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Modi's American Sweetheart

Becoming partners in policy and play, the leaders of the world’s largest and oldest democracies displayed a rare chemistry.

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Friendship and pageantry often go hand in hand innational destinies. The grand mela that was this year’s Republic Day parade on January 26 at Rajpath in New Delhi saw the “friendship” between United States of America and India warm by several degrees, with President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi acting out the optics of diplomacy to near perfection. That President Obama is the first and only US president to be invited to be the guest of honor at this annual, state-orchestrated carnival in the Indian national capital, a commemoration of the declaration of India as a democratic republic and the unveiling of its Constitution in 1950, is, in itself, a milestone that informed every aspect of this pageantry, which neither began nor stopped with the parade itself. From a pinstriped suit with Modi’s name embossed in gold thread that became the eye of a major sartorial storm, to Obama’s careful but emphatic proclamation that secularism is integral to the idea and reality of India, to the supposed clearing out of the nuclear logjam, the three-day Indo-US bilateral meet on the sidelines of the Republic Day celebrations generated enough strategic meat and circuit gossip to titillate, perplex and inspire us in the coming years.

Becoming partners in policy and play, the leaders of the world’s largest and oldest democracies displayed a rare chemistry, taking to first name and first lady diplomacy like fish to water. Scores of agreements, memoranda of understanding, deals, trade treaties were signed as Obama and Modi, Michelle and Indian president Pranab Mukherjee ate and walked together, sharing an odd joke now and then, bonding over Indian food and cheerily braving the January rain that gave little respite. The warmth they felt seemed genuine, even though at times, Modi, in his well-known penchant for the theatrics of power, went a trifle overboard in returning the hospitality he was offered at the White House in September last year. But that didn’t distract from the fact that President Obama became the first US president to visit India twice during his tenure, a matter that was constantly highlighted by the Indian media.

Of symbolism and irony

Perhaps India’s changing relation with the wider world is reflected in the guest list of the R-Day invitees. The presidential guest of honor has usually been a representative of the Global South, leaders of countries in South and West Asia, Africa, Latin America, occasionally someone from the erstwhile Soviet Union, or a European power like United Kingdom, France, Ireland, which with India has a shared past rooted in the colonial encounter. United States and India, until the early 2000s, were separated by worldviews so far apart that perhaps it was almost unthinkable to have the US president at a parade meant to showcase the (rather puny in comparison) military strength that was mostly acquired via Soviet largesse. Even though India was officially non-aligned, the Cold War had ensured that New Delhi would pick Moscow over Washington, given the latter’s support for Islamabad always being one of the many significant thorns in the diplomatic throat.

Though clean break is not possible, nor perhaps desired, in a multipolar world, the largest democracies have over the last decade come closer for an ensemble of reasons. India is eager to move ahead of the postcolonial coven as the world grapples with new and present dangers impacting the first and third worlds equally. United States, on the other hand, has recognized that without holding the hand of the most prominent democratic republic in South Asia, with its cultural sway and soft power over an enormous region in West and South Asia, it will neither go very far in stabilising the conflicts that have been festering for years, some because of its own miscalculations, nor will it be able to engineer fresh and important commercial collaboration that is the hallmark of the globalized world. As President Obama and PM Modi explained in their joint statements and speeches, it’s now more obvious than ever that a slightly less arrogant Washington and an increasingly self-assertive New Delhi are “natural partners” who must work together as prominent democracies, carefully negotiating the erstwhile differences with the promises of future cooperation.

But what is a pageant if it’s not rich in both symbolism as well as irony? President Obama’s acceptance of the R-Day invitation was a diplomatic coup whose seeds were sown in the ramparts of the White House itself, during the presidential dinner that the duo enjoyed, or when PM Modi addressed corporate figureheads of the US business council four months earlier during his US visit.

The R-Day invitation was a return gift, as it were. A reciprocal gesture from a confident, high-octane Modi, elected leader of world’s largest democracy, toward the president of the world’s oldest democracy, a leader in his second term, handling his stint as the most powerful man in the world with a philosophical aloofness that can only be read as the pinnacle of his educated sobriety. Therein lies the irony. What Obama had in common with former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — a detachment from the trappings of power — is exactly what sets him apart from Modi. On the other hand, both Modi and Obama are outsiders to entrenched power structures in their respective countries; both led long and successful political campaigns, egged on by clever manipulation of the social media, to reach climactic popularity and resounding election victories. Modi had turned parliamentary elections into a sort of presidential contest of personalities, and even now, the Americanization of Indian politics marches on.   

