It took Obama to point out Modi is not doing enough for minorities
We have to look beyond the usual bromide and boilerplate stuff on the US President Barack Obama-PM Narendra Modi White House meet and now the Republic Day visit to India.
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Spectacle and style usually overwhelms substance and specifics whenever India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi plays to the gallery. Like the well-conceptualised choreographed high-tea (in keeping with the chai pe charcha advertising pitch used to pitchfork the seemingly humble chaiwallah to 7, Race Course Road) at Hyderabad House with the visiting US President Barack Obama. Or the calculated elaboration of an apparent breakthrough in the civilian nuclear liability gridlock, when actually it remained cloaked in secrecy and nebulousness. It is a different matter, however, that the chaiwallah has transitioned to wearing meretricious designer suits, rumoured to be exorbitantly priced, and changed at extraordinary frequency for every conceivable event, with some even having his name delicately embroidered on them.
We have to look beyond the usual bromide and boilerplate stuff on the US President Barack Obama-PM Narendra Modi White House meet and now the Republic Day visit to India; transformational relationship, natural partners, shared values, the world's greatest democracies etc. A rewind to Modi's USA trip is germane in the circumstances. The joint op-ed in Washington Post last September 2014 had the cornucopia of the usual trite, devoid of specifics and as vague as the window panes on a sultry day interspersed with raindrops. Characteristically Modi, there was the style and showmanship captured by hyper-kinetic TV channels doing some breathless reporting of the foofaraw for local audiences giving Star Plus and Bigg Boss a miss for the real reality TV show. Modi was the big cheese, and no one wanted to really grill his controversial past. Modi is now doing a joint Mann ki Baat with the President and using the state broadcaster for some more of his personal branding. The show continues.
Fact is, the TV anchors had outstanding material not just flaky fodder to bring in a stimulating debate, but most struggled to keep pace with content quality. ISIS, US troops withdrawal from Afghanistan, Nawaz Sharif's raising the Kashmir issue in UN, border tensions with China, the anti-FDI in multi-brand retail posture of BJP, USA's sudden changed view on Modi after the 2005 visa embargo, Pakistan terrorism issue etc demanded analytical discourse. But they got perfunctory attention and thus received embryonic responses too. Expectedly, slogans, shibboleths and symbols (the 3D kind) dominated the Modi visit, now at best inducing a stifled grin hinting déjà vu.
More than anything, Obama would have been conscious of Modi's and his ruling dispensation's views on minority communities in India and it's growing stridency and intimidating tone. America may have welcomed and President Obama may have quickly acquiesced to being the guest of honour at India's Republic day, but the fact that the State department had denied him a US visa for the shameful lapses of Gujarat 2002 riots leading to death of innocents cannot be obliterated. That both Obama and Modi postured oblivious of that gargantuan discomfiture is what makes political leaders unique. The many who had lined up to protest against Modi for his human rights record outside that soap opera bubble called the Madison Square Garden did not even get a token mention in TV coverage. Seriously,if the Indian media thinks that in the age of social media they can twist and turn a story at will, they are sadly mistaken. Social media is making a revolutionary change and impact, and people read Twitter faster than switch to TV news programs. The latter's own credibility and character was questioned by many as they displayed pre-appointed vociferous NRI crowds chanting Modi, Modi, Modi as the camera panned on them, before they headed excitedly for another ubiquitous camera crew at arm's length proximity. This was community TV, producing commoditised news and tied in an umbilical cord. In the meantime, in India, Meghalaya and Assam floods killed many, communal tensions escalated in Gujarat, and a train accident occurred at Gorakhpur. But the Modi chant was coincidentally reaching a crescendo. No guesses for what got preference.
Imagine what the American paparazzi would do to President Obama if he called Abraham Lincoln Arthur Lincoln! It would be a cardinal sin, the kind that the US public and media would remind him of at odd, intermittent intervals till he had apologised in his memoirs as an octogenarian. But the Indian Prime minister made the mother of all blunders (as it happens for the second time), in getting the name of the Father of the Nation wrong. Mohandas was made Mohanlal, but some even justified it saying that is informal usage in Gujarat. Trying telling that to someone in Georgia or Georgetown. Or Gurgaon. Or the poor Doordarshan TV anchor who lost his job for mispronouncing the name of the visiting Chinese President.
