Take the message in the right spirit. It is not common for Indians to hear visiting dignitaries say anything more than platitudes. But then President Obama is not one of the usual guests who won’t say or do anything undiplomatic. Some may object to his having a chewing gum while watching the solemn Republic Day parade or lecturing Indians on the need for religious tolerance and empowering women. Some may see in his Siri Fort speech – the only one made without the Indian Prime Minister by his side — a calculated snub to Modi after breaking free from his host’s penchant for embraces and an attempt to politically protect himself from human rights critics back home.
But Obama is no snob. Having lost control of Congress, he is just a lame duck President with two years left in office. If Obama referred to Modi as a tea vendor’s son, he described himself as a cook’s grandson. And he was giving an inspirational speech to some 2,000 students. “We know from experience that nations are more successful when their women are successful,” he observed. He talked of women’s safety, which has become a national issue after a series of sexual assaults invited persistent protests and media attention. Given the recent spate of conversions, attacks on churches and threats to minorities – the issues on which the Prime Minister has chosen to remain largely silent — it was a huge diplomatic risk for President Obama to take up the sensitive subject. Being a skillful orator, he said what needed to be said, regardless of the ruling party’s and Parivar’s political and religious agenda: “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith”.
Instead of faulting President Obama for saying what he said or accusing him of interfering in India’s internal affairs, the saner elements in the BJP and the government should discipline the lunatic fringe before it occupies the centre stage, scares away foreign investors and damages India’s secular credentials. If you invite a high-profile guest, take care to clean up the backyard of the house too.
(The Tribune, Chandigarh)