Obama’s Parthian Shot: A Meaningless Gesture More for Public Consumtion

Some speeches are made for generations to come, some for the consumption of audience, some for audiences  not present, but watching from afar, and some for shock effect that may or may not be there. Normally political leaders refrain from making such speeches that may not be comfortable to the host, especially when you have lionized and feted like a demi-god and you have enjoyed every second of your visit. Obama has proved that he likes to enjoy the hospitality, hope for long term relationship and then plays a game spoiler.
President Barack Obama’s Town Hall speech has, quite predictably, triggered a minor storm. The government side has, not unnaturally, brushed aside suggestions that the eloquent sermon that also touched upon themes such as religious and minority rights was a veiled indictment of the Narendra Modi government. However, both the media and Modi’s other critics have gloated over this apparent sting in the tail at the fag end of an otherwise successful visit. They have used Obama’s invocation of Article 25 to add to the existing turbulence over religious conversions. Regardless of how the visit of the American president was perceived in the larger public, they have cited the subtext of the Town Hall speech to try and puncture the Modi momentum.
Obama even advised we the people of world’s largest “democracy”, to remain secular. His words were, “India will succeed as long as it is not ‘splintered’ on religious lines”. In a carefully packaged message during his townhall speech, Obama advised India and its PM that the country needs to combat human trafficking and slavery, elevate the status of girls and women in society, promote religious and racial tolerance and empower young people. Why did Obama have to remind us our obligations and duties as a nation state, regarding politics based on religion, region and caste?
Obama was not impractical in talking about religious tolerance as enshrined in India’s constitution. Wherever a US President has visited the country, US intelligence agencies have tried their level best to get an idea about the ground situation in the country. His words, “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith, and is unified as one nation,” are enough in themselves to show that something is wrong with this country, wherein even after near about 70 years of independence, religious intolerance and communalism rule the roost and where the parties can never win a single election they do not play politics based on communalism and religious hatred. His advice to treat women equally was also keeping in view the recent rise in the anti- women violence across the country.
Obama’s town hall speech came at the end of a trip which was being hailed by the government as well as the media as successful, one which was class apart from the visit of not only other heads of state rather previous visits of American presidents. But a notably sharp speech and the end of the trip turned out to be something on which India as a secular democratic nation must ponder over. Just before the town hall speech, Obama met noble laureate Kailash Satyarthi who informed him that there were still five million children living as slaves worldwide. So it seems to have been the pressure of advocacy groups through different channels, which resulted in Obama giving a lesson or two to Narendra Modi and India on issues of human rights and religious tolerance.
Before arriving for the famous speech the American president must have gone through the controversy surrounding Vice President Hamid Ansari and that may have been enough for him to judge the level of religious intolerance in the country. It is crystal clear that Obama’s speech and his advice to us have not gone down well with many people in the Indian government. Since the BJP led NDA government has come to power, right-wing groups associated with the RSS have been trying to convert members of religious minorities, arguing that Muslims or Christians, or their forebears, were originally Hindu themselves. And Obama’s speech was against all that is happening on religious front since Modi’s coming to power in May 2014. Things have turned so communally charged that recently a lady minister of Modi’s cabinet asked at a pre-election gathering in Delhi, to “decide whether you want a government of those born of Ram, or those born illegitimately (haramzadas)”.
Before arriving for the famous speech the American president must have gone through the controversy surrounding Vice President Hamid Ansari and that may have been enough for him to judge the level of religious intolerance in the country.
It is crystal clear that Obama’s speech and his advice to us have not gone down well with many people in the Indian government. Since the BJP led NDA government has come to power, right-wing groups associated with the RSS have been trying to convert members of religious minorities, arguing that Muslims or Christians, or their forebears, were originally Hindu themselves. And Obama’s speech was against all that is happening on religious front since Modi’s coming to power in May 2014. Things have turned so communally charged that recently a lady minister of Modi’s cabinet asked at a pre-election gathering in Delhi, to “decide whether you want a government of those born of Ram, or those born illegitimately (haramzadas)”.
Before leaving for Riyadh to pay condolence to an oppressive monarch, Obama’s carefully crafted words and advise to India over various issues of concern are reminder to the fact that India as a country doesn’t need anyone’s certificate, especially of US which has a history of hobnobbing with brutal dictators and monarchs across the world.
But still it is high time for us to look within and introspect regarding what has gone wrong with the Indian idea of secularism and togetherness, as there won’t be any meaning of India’s democracy if it doesn’t root out communalism and inequality once and for all.