Parade and Charade

India’s Republic Day parade is a state-held puppetry of borrowed military might, mostly a Soviet-style grand march past lasting over two hours, happening at a venue that’s a throwback to the Anglo-Indian colonial past (New Delhi’s Rashtrapati Bhavan is the former Viceregal Lodge), and a carnival celebrating the longstanding motto “unity and diversity,” with tableaux from different states (called jhankis in Hindi) presenting the distinctive flavor of that region, as well as its most recent achievement, real or imagined.

The military parade has been largely about displaying armaments, such heavy Russian-made tanks and artilleries, missiles and fighter aircraft, as well as various regiments, infantries, security and paramilitary forces, all marching past, in slightly forced unison. Perhaps to the US President, commander-in-chief of the most powerful and sophisticated military in the world, this show of outdated weaponry might have looked straight out of a 1970s James Bond film. The few Indian-made multi-barrel rocket launchers looked gaudy, and Soviet-era tanks seemed too unwieldy for any successful utilization in modern warfare.

But, the R-Day parade is less about the chinks in the armory and more about symbolism. Allowing US-made warplanes in this controlled orgy of militarism is therefore a happy crest, meant to both please the guest of honor, as well as indicate the shifting of tides, the incoming “sophistication” of Indian defense imports as well as a nod that the Indian defense market, one of the biggest in the world, is wide open for the Americans to export state-of-the-art artillery and war machinery.

Sitting next to PM Modi, who wore a colorful pagri to underscore his distinctive Indianness, the quiet and contemplative President Obama was a lesson in difference. With fewer than two years left in office, he was a trifle disinterested in participating in this power pageantry meant wholly to catapult PM Modi’s domestic and international stature. However, he did receive a series of complimentary gestures from Modi – such as being welcomed by the Prime Minister himself (in a break from protocol) at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi when he descended, along with wife Michelle, from the fabulous Air Force One; being addressed as “Barack” by Modi several times, a gesture which went unreciprocated; being gifted a reproduction of the first telegram sent from the US to the Indian Constituent Assembly in 1946; being escorted by the PM personally, at all times, even being the object of the now famous “bear hug” from Modi — a sign of warmth and personal chemistry despite the customary impositions.    

 Politics of bonhomie and mythology

There was, of course, also an element of mutual instrumentality behind all the shenanigans of the three-day visit, the centerpiece of which was the Republic Day parade at Rajpath. Underlying the candid camaraderie between Modi and Obama is also the weight of the past and the present. Barack Obama is the culmination of the American dream, via an Ivy League education, overcoming stupendous barriers of race and general entitlement of the super rich, who control and sponsor US politics. Narendra Modi, a former pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the kernel of Hindutva ideology that is eating India from within, is a rags-to-riches story himself, a template of global Indian aspiration. But the ghosts of 2002 Godhra riots still haunt many conscientious Indians, who see Modi’s brand of communal politics splintering the syncretic fabric of Indian society, giving vent to the latent tendencies among majority Hindus to unite against “Muslim appeasement” by previous governments. Obama is the last person to be unaware of such a fractured reality in India and its widely spread diaspora, particularly in the United States.

So, if Obama chose to play along this part-scripted, part-spontaneous theatre of bonhomie between him and Modi, there were a number of reasons. There’s certainly a side of him that sees Modi as more than a hyperventilating Hindutva bogeyman who is the blue-eyed boy of Indo-US corporate sector. On the other hand, Obama’s deep and unironic links to anticolonial struggle icons such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, mean that his unease with Modi, whose existence depends partially on hollowing out of historic figures and (mis)appropriating them for political gains, will never entirely disappear. Yet, that is a discomfiture that President Obama has chosen to keep to himself, because of pragmatics mostly, airing only occasionally a subtle opinion that sits in direct contrast with the political project of a Modi-fied India.