Modi mentioned climate change in a token fashion and yet no one asked him if that truly was such a pressing anxiety for the PM, as it should have been. Why did Modi miss the UN Climate Summit that preceded his US visit by just a few days? China, USA and India are amongst the top polluters of the world. Future generations evidently have to fend for themselves against rising carbon dioxide emissions, global warming and rising sea levels. Modi won the elections and plaudits from conservative, free market fundamentalists championing growth over what he ridiculed as doleonomics (the distribution of subsidies), then why is he so conveniently now used the pretext of food security subsidies to buy leeway on the Trade Facilitation Agreement? Understandably, secretary of state John Kerry, otherwise uncharacteristically effusive, went away miffed on WTO. No one thought it pertinent to question Modi's electoral assurances against his contradictory official conduct. Interestingly, Modi has added climate change to the ministry of environment and forests, but his government is fast approving projects with contemptuous indifference towards ecological imbalances and environmental degradation.
The Madison Square Garden event was a cleverly marketed Buy One Modi Mask Get Two campaign; a paid for extravaganza with all material showbiz trappings and what was sold as a lollapalooza. I half-expected a swinging Miley Cyrus dropping down from a gas balloon. Even the handsome Wolverine Hugh Jackman was in attendance to some Star Wars dialogue being recycled in another event at Central Park. Sure, politics in a new high-tech media driven has changed, but this bit was an epitome of excesses. Indians with American passports , most unlikely to ever return to India, seemed ecstatic. It is the manufactured creation of a cult status for one man; that is the reason behind the physical assault on senior journalist RajdeepSardesai. How can you criticise the Lord and Master? And that too on the NRI home ground on Manhattan, minutes away from the green-bucks Modi assuaged Wall street bankers of? Modi, of course, of the acche din fame changed into colorful Nehru (how ironic) band-galas and jackets with monotonous regularity.
So what should have been most perplexing to the normally bumptious Modi was that the middle name of the most powerful man in the world that he was meeting with was Hussein; Barack Hussein Obama. A Muslim name from his Kenyan father. And that he was chosen by the world's most mature, sophisticated democracy. Victims of 9/11 , comprising of several hundred nationalities, and a white population that numbered 77 per cent. The African-Americans number only 14 per cent in the US census. They are a minority, and remain victims of racial segregation even today, and not along ago the Ku Klux Klan and Mississippi Burning were it's ugly manifestations. Even the celebrated TV star real-estate tycoon billionaire Donald Trump, whose branded skyscraper towers in South Mumbai is expected to raise funds that could feed millions from a single race-course viewing apartment, had questioned the birth credentials of the US President. And this after Obama was elected overwhelmingly by a popular mandate. We may criticize America for several reasons, and justifiably so, but it's spirit of unencumbered assimilation and immanent tolerance for diversity is unmatched, exceptions like Trump, Fox News, Tea Party movement and hardline right-wing fanatics notwithstanding.
Interestingly, the Muslim minority population of India is just the same; 14 per cent. For Modi, that ought to be his education, enlightenment and fodder for cogitation. The 14 per cent of India cannot be treated like second-class citizens even as Modi's super-boss the RSS repeatedly broadcasts their raging impatience for converting India into a Hindu rashtra. At core, Modi is a visceral RSS pracharak and a rock star in saffron who craftily promotes (by being mum) the vicious communal campaign of Ghar Wapsi, Love Jihad, religious reconversions, celebration of Nathuram Godse (the killer of Mahatma Gandhi) and the preposterous assertions of the Sangh Parivaar that Hindu women should have at least four children each. It is a laundry-list of embarrassing and foul intentions.
Obama's parting shot at Siri Fort town-hall was momentous, "India will succeed as long as it's not splintered on religious lines". From a minority community president to a majority prime minister, that sure was a not-so- subtle message. But I don't know if Modi was listening.