New Delhi : It was a very different Barack Obama at Sri Fort on Tuesday: it was not the R-Day guest who was treading on eggshells, bending back-wards to please the Indians, extremely mindful of his host Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sensibilities. There was not a false step, not one indiscreet remark…the chewing of gum while watching the R-Day parade, notwithstanding.
But the R-Day behind him, at Sri Fort, it was a preachy Obama who seemed to be giving sermons before a packed house. Perching himself on an elevated pedestal like a high priest, Obama’s profound message was: “India will succeed as long as it is not splintered along religious lines.”
He, of course, took the trouble of couching the message subtly in his own experiences and ‘shared values’ before he gently goaded India to uphold the “dignity of the individual.” He tagged with this other issues like gender equality and women empowerment to broaden the nature of his appeal.
President Obama couldn’t have been oblivious to the recent controversies stirred by the Indian right wing, when he shared his ‘man ki baat’: “Every person has the right to practice his religion and beliefs and not practice, if he chooses so, without any persecution. No society is immune from the darkest impulses of men and too often religion has been used to tap into those instead of the light of God. The peace we seek in the world begins in human hearts.”
Some political observers said implicit in this state-ment was his unequivocal condemnation of forcible religious conversions; to buttress their contention, they referred to Obama’s specific reminder to the nation that we have enshrined this value in Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.
However, there was a contrarian view that the speech was the last engagement for his trip and it had all the right notes. He touched on the empowerment of women, the freedom to practice any religion, the need to bridge the inequalities and the chall-enge of climate change. All this was in the context of the flavour of the season – the Indo-US partnership. Whatever the case – and on this the jury would be out for sometime – everyone agreed that Obama had brought a fitting finale to his three-day visit by displaying his wares as a public speaker. He had got to the core of the issues with immaculate ease. It is this skill that has seen him at the top of American politics for the last several years. He once again justified this billing at the Siri Fort auditorium with a 35-minute speech that captured the hearts of his listeners.
With first lady Michelle in the audience he made glowing references to her, saying: ‘‘Nations are more successful when their women are successful. I am married to a strong and talented woman. Michelle is not afraid to speak her mind or tell me when I am wrong. Michelle and I don’t come from wealthy or famous families.” But it was not the first lady alone who got his acknowledgement; he was equally impressed by the progress in India on this count. “One of the favourite things on this trip for me has been to see all these incredible Indian women in the Armed forces, including the person who commanded the guard that greeted me when I arrived (at Rashtrapati Bhavan). It’s remarkable. It is a sign of great strength and progress,” he said to cheers from the audience. The US president also emphasised that a lot needs to be done and the responsibility for this rests with the males. “It is as husbands and fathers and brothers that we have to step up because every girl’s life matters and every daughter deserves the same chances as our sons and every woman should be able to go about her day, to walk the street and ride the bus and be safe and treated with respect and dignity she deserves,” he added.
As he glided from one theme to the next, Obama suddenly touched on one sensitive issue that has been an area of concern during the Modi regime – religious tolerance. ‘‘Remember the wisdom of Gandhiji. Different religions are branches of the same majestic tree. Your Article 25 also says people are free to practice their own religion,” he stressed.
The other sermon of the day was on climate change. Though India has decided to make minor concessions on cutting greenhouse emissions, they are way short of the promises US has extracted from China. Doing some plain speaking, the president said: “I know the argument made by some, that it’s unfair for countries like the United States to ask developing nations and emerging economies like India to reduce your dependence on the same fossil fuels that helped power our growth for more than a century. But here is the truth: even if countries like the United States curb our emissions, if growing countries like India — with soaring energy needs — don’t also embrace cleaner fuels, then we don’t stand a chance against climate change,” he added while promising to help India with clean energy. Arguing that India and America are not just natural partners, but could be best partners, the president said: “To ensure international peace and security, multilateral institutions created in the 20th century should be updated for the 21st century. That’s why I support a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as its permanent member.”
In the context of inequalities, he said: “Even as we live in a world of terrible inequalities, we are also proud to live in countries where the grandson of a cook can become President, or even a Dalit can help write the Constitution and even a tea-seller can become Prime Minister.”
(To receive our E-paper on whatsapp daily, please click here. We permit sharing of the paper's PDF on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)