For PM Modi, on the other hand, the highly spectacular bonhomie with Pres Obama serves a very different purpose. More than anything else, it works to further his own cult as the most powerful man in India, who’s welcome at the highest table of international diplomacy, who’s preparing the next innings at shaping histories, who’s clearing the cobwebs of postcolonial hangover from Indian political memory, who’s helping cast the nets of Indian ambition far and wide. For Modi, being seen hobnobbing with “Barack” boosts his own domestic and global mythology, as both Indians and Indian Americans feel an unaccustomed pride, the pride of politically and historically coming of age. In this panorama of Modi mythology, exuberance and euphoria triumph over cautionary criticisms, self-portraiture beats self-reflexive questioning. Only few ask at what price is the bonhomie coming to the common people of America and India, not the top ten per cent who are a mutually reversible class of global rich, who consume the same items and more or less give back the same precious nothing to the world.

Strategic Alignments

However, it goes without saying that Indo-US bilateral ties have been given a shot in the arm. At every point, Pres Obama — who arrived with a massive security contingent of 1,600 (including 40 sniffer dogs, some of them bearing officer ranks!), as well as a huge delegation comprising business heads, officers and representatives from various departments of the US government, prominent members of several nodal agencies, and other top-level functionaries — made his diplomatic weight felt, if not unnecessarily imposed. Besides his Air Force One, he moved around in the Beast, the presidential vehicle famous for its ultra-modern security facilities, including capacity to ward off a terrorist attack, bomb blast in addition to very obviously being 100 percent bullet proof. Naturally, the heart of India’s national capital had been suitably “cleansed” and “sanitized,” clearing it off any possible threats to the President and the First Lady of the United States, with US Secret Service laying prior claim to the entire area weeks before Obama stepped on Indian soil.

But this hardly threw the pageantry-loving Indian prime minister off gear. In fact, the complete cooperation between Indian and American security establishments over Obama visit laid the cornerstone of a slew of bilateral security agreements, including real time intelligence sharing. Rounds of talks, some specifically designed to emphasize some of Modi’s pet projects — such as the joint Mann Ki Baat (a radio broadcast lasting over 30 minutes, in which the duo answer questions on the safety of the Indian girl child and sanitation drive); the Walk the Talk and the Chai Pe Charcha (during which, the duo supposedly discussed the nuclear logjam and the rise of China as a mutual problem) — covered economic, strategic and diplomatic areas of cooperation.

More than 15 major agreements were subsequently signed, including those on military collaboration, defense purchases, nuclear energy, investment and trade, health and pharmaceuticals, renewable energy and climate change, easier visas for software engineers and others in the information and technology sector, as well as joint projects in space missions between the Indian Space Research Organisation ISRO) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). 

Acknowledging role of NRIs

During his visit to the United States in September last year, Modi had won over Indian Americans in a speech replete with rhetorical flourishes. He had called out to them to invest in India, to make his “Make in India” and “Swachh Bharat” campaigns successful. Playing on nostalgia as well as marketing India as the new global destination for business leaders, Modi had connected with the three-million strong Indian Americans like no one else before. In fact, his vision of a global India sits well with the Diaspora’s reinvention of their once imaginary homeland, now with a renewed power and hyperbole of transnational (often Hindu) patriotism.

At that time, Modi gave a series of sops to the NRIs, such as merging the PIO and OCI (Persons of Indian Origin and Overseas Citizenship of India) categories and giving visa-on-arrival to US nationals. This time, as a reciprocal gesture, Obama aired assurances on India’s concerns over the H-1B visa issue, which is the fulcrum of the Indo-US software industry and a lifeline for tens of thousands of Indians working in the United States. 

The US agreed to address India’s longstanding demand of signing a Totalization Agreement to help Indian workers in the United States obtain refunds of almost $3 billion worth of their social security contributions.

Along with the hype and hoopla, the high-voltage dramaturgy of Indo-US bilateral summit during President Obama’s three-day visit, of course, had its fair share of hullabaloos: both owing to PM Modi’s curious indulgences. One was the supposedly Rs 10 lakh specially tailored suit that Modi wore on the first day of the presidential visit that had his full name, Narendra Damodardass Modi, embossed in gold thread as pinstripes. Second was an advertisement issued by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, in which the Preamble to the Constitution was shown without two of its integral words, “secular” and “socialist.”

Sartorial faux pas?

For many, the suit that PM Modi wore attested to his utter self-absorption, megalomania and disregard for any ideals of austerity or humility that the erstwhile khadi-sporting prime ministers of India have been known for. Against a somber and sober President Obama, who was dressed in neat black three-piece suit, Modi looked overdressed in his pink shawls, multicolored pagri or the suit with his own name. Several compared him to former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, while many rebuked that Indian domestic and foreign policy was now one massive echo chamber of Modi’s own relationship with himself. That Modi was painting the national destiny in his own image, and it was self-centered, narcissistic, devoid of humanitarian ideals and statesman-like vision. 

