Barack Obama has spoken about his fascination with India in his new memoir A Promised Land.
“Maybe it was its (India) sheer size, with one-sixth of the world’s population, an estimated two thousand distinct ethnic groups, and more than seven hundred languages spoken,” the former US President writes in the book.
Speaking about his childhood experience, Obama writes: “Maybe it was because I’d spent a part of my childhood in Indonesia listening to the epic Hindu tales of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, or because of my interest in Eastern religions, or because of a group of Pakistani and Indian college friends who’d taught me to cook dahl and keema and turned me on to Bollywood movies.”
Adding he never visited India before his 2010 presidential visit, Obama says the country “always held a special place in my imagination”.
The memoir that covers his journey from the 2008 election campaign till the end of his first term, including the Abbottabad raid that resulted in the death of al-Qaida head Osama bin Laden, also highlights his concern about the “divisive nationalism touted by the BJP”.
The book, noting India’s shift to a more market-based economy in the 1990s, says: “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.”
It adds the time the Democratic leader spent with Singh confirmed his initial impression of the Prime Minister as a man of “uncommon wisdom and decency”.
Recalling the time Singh resisted calls to attack Pakistan following the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, Obama writes “this restraint had cost him politically”. He writes Singh told him he feared “rising anti-Muslim sentiment had strengthened the influence of Hindu nationalist BJP”, which was in opposition then.
“In uncertain times, Mr President, 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,” Singh had told the American leader.
He writes: “”If globalisation and historic economic crisis were fuelling 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?”
During a dinner party Singh hosted for Obama on his first evening in Delhi, the then Prime Minister “spoke openly about the clouds he saw on the horizon”.
Writing about dynasty politics, he writes: “That she (Sonia Gandhi) – 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.”
Remembering a dinner, Obama says Sonia listened more than she spoke, “careful to defer to [Mr] Singh when policy matters came up, and often steered the conversation toward her son”.
“It became clear to me, though, that her power was attributable to a shrewd and forceful intelligence.”
On Rahul Gandhi, Obama writes 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.”
He went on to add: “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 while driving off, Obama wondered about India’s future once 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, multi-religious societies like India and the United States.”
Obama also found himself asking “whether those 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.”
In 2014, Narendra Modi’s BJP came to power with a sweeping victory in the Lok Sabha elections.
The first of the two-part memoirs makes no mention of Modi whom he met at several instances. The second part is likely to contain his impression about Modi.