Obama spent three whole days in India. He was welcomed like one of our own, complete with huggy hugs and the intimacy of first naming, even if one-sided, the erudite Indian Chief Executive going even to the extent of telling him the meaning of his first name, Barack, which now we know means “the one who is blessed.” The 1894 triumph was mentioned—that telling moment when our Vivekananda took the Parliament of Religions at Chicago by storm and taught the world a thing or two about the pre-eminence of our Vedas. Coming as he does from the very same Chicago, Obama had had the wit to present to the visiting Indian Prime Minister a year or so ago a compilation of the speeches made at that watershed event in Chicago a century and a quarter back where Vivekananda “proved” to the semitic world how the Vedas were the mother of all faiths, and how being Hindu meant being universal.
Just when the Obama visit was going so swimmingly, bathed in the glow of the Vedas and sundry saffron accoutrement, imagine what this Obama fellow, during an address to India’s aspirating youth, proud of the Vedic yore, even if by hearsay, but yearning for a Yankee future, chose to do: as if poking a finger in the Hindutva eye, this Obama made bold to say how “Michelle and I have been strengthened by our Christian faith.” No ghar vapsi (i.e. return to the all-encompassing original faith) there, you might well say, Vivekananda or no Vivekananda. Was he also insinuating that it might be wrong to vandalise churches etc.? In other words, teaching us tolerance on our own tolerant soil. Fingers crossed. We need his technology.
In fact, this cheeky Obama—he went all the way, as if you couldn’t stop him. Reminding his bright audience of how Gandhi had said all religions are branches of the same tree, how, in fact, Article 25 of the Indian Constitution guaranteed to all the right to profess, practice, and preach their own religions without fear of persecution, or discrimination. As if to say, “I have done my homework not just on Vivekananda but also on your Constitution, so don’t tell me.” And, even more gallingly, how it is incumbent on governments to “protect religious freedoms” as well as on all citizens. Ergo, not enough for any government to say they have nothing to do with what their well-wishers may be doing here, there, and elsewhere to those “others” who practice faiths different from that of the majority, however peaceful and law abiding they may be, or however empowered to do so by the Constitution. Having learnt a trick or two from his bosom friend, Modi, Obama went on to make that irrefutable and pulverizing appeal to his own experience of having been often “treated differently” in that land of the free and the brave. Once said, how could you prevent any Dalit or Adivasi, or Muslim, or Christian in Bharat from thinking the American President might have been speaking for him as well? Not to speak of women who are not blessed with vintage fair skin, however accomplished, handsome, and noble they be.
Come to think of it, Obama said a mouthful, as if he was enunciating a Methodist equivalent of the Vedic-Vivekananda peroration to an Indian audience—a sort of empire striking back you might say — a century or more in the making, secure in the knowledge that, being the most powerful man in authority worldwide, with plenty to give, there was nary a mischance of anyone saying with Bartleby “I would prefer not to” listen.
With the religious question dealt with, like it or not, Obama had the further gumption to aver that “our countries are not perfect.” This at a juncture in the modern history of India when everywhere perfection drips from the mouth of babes as much as it does from those they wish to emulate and celebrate. Indeed, look where you will, hear where you will, was India that is Bharat ever more perfect? Even to the exclusion of the least demur which stands to be promptly subjected to the correctional clout that perfection now wields to orchestrated applause? Now, we might have agreed had the visiting persona limited his confession to his own land. After all, think what moral decrepitude obtains there where women may wear what they like, and where children leave their parents and go their own way, etc.; indeed, imperfections too numerous for our politeness to number, although their sinful habits of eating beef and drinking liquor must receive mention. But to have included Bharat in his contemplation of imperfection—is this to be endured?
And what was his argument? That both in the US of A and in India great big “skyscrapers” exist cheek by jowl with great “poverty.” This monumental hypocrisy at just the moment when we are poised to erase “socialist” from the Preamble of our Constitution so as we may plunge full scale into the American way of life—privatising wealth and assets, maximising profits, dismantling welfare, deepening inequality, eliminating subsidies to the poor and enhancing subsidies, nee incentives, to the rich—all in enlightened national and global interest! So what a thing to say that economic rapacity and reformist expropriation equal imperfection. And from a bright man who went to Harvard. Asking us to “open up” from one side of his mouth, and preaching socialism from the other side. Alas, were we not so enslaved to the ancient edict of Atithi Devo Bhava (a guest is god), what might our Surjit Bhallas and Gurcharan Dases and others of that evolved tribe of thinkers not have had to say to Obama about what does and does not constitute imperfection. But our mouths remained sealed; we need the reactors and the defence technologies. Best to swallow the crude homily and get on with Vikas (development).
But what if the reactors do not, after all, materialize? We may have agreed between the two great leaders to pass on the buck of liability to commercial types, but what commercial mind would risk insuring a nuclear disaster, you might well speculate. And what Westinghouse and suchlike might want to venture investing when the costs of producing nuclear energy escalate to a point where no one may buy? Points to ponder, points to ponder. And what canny American war-making firm may consent to co-produce to a “make-in-India” tune, when such co-production may involve sharing not just finished technologies but letting on how they are arrived at? And permanent membership of the Security Council, ha, wait to hear from the Chinese, the Germans, and the Japanese, as well as the Brazilians before you saddle your horses, mate. Have you read your American history well? We are afraid not—reason why you tend to mistake one-sided hugs and chummy camaraderie for strategic conquests. And from a President who is not only lame duck but has both Houses of Congress opposed to him. Not to speak of a Pentagon, always willing to make war with alacrity but never fool enough to give away ascendancy of wherewithal.
As to depending on our fifth column, namely our bustling NRIs, more effervescence, less substance or clout there. And surely not after our Hindutva exertions have been so roundly rebuked by a Christian Head of State on our own home turf. Annoyance and mayhem, down and out there.
But it was a great success, the Obama visit—a great success. Reason why for four days round the clock we saw little else on the electronic channels but guffaw and good will, and heard philosophy and reminiscence, suffusing our real lives and our real needs with syllables of promise and the shimmer of zest.
That over, shoulder to the wheel, for the prices keep going up and the only commodity cheaply available is religion—that which cannot fill the belly, or plaster the bone, or keep the hovel from the rain, or protect children and women from slavery and rape.
Soon we may be only a “sovereign democratic republic”, neither “socialist” nor “secular”, even in name.
That indeed will be perfection.