President Barack Obama is a very astute man. With thought out and extremely well-timed pronouncements, he has put into perspective another man’s attempt to paint a varied picture. In the process, it looks like he has taught our very own dapper Prime Minister Narendra Modi a lesson or two in diplomacy.
Let me explain how.
It is no secret that Narendra Modi pulled out all stops to welcome the first couple of the United States, a country which is still undoubtedly the most powerful in the world.
The ‘jhappi-pappi’ sessions were done by him to such an embarrassing extreme that most of the country nearly bought into some genuine chemistry and personal friendship between the two leaders.
For Modi that was important, simply because being seen as the best friend of President Obama would have helped him wipe off his uncomfortable chapter with the US that started with a visa denial over Gujarat riots, and would have added to his emergence as a new leader to reckon with on the global stage.
Perceptibly, we saw a number of bear hugs, chai pe charcha at the Hyderabad House and Modi addressing the President by his first name Barack.
As I said, Barack Obama is an astute man. He reciprocated most of the sentiment with equal fervour. He knows India is his best bet in South Asia and there is too much in common between the two countries that can be harnessed for a common world vision at a time when the world is looking intensely fragmented.
But... as a colleague of mine suggested, Obama looked ill at ease with all the show of bromance, and was trying hard to bring back balance in the personal comraderie that was being assiduously portrayed by Modi.
It could be noted that Obama was apparently uncomfortable with Modi‘s zeal and his casual references of their “gup” sessions, and the President never once called the Prime Minister by his first name. A signal that India was a close friend, but not necessarily its executive head. One might conjecture that for Obama saying “Narendra” might have been too much of a tongue twister.
But the latter would have been true had we not heard of Obama’s Town Hall address where he chose to give the true picture of his feelings deep inside. A proverbial rap on the knuckles of Modi was neatly shrouded in his reference of religious divisions. The speech was timed perfectly, just when Obama was on the brink of his exiting India and had no further engagements with Modi.
The fact is that world will always hold a view on Modi’s background and uncover all that which he would want to brush under the carpet. The New York Times, for example, has last week questioned Modi’s silence in wake of the recent spate of attacks on minorities.
While the White House had been at pains to explain the context of Obama’s remarks about “no society being immune from the darkest impulses of man” and India’s success being related with it being “not splintered along the lines of religious faith”, the US President wanted to set the record straight and reiterate what he meant.
At National Prayer Breakfast address in Washington last week, he clearly stated that religious intolerance in India in the past few years would have shocked Mahatma Gandhi.
He added: India is “full of magnificent diversity – but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs.”
If anyone had any doubts about the message Obama wanted to send out, there could be no confusion left in anyone’s mind. Growing up as a Black man in America would have been tough for Obama. Becoming the first Black president of the United States would have been even tougher.
As an individual, Barack Obama has hugely admired and been influenced by Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Gandhi. He has recalled how during parties, Obama was mistaken for a valet just because he was Black man in a tuxedo, and also faced instances of White guests asking him to pour a drink, not realizing that he was a guest as well!
Obama knows that we live in an inequitable world and he loathes persecution of any community, caste or colour. More often than not, he has made his thoughts on how he feels about individuals who support or indulge in accentuating cleavages in society, particularly through bloodshed.
Modi may have been squirming in his chair when he heard Obama’s statements. Whether he did or not, it does not matter. Neither does it matter whether Obama should have made these references or not, particularly when he was a guest on Indian soil. Or at a time when the US itself is struggling with colour and race divisions and attacks on Black youth.
The fact of the matter is that there is an important lesson for Modi in this episode.
There have been murmurs that the present mischief against Christians could be a ploy of a fringe in the right wing organisations which is inimical to Modi and would want to discredit him and divert media and world attention from his pro-people development agenda and initiatives like the cleanliness drive.
It is clear that when minorities will be attacked in a secular country, fingers would point at the Prime Minister; especially when Modi is seen as a man who has the reins of this nation tightly in his hands. He has come to power on an unprecedented mandate, which rode on his inclusive message ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’.
It is time that he crushes all diversionary attempts by those who would want to swerve the debate to topics that will cloud work directly related with the progress of the country.
Honesty and action are the hallmarks of a great leader. Considering that Modi is not the sort of person who would fill his pockets or has any family interests to forward, his aim should be to break away from past controversies and etch a new place for himself in history.
And knowing that Modi is an avid learner, he shouldn’t miss the truth in Obama’s message. Nor should he waste himself in pretentions and rather harness the unique opportunity to be remembered as one of the most iron-willed leaders who knew how to deliver for a country of a billion plus population.