ABCDE of Obama’s sales pitch

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

imageThere is no doubt US President Barack Obama was in India on a business trip. His recent electoral losses weighed heavily with him when he stitched up deals, reportedly worth US $10 billion, that would create about 50,000 jobs back home.

His visit and the sweetener of support for India’s bid for permanent membership of the UN Security Council are only the sales pitch for the many more similar deals that are on the table. In this transactional world of commerce we can hardly ask why the president of the world’s biggest and most powerful economy has been reduced to a mere commercial agent. But we can, and must, ask if the nature of the business he is offering is good for us, or even for him.

Let us be clear. When President Obama came to power, he came on the promise of change. He assured his country (and all of us in faraway lands who watched with equal excitement and expectation) that he would shake the country out of its corporate grip and would make a difference in the way America runs its economy. It was a crucial promise, made at a time when the business model his country had been exporting was revealing its nasty underbelly—from the sub-prime crisis in housing to greedy bankers.


But on this trip to India, the president was an agent of the same business model, which is not only bringing his country down economically, but also bringing the world to the precipice of a climate disaster. It is this consumption-based model of market economy that needs to be deciphered and rejected.

Let’s look at the ABCDE of what is at stake in the US-India trade relationship. American (A) priority is our agriculture—or (B) their biotechnology business. In recent years there have been hectic parleys between top US companies like Monsanto and India’s pliant and much-weakened agricultural science and policy establishment about greater access for business. Down To Earth reported (see ‘Rajasthan opens farm gates’, November 1-15, 2010) how the Rajasthan government has entered into memorandums of understanding with leading multinational biotech companies, including Monsanto, to do business in their products. It will put at their disposal agricultural universities and will assure public procurement of their seeds for distribution to farmers. This is all part of the package of the ‘evergreen’ revolution President Obama spoke about on his trip.

The fact is that the agricultural model is failing even in his country because the cost of cultivation is high. It survives because of huge subsidies. It is fed huge amounts of chemicals, which, in turn, keep the country on a toxic treadmill and cost of regulation high. Worse, it thrives on the promotion of industrial food, which is cheap and compromises on health. It is a model of agricultural growth and food that India cannot afford. We have huge number of people to feed, and we need affordable models of growing nutritionally good and environmentally sustainable food.

The ‘C’ stands for climate change and the model of wealth that will cost us the world. Obama was wooing us because of our growing, consuming middle class. We are markets for goods and services his companies can provide. But this is again part of the problem.

We are markets, but not for the same rejected US-type wares that have spoiled the world’s present and future. It is the Walmart style of retail business, which is being offered to us today. It promises cheap goods, produced at considerable pain of child labour and discounted environmental standards in other parts of the world. As this model of growth does not build inclusive economies, where producers benefit from markets, it does not create wealth for all, or even employment for some. Just consider that this much-flaunted economic model cannot even pr­ovide adequate jobs for the small and insignificant population of the US. What will it do for a billion-strong country?

The ‘D’ stands for the pharma or drug business, which is high on the India-US agenda today. The US wants us to behave ‘responsibly’ by taking patented drugs and growing its business of profit in human health. It has put us on its priority watch list and is busy using every other trick to destroy the generic and affordable medicine business in India (see ‘Choking access to drugs’, Down To Earth, August 1-15, 2010).

The question is whether this model of expensive healthcare is good for us. Remember, President Obama has faced his nemesis on the matter of health care reform, where he was only trying to get more Americans access to medical care at affordable rates not determined by the greedy alliance between insurance and drug companies. Do we need this in India?

The ‘E’ stands for the business of higher education. It will bring models of learning at costs we will not be able to afford. Worse, it will bring us the global teaching of solutions that is part of the problem and not the answer.

Will President Barack Hussein Obama now live up to his promise of change? Or will he go down in history as just another petty salesman for bad ideas?

—Sunita Narain

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  • Ms. Narain, The best and most

    Ms. Narain,

    The best and most effective solutions use existing conditions and incentives to foster change.

    Is there a social or business model through which we can counteract the growing control of U.S. Agribusiness over rural India?

    Young entrepreneurs, myself included, would be willing to take up the challenge.

    I really believe we have to begin discussing practical ways to redress this.

    I look forward to hearing your response,


    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • The Rajasthan Government has

    The Rajasthan Government has also embarked on another programme which potentially seriously compromise child nutrition. The mid-may scheme in Government Schools in Rajasthan is being implemented in partnership with Akshaya Patra Foundation which has entered into an agreement with Monsanto Fund (purportedly the philanthropic arm of Monsanto!) to raise kitchen gardens for the mid-may meal scheme. Where do they propose to source seeds for the vegetables etc. grown here? Surely not from local farmers. Is this yet another insiduous point of entry for Monsanto to take over our food security and sovereignty? Who is monitoring this programme to ensure that the seeds and vegetable varieties are not GM?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Dear madam, Editor Down to

    Dear madam,
    Down to Earth-

    Your editorial on issue dated 30.11.11- true that first gimmick of being a man of black origin which carried him through, has faded- and Obama has proved himself to be an ordinary man of talent who is trying to get gains for his country- America- not anything else like black victory of Martin Luther King (Jr.) fame. His cunning offer of business and penetrating poor India's rural front to gain business for rich America is a trick but it is mainly the fault of Indian leaders who by virtue of once managing votes are constantly cheating the people by accepting such harmful penetration of the poor by the rich Westerners- are they authorised for what they are doing constantly in every front of economy and trade?
    This is for further focus on the subject through your esteemed magazine-
    Aju Mukhopadhyay

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Right on! This article is,

    Right on! This article is, again, an excellent analysis - thanks. J.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms Narain, Your

    Dear Ms Narain,

    Your criticism of President Obama's visit is uncalled for.

    Agriculture has been our priority since Independence. What have we achieved so far. Hunger and malnutrition stalk the countryside. Forget about the US Agricultural Model. The truth is our agricultural model has failed miserably, while US is still a major exporter of food grains and edible oils to the world, including India. India needs B, i.e. Bt varieties to feed our over billion population. It is naive to believe that our obsolete varieties and organic farming can feed our population.

    Whether climate change is real or not, we need organised retail chain. India itself is developing its own organised retail chains. The entry of overseas chains will foster competition to the benefit of our consumers in terms of price, quality and service.

    Research & development in drugs costs huge money. We can't expect free lunch all the time, because of our self-made poverty, because of ill-planning, corruption and environmental misplaced hurdles.

    As for Education, China is marching ahead of us. We must open our gates to foreign universities to improve our educational standards. Our universities are at present in a Race to the Bottom. Of course, we need to improve our literacy levels and primary educational levels. Obama is not stopping us from doing that.

    India needs USA as much as most NGOs here need USA for funds.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • The ABCDE s are rghtly

    The ABCDE s are rghtly explained by sunitha and every Indian should be (made) aware of this fact. Infact with its shooting high achievements in all the ABCDE s
    India need not be a slave of any other ABCDE sketched specifically to take the graph line of India Inc a U turn. What plans can that nation which has not left any stone unturned in using (Affix Mis)all possible resources, natural or other wise in the worst possible way!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • When I read your article I

    When I read your article I felt that President Obama is Indian president (Prime Minister) and India is one of the states of United states of America, and President Obama have step motherly approach to it. Please Don`t forget we have a JUMPO cabinet to do our work.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
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