Before leaving for Riyadh to pay condolence to an oppressive monarch, Obama’s carefully crafted words and advise to India over various issues of concern are reminder to the fact that India as a country doesn’t need anyone’s certificate, especially of US which has a history of hobnobbing with brutal dictators and monarchs across the world.
But still it is high time for us to look within and introspect regarding what has gone wrong with the Indian idea of secularism and togetherness, as there won’t be any meaning of India’s democracy if it doesn’t root out communalism and inequality once and for all.
The argument proffered by some over-enthusiastic members of the Modi ministry that Obama was speaking in broad generalities and peppering the media with tasty – but essentially banal-sound bites isn’t entirely persuasive. American politicians invariably tend to be salesmen for an “American dream”, which they combine with gratuitous advice to peoples that are not driven by the same national vision. The belief that Western civilization and its way of life are both materially and ethically superior has underpinned US diplomacy since World War II, even when it has involved shoddy compromises with disreputable regimes. President Ronald Reagan-an accomplished communicator, on par with President Bill Clinton and Obama – made effective use of the “truth, justice and the American way” spiel to demolish the “Evil Empire” that was the Soviet Union.
Over time, it has also incorporated facets of the condescension that was a feature of British imperial diplomacy, at least until the Suez debacle of 1956 drove home the end of Empire. A possible reason why this approach has persisted is due to the undeniable fact that national elites, particularly in the erstwhile colonized parts of the globe, have actually internalized the belief in the superiority of the “American way”. It is only very recently that this perception has been challenged by first, an ever-rising China, and subsequently, Islamism – neither of which are benign influences.
Given this backdrop, it would be misleading to believe that Obama’s references to harmony, co-existence and cultural pluralism were entirely innocent and divorced from the specific. The reference to Article 25 of India’s Constitution conferring untrammelled rights to all religious communities (apart, interestingly, from Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs) to profess, practice and propagate their faith wasn’t innocent. In the wake of the ghar wapsi initiative by a section of Hindu activists, there has been a call by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and even the Bharatiya Janata Party to effect a legal ban on all conversions – a move that would necessitate a modification of the existing Article 25. The initiative has been resolutely opposed by the Christian clergy, not least because it feels that evangelism is central to its larger religious mission. The foremost foreign funding for the evangelists comes from the United States, which has witnessed the rise of political Christianity. Although the Christian Coalition isn’t well disposed towards the Obama administration, its priorities are nevertheless an important input in the making of American foreign policy. With Republicans dominating Capitol Hill, the White House was no doubt mindful of the need to accommodate some of these Christian concerns, even by way of a token utterance.
Thanks to the manner in which Modi’s detractors have interpreted the Town Hall utterances, and the debate they have generated, Obama can at least draw satisfaction that one of his domestic compulsions has been met.
Such an argument isn’t either fanciful or needlessly paranoiac. The extent to which security concerns and business interests have molded US foreign policy has been richly documented.
Less appreciated is the extent to which Christian lobbies- those institutions that send money to India as opposed to those who see India as a zone of potential profit- provide a non-secular input to the workings of the State Department. During the term of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government, for example, the US embassy in Delhi was quite active in mobilizing domestic opposition to the sporadic attacks on improvised churches in the Dangs district of Gujarat. Domestic opponents of the BJP (and Modi in particular) have received unending encouragement and patronage from institutions such as the official US commission on international religious freedom.
In its 2014 annual report, USCIRF clubbed India with Afghanistan, Cuba, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia and Turkey as a mid-level threat to religious freedom. It listed three issues that the US government should keep in mind while deepening its strategic relationship with India.
First, it advised the administration to “integrate concern for religious freedom into bilateral contacts with India”. Secondly, it wanted steps to “increase the US embassy’s attention to issues of religious freedom and related human rights” concerns. Finally, and in more specific terms, it “urge(d) the Central Indian government to press states that have adopted anti-conversion laws to repeal or amend them to conform with internationally recognized human rights standards”.
President Obama’s brief mention of religious tolerance last Tuesday could well be read in this context. Obviously, the demand for anti-conversion laws to prevent mass-scale “harvesting” of souls has ruffled a few feathers in the world of political Christianity. However, these sectarian concerns that stem from the US’s domestic compulsions must be kept in perspective. India may be perversely equated with Afghanistan in the USCIRF’s index of religious freedom, but this is offset by the acknowledgement of India’s economic potential and its importance in the emerging Great Game in Asia centred on an assertive China. Obama didn’t come to India because he wanted to wag a finger at Modi and lecture the country on how to conduct itself. As far as his priorities went, the USCIRF agenda was just a footnote. No wonder the sermon was left till the very end of his visit and delivered at a non-official function. More to the point it was couched in the language of economic self-interest and made to appear as a universal truism: that growth and prosperity need a climate of social harmony.
It is understandable that both the mainstream and social media have picked on these contentious sentences to either berate Modi or denounce the US for being oh-so patronizing. By its very nature, the media in their entirety love acrimony and polemical exchanges. The complicated negations over the civil nuclear partnership was too abstruse for studio brawls; Michelle Obama kept a low profile and didn’t provide the much anticipated glamour quotient; and the sheer stodginess of the president’s official banquet at an outhouse in the Rashtrapati Bhavan complex couldn’t really be pinned on Modi. So, in the end, the largely successful Obama visit boiled down to two contrived brawls: the first over the gratuitous references to India’s duty at the Siri Fort auditorium and, finally, over Modi’s monogrammed pin stripes. The first allowed the disoriented army of Modi-sceptics to feel that America still cares. The second permitted the pillars of entitlement a snigger or two at the expense of a man they despise but whose popularity remains undiminished.
Obama’s Republic Day visit was the first occasion that Modi’s skills in public diplomacy were put to the test-earlier visits by the China’s premier and Russia’s president didn’t generate the same measure of popular interest. In their minds, Indians were comparing Modi with representatives of the Gandhi family who had excelled in the meeting the- foreigner department. The ‘chaiwala’ didn’t let the side down. He did well out of the visit and, ironically, the little storm over Obama’s parting shot won’t do him any harm politically

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