Barack Obama’s comments on Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi in his memoir “A Promised Land”, widely reported last week, drew reactions from both sides of the spectrum with members of the ruling BJP flagging the former US President’s critical observations on the former Congress president.
However, Obama’s account of his India visit in the book — which covers his campaign for the White House and his first term between 2008 and 2012 — also underscores his concern about “divisive nationalism touted by the BJP”.
He also wonders whether impulses like violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance are “too strong” for any democracy to permanently contain.
A chief architect of India’s economic transformation
Noting India’s transition to a more market-based economy in the 1990s, which, he says, led to soaring growth, a tech boom and a rising middle class, Obama writes: “As a chief architect of India’s economic transformation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seemed like a fitting emblem of this progress: a member of the tiny, often persecuted Sikh religious minority who’d risen to the highest office in the land, and a self-effacing technocrat who’d won people’s trust not by appealing to their passions but by bringing about higher living standards and maintaining a well-earned reputation for not being corrupt.”
He says the time he spent with Manmohan Singh confirmed his initial impression of him as a man of “uncommon wisdom and decency.”
Obama writes that Dr 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, 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’,” he writes, quoting Dr Singh.
India’s politics still revolves around religion
The former US President says at that moment he recalled the conversation he’d had with Václav Havel on his visit to Prague and his warning about the rising tide of illiberalism in Europe. “If globalization and a historic economic crisis were fueling these trends in relatively wealthy nations-if I was seeing it even in the United States with the Tea Party-how could India be immune? For the truth was that despite the resilience of its democracy and its impressive recent economic performance, India still bore little resemblance to the egalitarian, peaceful, and sustainable society Gandhi had envisioned,” he says.
India’s politics, he notes, still revolved around religion, clan, and caste. Dr Singh’s elevation as prime minister, sometimes heralded as a hallmark of the country’s progress in overcoming sectarian divides, was somewhat deceiving, he says.
Sonia Gandhi ‘listened more than she spoke’: Obama
“… More than one political observer believed that she’d (Sonia Gandhi) had chosen Singh precisely because as an elderly Sikh with no national political base, he posed no threat to her forty year-old son, Rahul, whom she was grooming to take over the Congress Party,” writes Obama.
He describes a dinner he had at Dr Singh’s home, where Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi were also present.
On Sonia Gandhi, he says she “listened more than she spoke, careful to defer to Singh when policy matters came up, and often steered the conversation toward her son”.
He continues: “It became clear to me, though, that her power was attributable to a shrewd and forceful intelligence. As for Rahul, 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.”
Later as he drove off, Obama writes, he wondered what would happen when Dr Singh 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, following the playbook of liberal democracies across the post-Cold War world: upholding the constitutional order; attending to the quotidian, often technical work of boosting the GDP; and expanding the social safety net. Like me, he had come to believe that this was all any of us could expect from democracy, especially in big, multiethnic, multireligious societies like India and the United States.
Not revolutionary leaps or major cultural overhauls; not a fix for every social pathology or lasting answers for those in search of purpose and meaning in their lives. Just the observance of rules that allowed us to sort out or at least tolerate our differences, and government policies that raised living standards and improved education enough to temper humanity’s baser impulses.”
Obama says he found himself asking whether 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,” he writes.