Zogby poll at end-August.) He then allowed the guilty of Wall Street and the banks to not only get away unscathed, but also script the ‘recovery.’ This, even as millions of dollars of bailout money vanished in bonuses and executive meetings at exclusive resorts. As Alexander Cockburn says, the rapid pro-corporate moves and the threat to medicare and social security are crazy signals to his own core base, ‘which is organized labor and Black America.’

Yet, Mr. Obama’s move to the Right is relentless. The departure of his top economic adviser Larry Summers has only stoked a search for even more pro-corporate replacements. The Washington Post reported on November 17 that “The White House is eager to recruit someone from the business community for the job to help repair the President’s frayed relationship with corporate America.”

The fleet of 200 plus CEOs in India was, then, also part of that ongoing ‘repair’ process. For that’s what the visit was mostly about. A good ‘he cares’ headline at home. And a corporate-driven trip to drum up business through a Presidential tour funded by U.S. public tax dollars. Sure the CEOs paid for their own travel. But they would never have had the same access and impact on their own, without the American President to do the drumming. Material outcomes on that front will take time to unfold, though.

The other item hogging the headlines and much broadcast time was Mr. Obama’s ‘backing’ India for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. It pays to play on the Indian elite’s craving for certification from the United States. In the speech to which this ‘backing’ was attributed, Mr. Obama made two single-line references to India in the Security Council. Of these, one mentioned permanent membership.

His first line: “… we welcome India as it prepares to take its seat on the United Nations Security Council.” India does that anyway on January 15 as an elected non-permanent member. The second: “That is why I can say today, in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed U.N. Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.” This, after first calling for a United Nations that America accepts as “efficient, effective, credible and legitimate.” And one which has been fully ‘reformed.’ That being aeons away, he could safely look forward to India as a permanent member ‘in the years ahead.’ (Some argue that vital U.N. reforms would include ending permanent membership or veto powers in the Security Council altogether. But that’s another story.)

To Mr. Obama’s credit, he projected through the media at least, that jobs were a high priority. The Indian side, faced with an awful employment situation for far longer than the U.S., didn’t once mention the question of jobs. The anchors gushing about the 50,000 jobs in the U.S. haven’t a clue of the employment situation in their own country. Of how many millions have lost their work and livelihoods in the past decade. How fewer jobs are created each year in vital sectors. How the single state of Maharashtra lost two million jobs in 36 months before the recession began. How the recession here was utilized to get trillions of rupees worth of ‘stimulus’ packages for a corporate world laying off tens of thousands of workers. Meanwhile, Michelle Obama’s two dance interludes had a rock and awe effect. One commentator called her part “the real success story of the trip.” (And perhaps it was, given the rest of it).

The minutiae of discussions over the nuclear deal and the photo-ops at the luxury Taj Hotel (hardly the best symbol of 26/11) aside, the visit was about job headlines at home and a corporate market search. Which was quite logical from Mr. Obama’s view and interests. Was it logical for us in covering the visit? For our media (with some honorable exceptions in both print and television) to play the trip the way it did? To gush over rather than report it? To fail to focus on what was in it for us? Or is it that the dominant media totally identify with the manner and thrust of the Indian elite’s quest to be seated at the high table in the global hierarchy of nations?

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories From India’s Poorest Districts. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.