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Opinion

January 30, 2015

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A reality check for India

Dubai eye
So how do you go from being an international pariah for 12 long years to becoming the best friend and partner of Uncle Sam overnight? You know what they say about the greyish world of international relations – no permanent friends and foes, only permanent interests.
A lame-duck US president usually has few friends left in Washington, and even fewer in other nations’ capitals. But in Narendra Modi, he found an eager, almost girlishly overenthusiastic host.
The Barry and Narry duo seemed to hit it off from the get-go, dancing in perfect sync, looking into each other’s eyes like long-separated, forlorn lovers and barely missing a step. The host wouldn’t stop gushing ‘Barack, Barack’ after every other sentence, probably giving Michelle Obama a complex.
But say what you will of Modi, the man certainly knows how to make the most of the opportunities coming his way. And where none existed, he created them for himself.
If the humble ‘chai wala’, as he introduced himself during the campaign, today finds himself leading the largest democracy on the planet and taking high tea with the world’s most powerful leader, it’s not just because he has been fortune’s favourite son, it is also because he has jumped on opportunities when they presented themselves. One may not, however, agree with his worldview or the ways and methods he has consistently and unabashedly used to get where he is today.
Opportunity is missed by most people, said Edison, because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. Congress scion Rahul Gandhi with his Hamletian fatal flaw of self-doubt missed it when presented, repeatedly, on a platter.
Getting a US president to attend India’s Republic Day pageant was more than a photo-op for India’s new leader. Indeed, the whole parade and spectacle, with India flexing its military might and global clout, was meant to be a Modi show all the way – just as it always has been.
For the first time most of

the tableaus on display did not celebrate the republic but one man’s magnificent obsessions such as ‘Swacch Bharat’ (Clean India) and ‘Make in India’.
After the formidable electoral victory last year and long years of being viewed as the architect of Gujarat 2002, the Dear Leader needed the comforting assurance of global acceptability and respect.
He managed to glean some during his US visit with the diaspora lovefest like the Madison Square Garden event and the Central Park show that he crashed for photo-ops with Hollywood stars. And who better than the leader of the free world to provide the global respectability Modi so craves!
A US president in his second term and in the last mile of his journey had nothing to lose and everything to gain by paying another visit to India. The much debated nuclear deal is only a small part of the bargain considering the far bigger game and stakes involved.
Imagine the awesome potential of the massive Indian market for American companies and goods. Right now, as Obama lamented, “of all US imports, just 2 percent come from India and of all US exports, about 1 percent go to India – that’s 1 percent to a billion people. US trade with India is $100 billion as compared to $560 billion with China.”
Following this visit, Washington could soon replace Moscow, with its antiquated weaponry, as the largest arms supplier to India’s large, ravenous army.
There were other long-term, strategic rewards for responding to Modi’s elaborate overtures and breathless courting, completely ignoring his stellar past as the Gujarat chief minister and how and why he was repeatedly denied US visa. Now that Pakistan has been successfully used and cast aside, India could be a strategic ally against China.
India, Japan and Australia are supposed to form the bulwark against Beijing. It is no coincidence that right when Obama and Modi were talking ‘Mann ki Baat’ (straight from heart), Beijing was hosting the powerful Pakistan army chief General Raheel Sharif and firming up its own alliance. So, you see, it was many birds with one stone.
Yet it is entirely to Obama’s credit that despite these strategic business and military interests that Washington now shares with Delhi, he did not shy away from holding a mirror to his host.
He saved the best for last. After two days of grand photo-ops and exchange of honeyed words and sweet nothings, the US leader delivered a knockout punch on his last day in Delhi, hours before his departure.
If the BJP government and its extended clan of rabble-rousers thought they had successfully co-opted a US president with the promise of strategic alliances and billions of dollars in business and that he would turn a blind eye to their divisive agenda and antics, they were in for a rude shock.
The stinging parting shot, warning the fringe could derail India’s progress and wreck its democracy, was an Obama classic. It was easily one of the finest speeches by the man known for his powerful, unmatched oratory. It reminded you of the candidate Obama on the campaign trail with his impossible dream, ‘Yes, We Can’ and infectious charm that made the journey of a black man to White House possible.
After all the fun and games of Lutyen’s Delhi and finally free of Modi’s hugs and chaperoning, Obama spoke straight from heart to a young audience at Siri Fort Auditorium.
The message, though, was directed to his host and the mob that has been on a rampage since Modi took Delhi and couldn’t have been louder and clearer: “Every person has the right to practice their religion and beliefs and not practice it if they choose so without any persecution.”
In a pointed reference to the endless talk about ‘development,’ he asserted that all progress was predicated on social inclusion: “That’s what makes us world leaders – not just the size of our economy or the number of weapons we have, but our ability to show the way in how we work together, and how much respect we show each other.”
“Our nations are strongest when we see that we are all God’s children – all equal in His eyes and worthy of His love. Freedom of religion is written into the founding documents of the two democracies. It’s part of America’s very first amendment. Your Article 25 says that all people are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.”
“In both our countries, in all countries, upholding this fundamental freedom (to propagate one’s faith) is the responsibility of government, but it’s also the responsibility of every person. The peace we seek in the world begins in human hearts. India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith – so long as it’s not splintered along any lines – and is unified as one nation.”
The parting advice of the ‘special guest’ was greeted with stunned, injured silence in Delhi. But whether the new powers that be like it or not, Obama’s resounding words of caution will ring long after they have been spoken.
The US leader did not say anything that we didn’t know already. He merely offered a reality check. All of us who care for this great country, its unique diversity and its fabled traditions of tolerance and freedom have repeatedly voiced the same fears and concerns.
Of course, no one likes unsolicited advice, especially from our pampered guests. But there’s nothing wrong in heeding advice when it is sincere and well-meaning. A little introspection and course correction could save the future of a billion people – and a great civilisation.
The writer is a Middle East based columnist.
Email: [email protected]

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