However, advocates of Modi, including few journalists like Shekhar Gupta, thought otherwise. In a lengthy castigation of what he termed the “great elitist hypocrisy” of Indians, Gupta argued that Modi’s name suit was only an extrapolation of the globe-trotting, haute couture-loving upper class Indians and Indian Americans. Gupta wondered why the ideals of austerity were expected of a prime minister when the Indian bourgeoisie hankered for a bigger house, a bigger car, expensive clothes, jewelry, gadgets and electronics. He also launched a scathing account of the Indian liberals’ thinly-veiled scorn at the parvenu in PM Modi, the political upstart with his halting, influent, heavily accented English, who was never supposed to be where he is now.

He links Modi’s suit with newfound Indian self-assertion on the world stage and a demolition of the Nehruvian ideal of the austere Indian, high in morals, stoic in material possessions. This was the dream Indian and the Indian dream; in fact, a yuppy, suitably Americanized Indian dream. That the same Nehruvian waistcoat is now called the Modi jacket was further assertion of this obvious shift in sartorial politics of the globalizing India.

But, another, and this time even bigger, controversy was waiting to blow up in the face of the very idea of India.

Omission and Secular reminder

The reasons that the I&B Ministry offered for omitting the words “secular” and “socialist” from an advertisement issued on the Republic Day showing the (older, pre-1976) Preamble of the Indian Constitution were that, it wanted pay respects to the founding fathers of the Indian Republic, and it wanted to highlight the fact that the words were inserted later, during the height of Indira Gandhi-led Emergency, as a part of the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution. The ministry, and its many formal and informal spokespersons in the media and public sphere drew attention to the undemocratic times when the words were included in the Preamble, when dissenting leaders were jailed, or when fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech, were suspended.

The incident has come to be described in global Indian media and public sphere as the latest chapter in a series of orchestrated attempts to shake up India’s secular ideals and more or less syncretic fabric of society. That the Modi government came to power riding a polarizing wave, fanning sectarian sentiments in the garb of selling the dream of development is an accepted fact. Likewise, a number of BJP/RSS-engineered programmes such as “ghar wapsi,” “love jihad,” etc., too, have been deployed to keep the flames of communal fire burning, hogging a chunk of media space and public imagination, while deflecting attention from urgent socio-economic realities, like high inflation, poverty, substandard mid-day meals at government-run schools, rampant corruption, black money, honor killings, caste battles, etc.

But the Preamble row also sparked off a debate on the inherent constitutionality of the secular ideal, which espoused religious pluralism and tolerance, as well as the socialist ideal, this only in part, as an indicator of even and fair distribution of resources, and not meaning absolute state control of industry and enterprises. It also exposed how India, under the present regime, is faced with a threat of exterminating this secular ideal, something it shares with the United States of America, and something that is enshrined in the respective constitutions of both the democracies.

It is in this light that the final speech by President Barack Obama, that he delivered at New Delhi’s Siri Fort auditorium, assumes importance. Before an audience of Indian dignitaries, the US president said: “India will succeed so long as it is not split along the lines of religious faith.”

Obama saw a “Hindu Republic,” or at least an India that was mortally in throes of becoming one. The theocratic impulse, welded inseparably to the corporatist, anti-environment, anti-people ideal, that majoritarian sentiment which fans intolerance towards any kind of difference, whether of religion, language, sexual orientation, caste origins, is antithetical to Indian and American constitutionally-sanctioned principles. That it took an American president in Indian soil to remind India of that beautiful cherished origin is both an utter tragedy and deep irony of time.  

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Politics | February2015

Image gallery

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Republic Day parade. Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs President Barack Obama on his arrival in New Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi presents Pres. Barack Obama a reproduction of a telegram sent by the USA to the Indian Constituent Assembly in 1946. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pres. Barack Obama deliberate over a cup of tea at Hyderabad House in New Delhi. Pres Barack Obama, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and First Lady Michelle Obama at the Republic Day parade. Pres. Barack Obama tosses petals on the monument following a wreath laying at Rajghat, a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi. President Barack Obama arrives ar Rashtrapati Bhawan in his armored vehicle “The Beast.” President Obama greets a young girl who was the guest of Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi, background, during a greet with the First Lady in New Delhi, Jan. 27, 2015.

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