Obama's Indian electoral strategy

His campaign mentions the passing of a revered Indian general. McCain's doesn't. How's that going to play in the swing states?

Published July 2, 2008 6:31PM (EDT)

Last August, Barack Obama scored points with India when he declared that the United States must be ready and willing to attack Al Qaida targets in Pakistan. On Monday, he made even more friends in the country when his campaign issued a statement of condolence honoring the passing of India's first Field Marshal, General Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw.

How the World Works follows U.S. political developments with pathological obsessiveness, and yet saw not even a whisper of this news in the U.S. blogosphere. But in India, where Manekshaw is revered as the general who defeated Pakistan in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, leading to the creation of an independent Bangladesh, people took notice.

The Times of India, for example, observed that neither the McCain campaign nor the White House saw fit to so much as mention Manekshaw's passing. Shame, shame.

Let's outsource the political analysis:

The statement, which comes at a time when the Indian government itself is under attack for its lackadaisical treatment of a national hero, is emblematic of the image the Obama campaign has sought to build for its principal -- that of a thoughtful, accomplished, well-read candidate who is on top of world affairs and day-to-day developments. Evidently crafted by an alert aide, the statement also helps hit the right ethnic buttons in the US...

Obama, his supporters say, is of a different mettle and tempered at a different time. He is the first presidential candidate who is not an Europeanist or Atlanticist. His foreign policy experience is not contaminated by the Cold War. His roots, upbringing, and experience, although mostly American, have shades of Asian and African -- which in part explains his quick response to something as remote, for Americans, as Manekshaw's death. Obama, in fact, has taken active interest in the political developments in his paternal home Kenya, whose Marxist opposition leader Raila Odinga claims to be his cousin.

It is now slowly starting to emerge that an Obama presidency will pursue a foreign policy that will be very different in tone and tenor to that of any previous White House occupant -- both by virtue of his own background and the team of aides and advisors he is putting together. Without reading too much into the Manekshaw statement, it appears that South Asia itself will occupy a significant place on his radar, given the number of aides, advisors, and specialists he has from the region.

If the rest of the world could vote in the U.S. presidential election, it seems pretty clear that Obama would win by a landslide (although perhaps not in Pakistan.) But how the candidate's Indian fandom will play out in the battle for swing state voters in the U.S. is less clear. Still, it's nice to know he's paying attention.

Semi-random tidbit. A 1971 profile of Manekshaw written by Fox Butterfield in The New York Times contained the following amusing anecdote:

Unlike most senior officers of his generation he did not attend Sandhurst, the British military academy, but he has long been noted for following British military tradition.

He lives with his wife and two daughters in Army House in New Delhi, rising at 5:30 each morning for a small glass of whisky, the news on the B.B.C. and an hour of puttering in his garden before going to work.

Two years ago, when he was elevated to his present post; a newsman remarked that one of his daughters was named Sherry and her daughter's name was Brandy -- this in a country with a strong prohibitionist tradition. "I hope the Deputy Prime Minister doesn't object," General Manekshaw replied, referring to Morarji Desai, a well-known teetotaler.

Whisky and garden-puttering at dawn! Some people know how to live.

UPDATE: Sepia Mutiny has more.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Globalization How The World Works India