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    'Divided by Caste, Corruption and Religion': Obama's Views on India Go Beyond Gandhi, Ramayana

    Rahul Gandhi speaks with US President Barack Obama at a state dinner at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on November 8, 2010. (REUTERS/B Mathur)

    Rahul Gandhi speaks with US President Barack Obama at a state dinner at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on November 8, 2010. (REUTERS/B Mathur)

    While Barack Obama is all praise for Mahatma Gandhi, his memoir 'A Promised Land' also delves into India's problem of caste, religious divide and corruption as well as nepotism within the Congress Party.


    Buzz Staff

    Former US President Barack Obama's "tell-all" memoir "A Promised Land" has been ruffling feathers since the first day of its release. Be it the rather untoward dig at Congress chief Rahul Gandhi or his comments on former chief Sonia Gandhi and former Indian PM Rahul Gandhi, the book has already caused waves in India.

    But that's not all that Obama wrote about in his memoir. Excerpts from the book that deal with India's problems with caste, poverty, rivalry with Pakistan, and political nepotism are being widely shared.

    But what does Barack Obama really think about India? His book offers a mixed bag of emotions. On the one hand, Obama is seen praising India's pluralism, its current stock of Opposition leaders and cultural heritage while stating that he was inspired by Gandhi and that he grew up listening to Hindu texts like Ramayana and Mahabharata.

    READ: 'India Held Special Place in My Imagination': Obama Says He Used to Listen Ramayana, Mahabharata

    On the other, the former US President sometimes seems to reduce the country to an imperialist's view of a "third-world" nation.

    The nation of Gandhi and Gandhis

    The 44th US President spends a good bit of his portions on India talking about Indian leaders, particularly Mahatma Gandhi whom he claims was the primary reason behind his fascination with India.

    "More than anything, though, my fascination with India had to do with Mahatma Gandhi. Along with (Abraham) Lincoln, (Martin Luther) King, and (Nelson) Mandela, Gandhi had profoundly influenced my thinking," writes Obama, who had visited India twice as president.

    Gandhi's non-violent campaign for Indian independence from Britain, which began in 1915 and continued for more than 30 years, hadn't just helped overcome an empire and liberate much of the subcontinent, it had set off a moral charge that pulsed around the globe, he writes.

    "It became a beacon for other dispossessed, marginalised groups - including Black Americans in the Jim Crow South - intent on securing their freedom," says Obama.

    But despite being impressed by Mahatma Gandhi, whose "successful non-violent campaign against the British rule became a beacon for other dispossessed, marginalised groups", Obama rues that the Indian icon was unable to successfully address the caste system or prevent the partition of the county based on religion.

    The other Gandhis that find space in the pages of the first volume of Obama's book, are Congress's Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. And the comments are not very flattering.

    Obsessing over Opposition?

    Obama is full of praise for former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, a member of the "often persecuted Sikh religious minority". But he writes that Singh's ascension to the PM's chair, which is “sometimes heralded as a hallmark of the country’s progress in overcoming sectarian divides, was somewhat deceiving”.

    "More than one political observer believed that she’d chosen Singh precisely because as an elderly Sikh with no national political base, he posed no threat to her 40-year-old son, Rahul, whom she was grooming to take over the Congress Party," Obama writes.

    But Obama is smitten with Singh, whom he describes as “wise, thoughtful, and scrupulously honest” and “man of uncommon wisdom and decency” with a white beard and a turban that “to the Western eye lent him the air of a holy man”.

    He writes that with Singh, he developed “a warm and productive relationship” and forged agreements for cooperation on counterterrorism, global health, nuclear security, and trade despite a bureaucracy’s historic suspicion of the US”.

    Obama also describes meeting Sonia Gandhi at a dinner hosted by Singh, calling her “a striking woman in her sixties, dressed in a traditional sari, with dark, probing eyes and a quiet, regal presence”.

    It was clear, he writes, that the power of the “former stay-at-home mother of European descent” could be attributed “to a shrewd and forceful intelligence”.

    During the dinner, Obama says that Sonia Gandhi deferred to Singh on policy matters, but tried to steer the conversation to her son.

    Obama describes Rahul Gandhi as seeming to be “smart and earnest, his good looks resembling his mother’s”.

    He spoke about “progressive politics,” Obama writes, “occasionally pausing to probe me on the details of my 2008 campaign”.

    “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,” Obama concludes.

    READ: Obama's College Friends Taught Him to Cook Dal and Keema, Former US President Reveals in Memoir

    Divided by Religion, Caste and Corruption

    Obama writes that in many respects, modern-day India counted as a success story, having survived repeated changeovers in government, bitter feuds within political parties, various armed separatist movements, and all manner of corruption scandals.

    "The transition to a more market-based economy in the 1990s had unleashed the extraordinary entrepreneurial talents of the Indian people -- leading to soaring growth rates, a thriving high-tech sector, and a steadily expanding middle class... and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's economic reforms lifted millions out of poverty", he writes.

    Obama, however, adds, "Despite its genuine economic progress, though, India remained a chaotic and impoverished place: largely divided by religion and caste, captive to the whims of corrupt local officials and power brokers, hamstrung by a parochial bureaucracy that was resistant to change".

    In another section of the book, Obama mentioned almost in passing that, "Violence, both public and private, remained an all-too-pervasive part of Indian life". A report by Indian news agency IANS has dubbed the portions of the book on India "supercilious" and containing blanket statements that attempt to paint India in a single, imperialist stroke of using known keywords such as poverty, caste and religion.

    India-Pakistan relations

    But Obama's views on India don't end there.

    In the memoir, Obama also seemed to take a dig at India's nationalism, when he writes that, "Expressing hostility toward Pakistan was still the quickest route to national unity". He also commented on India's nuclear pride and here too, made a point to single out India's rivalry with Pakistan as being the focal point of its foreign policy.

    Many Indians take "great pride in the knowledge that their country had developed a nuclear weapons program to match Pakistan", he writes. Coming from the former President of a nation that spent decades locked in a fierce ideologically-driven (or justified) nuclear arms race and also the only country in the world to have used a nuclear bomb on its enemies, Obama's comments on India's "nuclear pride" may fall a bit flat

    It also may be noted that while Obama won on a huge mandate after promising to ends all of America's wars and remove the nation from its constant war footing, the United States had active "military involvement" in the eight countries in 2016 under President Obama. As per a report in The Atlantic, a U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman had once confirmed to the publication that on the day he had been questioned, the United States had 82 special operations forces deployed across the world.

    On missing out Narendra Modi

    There isn't much on the BJP or even a mention of Narendra Modi in the memoir, which ends in 2011. While the fact has already been publicised by opposition leaders like Congress's Shashi Tharoor, critics argue that this was just the first part of Obama's memoir. the next part is expected to pick up from after that and thus is expected to contain more on the Narendra Modi years under the Bharatiya Janata Party.

    Obama does, however, mention a private chat with then PM Singh without their aides before a dinner. Obama indicates that in course of the dinner, Singh had spoken of a premonition of the rise of the BJP and Obama writes that he too "wondered what would happen when he left office".

    Obama said that he had been "doubtful" that the baton would be passed on to Rahul Gandhi in order to "preserve(ing) the Congress Party’s dominance over the divisive nationalism touted by the BJP”.

    He says it wouldn’t be Singh’s fault and wonders if "violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance" were "too strong for any democracy to permanently contain".

    While Obama does touch upon a variety of topics in the memoir, readers at some point may be left wondering if the book perhaps at times reduces India to the same Western stereotypes that his White predecessors have previously attributed to India.

    (With inputs from Agencies)

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