- President Obama poignantly describes a private moment he spent with the Prime Minister during his visit to India in November 2010, where Singh gently hints at the coming storm of right-wing nationalism.
If one were to run through the index of former President Barack Obama’s just released memoir, “A Promised Land,” admirers and supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi would be shocked and disappointed to find out there is not a single mention of him in the more than 700-page tome. Not even a passing reference. Perhaps, it’s because “A Promised Land” is just the first volume of the memoir which covers his life and times from childhood to the end of his first term in office, which ended in 2012, when Modi was yet to emerge on the national stage in India. But, is it?
During his second term, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi forged a good relationship and U.S.-India relations went from strength-to-strength, with the American President returning to India for a second visit, making him the only American President to visit India twice while in office.
Insofar as “A Promised Land” is concerned, Indian and Indian American readers will have to be content with learning about President Obama’s views on India as he sees it through the prism of the tenure and person of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. As is already well-known, President Obama had a very high regard for Prime Minister Singh. He describes him as “a man of uncommon wisdom and decency … A gentle, soft-spoken economist in his seventies, with a white beard and a turban that were the marks of his Sikh faith but to the Western eye lent him the air of a holy man.”
President Obama poignantly describes a private moment he spent with the Prime Minister during his visit to India in November 2010, where Singh gently hints at the coming storm of right-wing nationalism. “Our first evening in Delhi, he and his wife, Gursharan Kaur, hosted a dinner party for me and Michelle at their residence, and before joining the other guests in a candlelit courtyard, Singh and I had a few minutes to chat alone. 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 President writes.
“In uncertain times, Mr. President,” President Obama recalls Singh as saying, “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.”
And he goes on to explaining in these words: “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-e-Tayyiba, 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 antiMuslim sentiment had strengthened the influence of India’s main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).”
“I would find Singh to be wise, thoughtful, and scrupulously honest,” President Obama adds, in an extraordinary tribute to a fellow political leader. But reflecting on the state of India — notwithstanding all the progress that it has made under Singh’s rule — he regrets the fact that “India still bore little resemblance to the egalitarian, peaceful, and sustainable society Gandhi had envisioned.”
In a quick summation of India, President Obama writes: “Despite its genuine economic progress, though, India remained a chaotic and impoverished place: largely divided by religion and caste, captive to the whims of corrupt local officials and power brokers, hamstrung by a parochial bureaucracy that was resistant to change.”
“Across the country, millions continued to live in squalor, trapped in sunbaked villages or labyrinthine slums, even as the titans of Indian industry enjoyed lifestyles that the rajas and moguls of old would have envied. Violence, both public and private, remained an all-too-pervasive part of Indian life. Expressing hostility toward Pakistan was still the quickest route to national unity, with many Indians taking great pride in the knowledge that their country had developed a nuclear weapons program to match Pakistan’s, untroubled by the fact that a single miscalculation by either side could risk regional annihilation. Most of all, India’s politics still revolved around religion, clan, and caste. In that sense, Singh’s elevation as prime minister, sometimes heralded as a hallmark of the country’s progress in overcoming sectarian divides, was somewhat deceiving.”
Perhaps, as if in a premonition, the President wonders whether “Singh’s rise to power represented the future of India’s democracy or merely an aberration.” It is here that one wonders why he did not comment on the rise of Modi which happened on his watch. President Obama couldn’t have but noticed with disquiet how his “friend” Modi in his second term morphed into a Trump like figure, polarizing his country.
Instead, the President continues with his encounter with other Indian powers that be who placed Singh in the saddle — Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, who were at the Prime Minister’s dinner in his honor. Sonia Gandhi, he describes as “a striking woman in her sixties, dressed in a traditional sari, with dark, probing eyes and a quiet, regal presence. That she—a former stay-at-home mother of European descent—had emerged from her grief after her husband was killed by a Sri Lankan separatist’s suicide bomb in 1991 to become a leading national politician testified to the enduring power of the family dynasty.”
And somewhat surprisingly and even uncharacteristically, President Obama was less charitable toward Rahul Gandhi: “He seemed smart and earnest, his good looks resembling his mother’s. He offered up his thoughts on the future of progressive politics, occasionally pausing to probe me on the details of my 2008 campaign. But there was a nervous, unformed quality about him, as if he were a student who’d done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject.”
President Obama’s description of how that dinner in New Delhi ended has a melancholic ring to it, perhaps portending the events that will unfold in a few years and change the trajectory of India. He writes: “As it was getting late, I noticed Singh fighting off sleep, lifting his glass every so often to wake himself up with a sip of water. I signaled to Michelle that it was time to say our goodbyes. The prime minister and his wife walked us to our car. In the dim light, he looked frail, older than his seventy-eight years, and as we drove off I wondered what would happen when he left office. Would the baton be successfully passed to Rahul, fulfilling the destiny laid out by his mother and preserving the Congress Party’s dominance over the divisive nationalism touted by the BJP? Somehow, I was doubtful. It wasn’t Singh’s fault. He had done his part.”