Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Reading Obama's lips: He's telling PM Modi to shut down Hindutva forces

US President Barack Obama left a string of warm, fuzzy pictures and a trail of quotable quotes during his India visit that the BJP can use to colour its public relations shenanigans for days to come.

However, Obama didn't forget to slip in a reminder about an important global concern about the Modi government between praises and crowd-pleasing lines in Hindi. He said, "India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith, as long as it is not splintered along any lines, and it is unified as one nation." He also added a little note of advice, suggesting that India was better off not straying from its commitment to let its citizens 'profess, practice and propagate' any religion freely.

Sandwiched between frequent hugs, handshakes and profuse praise, it was perhaps easy to not particularly feel the sting of Obama's statement and not read it as a cautionary suggestion, but that is precisely what it was.

The fact that the US President chose to bring up the issue of religious discord in his big signing off speech of what is being hailed as a wildly successful PR exercise for the BJP is enough proof of the fact that the global concerns about the Modi government's commitment to a truly secular democracy have not abated completely yet.

More than a concern about the Modi government, the US President's statement seemed to betray an anxiety shared by many in the country itself - and that is about the forces that the Modi government's ascension to power has fueled and emboldened.

As if to explain what Obama said, simultaneously with celebrating the Republic Day parade, a section of India's social media users broke out in a disturbing display of its biases by accusing vice president Hamid Ansari of being a lesser patriot than Prime Minister Modi and his entourage. In a political atmosphere charged with religious pride and religious hatred, it was not difficult to figure out why Ansari was singled out and badmouthed on social media for not saluting the national flag.

The BJP brushed off allegations that Obama actually rebuked their silence on religious fundamentalist organisations running amok crying foul over 'love jihad', batting for 'ghar wapsi' and raising the pitch for a 'Hindu Rashtra'. The Times of India reports that the BJP said that Obama's comments were general and not targeted at their party specifically.

Reacting to Congress' criticism, TOI quotes a BJP spokesperson as saying, "India and the US share many values. We both value diversity of our people. If the opposition tries to read it as aimed against the government in the face of a very successful summit-level engagement, then they are being myopic to say the least. Does Congress expect Obama to help them revive themselves?"

The Congress, as expected, latched on to just one part of the US President's speech to lash out at the BJP government with its old accusation against it - that it fans communal forces.

"We are happy that President Obama noted and called upon young Indians to celebrate India's foundational values of diversity, religious freedom and right to practise different faiths besides calling upon them to fght bigotry and sectarianism which Congress has epitomized and protected as core idea of India. We hope PM Modi and BJP will learn it as a lesson for course-correction from unilateralism to pluralism," Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said. 

The BJP might be hastily brushing off the suggestion that Obama's statement was him voicing his concern about the fall-out of the Modi government on the religious fragmentation that already exists in the country, but the US President's speech during his 2010 visit proves otherwise. It becomes clear from the earlier speech, where the President talks about diversity, democracy and makes no mention of religion even once during his joint address to the Parliament in 2010.

The closest Obama came to mentioning religious and its implications in India, was in the following part.


He mentions the Indian religious texts but only in the context of how all Indian religious texts have contributed to character building. In fact, he mentions religious texts in the same strain as Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, thereby concentrating on its literary value than on its political ramifications in India.

Following our Prime Minister's visit to US, which Obama himself termed as something that was no less in glamour than trips of Hollywood stars, one would have expected the US President to skip the 'religious splintering' bit. And especially because, the US' long boycott of PM Modi in the past stemmed from their very perception of him as communally divisive leader. As the new government and Obama both went to town gloating about the 'new' ties, the first thing you would have expected the latter to not mention was what had been a bone of contention between the two in the past. However, Obama made it a point to mention religious fragmentation and it is fairly clear that it wasn't quite a 'general' statement.

Firstpost columnist Hasan Suroor noted in an article that the famed Obama-Modi bromance was carefully choreographed diplomacy charade. "So, if Obama is reaching out to India it is not because he is pals with Modi but because improving relations with New Delhi is in America’s strategic interests. Just to rewind, the same Obama administration refused visa to Modi when having him on the American soil militated against its policies," he wrote. It is perhaps safe to say then that the past has not been forgotten despite the new show of bonhomie.

What Obama effectively did while showering PM Modi with his praise and then undercutting it with that one statement on religious discrimination is reminding him that it is time to rein in the religious fundamentalist forces reaping the benefits of the government's silence. Is that a responsibility the Modi government is willing to undertake? Only time will tell.

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