Both Obama and Dr Manmohan Singh could see dark clouds hovering over India way back in 2009
The difference between statesmen and political leaders is brought out sharply in the former US President’s book released globally this week—especially in the context of politics and democracy
It was Barack Obama’s first visit to India and Mumbai was his first port of call. Unlike most dignitaries visiting India’s commercial capital, a place he insisted on visiting was Mani Bhavan, where Mahatma Gandhi had lived and worked for several years. The then US President, like many of his predecessors, had been deeply influenced by Gandhi’s life and work.
Now as he looked around the spartan room on the first floor, he reflected on the Mahatma’s failure to rid India of religious divisions and casteism. Obama, who writes as well as he speaks, recalls that moment and writes, “I had the strongest wish to sit beside him and talk. To ask him where he’d found the strength and imagination to do so much with so very little. To ask how he’d recovered from disappointment.”
India’s tryst with deep divisions and casteism were on top of the US President’s mind as he travelled to New Delhi. This was among his first trips abroad after the Inauguration in January. But the book cements the impression that he understood India much better than many Indians. He takes note of the fact that the Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, who had been elected for the second term that very year, had won the people’s trust by “not appealing to their passions” but bringing about higher living standards.
While he sees Dr Singh as “a man of uncommon wisdom and decency”, he doubted that Dr Singh’s rise to power “represented the future of Indian democracy” or was merely an aberration.
In one of the most revealing passages on his India visit, the US President writes that Dr Manmohan Singh was as worried about India’s future. The two leaders met at the PM’s residence for dinner and for a short period chatted without the presence of aides.
“Without the usual flock of minders and notetakers hovering over our shoulders, the prime minister spoke more openly about the clouds he saw on the horizon. The economy worried him, he said.”
“Although India had fared better than many other countries in the wake of the financial crisis, the global slowdown would inevitably make it harder to generate jobs for India’s young and rapidly growing population. Then there was the problem of Pakistan: Its continuing failure to work with India to investigate the 2008 terrorist attacks on hotels and other sites in Mumbai had significantly increased tensions between the two countries, in part because Lashkar-eTayyiba, the terrorist organization responsible, was believed to have links to Pakistan’s intelligence service. Singh had resisted calls to retaliate against Pakistan after the attacks, but his restraint had cost him politically.”
“He feared that rising anti-Muslim sentiment had strengthened the influence of India’s main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).”
“In uncertain times, Mr. President,” the Prime Minister said, “the call of religious and ethnic solidarity can be intoxicating. And it’s not so hard for politicians to exploit that, in India or anywhere else.”
Obama also sees through the façade of a ‘Shining India’.
India was not the peaceful, egalitarian and sustainable society that Gandhi had envisioned. “The titans of Indian industry enjoyed lifestyles that the rajas and moguls of old would have envied”, he notes, although millions continued to wallow in poverty and squalor.
“Violence, both public and private, remained an all-too-pervasive part of Indian life,” while “expressing hostility toward Pakistan was still the quickest route to national unity”. Many Indians, he writes, took pride in having nuclear weapons “untroubled by the fact that a single miscalculation by either side could risk regional annihilation”.
Obama notices that India’s politics still revolved around religion, clan and caste. Upholding the Constitutional order, expanding the social safety net and boosting the GDP, as Dr Singh had done, were not enough.
But in large, multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies like India and the United States, he believed, ‘revolutionary steps and major cultural overhauls’ or ‘fix for every social pathology’ or ‘lasting answers for those in search of purpose and meaning in their lives’ were not the remit of elected leaders. Observance of rules, lifting living and educational standards to enable people live harmoniously and tolerate differences were what elected leaders could do.
“I found myself asking whether those impulses—of violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance, the all-too human desire to beat back our own uncertainty and mortality and sense of insignificance by subordinating others—were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain.”
“For they seemed to lie in wait everywhere, ready to resurface whenever growth rates stalled or demographics changed or a charismatic leader chose to ride the wave of people’s fears and resentments. And as much as I might have wished otherwise, there was no Mahatma Gandhi around to tell me what I might do to hold such impulses back.”
Not surprisingly, the second volume, which is expected to be published next year, is eagerly awaited in India. That is when the former US President is expected to give some insights into his second visit to India as President, his reading of Narendra Modi, who famously had worn a pin-striped suit with his name woven into it while pouring tea to the US President, and his meeting with Dr Manmohan Singh, now a former Prime Minister.
But there is plenty of food for thought in “The Promised Land”. While the book is obviously about the United States, the White House and his Presidency, ending with a chapter on the operation in which Osama Bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALS in Pakistan, the insights into democracy, US policies and governance besides the working within the White House would interest academics and policy wonks.
Obama also writes about Donald Trump, who in 2011 was still to declare his intention to contest in 2016, and on the Media which allowed Trump to repeat falsehoods. He writes about the traditional National Press Club dinner in Washington, when in his speech he lampooned Trump. But journalists and media houses which laughed at his jokes, he writes, were the ones who would then invite Trump and give him air time to repeat the falsehoods.
In a series of interviews as part of the book promotion this week, Obama was asked to explain why he felt that American democracy seemed to be teetering on the brink of a crisis. His answers have been revealing. It is, he admits, a ‘Divided’ America and the fissures were there before Donald Trump assumed office. He does not blame Trump for the crisis but says that the latter accelerated it.
“The media landscape has changed. And as a consequence, voters’ perceptions have changed. So that I think Democratic and Republican voters have become much more partisan. I would often hear this from Republicans during my presidency, some of these folks have been colleagues of mine. I served in the Senate. Some of them were friends of mine. And they would confess to me and said, “Look, Mr. President, I know you’re right. But if I vote with you on this, I’m gonna get killed. I’ll lose my seat,” he told the CBS this week.