WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
When the world’s most powerful man visits a developing country the second time in a matter of five years, the inevitable question is: What gifts did he bring? Now that we have just one superpower, US President Barack Obama is obviously the world’s most powerful person. Every visit of his to any country is bound to be affected by the well–heeled–uncle–on–a–visit syndrome. Uncle Sam’s nephews and nieces might have asked for certain gifts in advance, but they have to pretend that what Uncle brought for each one of them was a total surprise. US President Barack Obama’s ready acceptance of Prime Minister rendra Modi’s invitation to be chief guest at our Republic Day celebrations brought about a proper validation of the nuclear agreement that had been signed five years ago but had not borne fruit because no one did anything about the liability clauses. About a month before Barack Obama’s visit, Indian and US officers worked on the clauses of the agreement, to make its implementation a viable and smooth process. Now we have an arrangement whereby four public sector insurance companies will jointly contribute Rs 750 crore to a corpus of Rs 1,500 crore envisaged as adequate compensation for any nuclear accidents under the provisions of the Liability Law. The government would provide the balance. The implication of such an arrangement is that both the insurance companies and the government would eventually pass on the costs of compensation for a nuclear accident to the people. This cannot be deemed an unfair arrangement considering that the installation and functioning of further nuclear reactors would result in expanding the installed nuclear capacity from the existing 5,700 MW to over 20,000 MW. For any tion with great ambitions of development such expansion of its power capacity would indeed be a godsend. All that was needed for this to happen was a 20–minute one–to–one discussion between the President of the US and the Prime Minister of India. The visit of Barack Obama brought with it other important gifts as well. There was the offer of Indo–US collaboration in production of defence equipment. There was the offer of Indo–US cooperation for maritime surveillance in the South Pacific. There was the offer to turn Allahabad, Ajmer and Visakhapatm into smart cities and the offer of collaboration in other possible endeavours of common interest. In fact, the list could be made virtually endless if there is no lack of purposefulness on our part.
The important question to be asked after the visit of an intertiol figure of Barack Obama’s eminence is whether people are looking only for material gifts and nothing else at all. Should there be nothing beyond gifts and goodies after such a visit? Don’t people wish to know more about the person himself, his likes and dislikes, his successes and failures, his achievements and frustrations, his views on major issues that confront the world and his simple pleasures and cravings? People also wanted to know what he honestly thought of India and where the tion was going. And does one not crave for a modicum of inspiration and motivation from such individuals? One can see that Barack Obama must have anticipated that the people of India were expecting a great deal more than just material gifts from him. So he decided to interact with people, especially the youth, and to and to provide the far more precious gift of inspiration and motivation. But packaging such gifts is not an easy task. One can give the impression of flattering the hosts. One can also give the impression of being uncharitable to one’s hosts by being very frank. Even so, he was able to do the job of packing and delivering the non–material gifts with great aplomb, grace, informality and warmth. No other US President who has visited India has been able to touch the hearts and minds of the people of India the way Barack Obama did. The Siri Fort interaction with students, teachers, diplomats, jourlists and others turned out to be a great success largely because Obama shared his persol views on a whole gamut of topics and issues with disarming candour and his characteristic touch of humility. He addressed the gathering as “sisters and brothers of India” and said that he firmly believed that America could be India’s “best partner”. He added that he was “absolutely convinced” that if both the democracies stood together they could produce more jobs, opportunities and prosperity for their people. He told the audience how the US would partner India in developing its infrastructure, building ports, bullet trains, smart cities and “develop technology that we do with closest allies.” He also dwelt on cooperation in tackling terrorism. He then went on to speak of what India needed to be in order to remain the country that had influenced entire civilizations and earned the esteem of all countries. He hailed the diversity of India and hoped that this diversity would be preserved. He quoted Gandhi and Article 25 of the Indian Constitution to underscore the importance of people having the freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion in a democracy. “India will succeed so long as it not splintered on religious lines. Every person has the right to practise their religion how they choose,” he said.
Barack Obama’s observations on religious freedom and people’s right to practise their religion as they choose has been regarded by some as a comment on the present state of the tion in the light of what has been happening by way of forced conversions and the so–called “home–coming”. It is indeed possible that this was Obama’s way of putting across a friendly message to the charismatic leader of the world’s largest democracy that regardless of what might have happened in the past, any form of forced religious conversion could seriously jeopardize the democratic structure of the country and sully the image of India’s religious tolerance and catholicity. Being on first–me terms gives a friend the right to sound such warnings to the Prime Minister. And no one need have been unduly touchy about what Barack Obama had to say about a tion being splintered on religious lines or any other lines. One has to recall that the splintering of the Afghan society along terrorist/non–terrorist lines or pro–Soviet/anti–Soviet lines by the Americans during the occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union brought about the destruction of the Afghan society. We also keep forgetting that most of the weapons sent by the US to Pakistan to counter the Taliban were actually passed on to Pakistani terrorist groups to be used against India. There is, in all probability, an element of guilt too in what Barack Obama had to say about guarding against the splintering of the Indian society. Possibly too much was read into Barack Obama’s Siri Fort speech even when no specific instances had been mentioned and even though Obama spoke only in generalities. In fact, the best way of dealing with the speech would have been for Prime Minister rendra Modi to have ignored innuendoes and carried on with the same grace as host to see off Barack Obama and his wife at the airport without caring too much about protocol just as he had done in the matter of receiving them when they arrived in Delhi.