The Pulse

Obama’s Parting Words in India: Tough but Necessary

Obama left India with an unusual and historic speech, one that will ultimately be helpful for U.S.-India relations.

Obama’s Parting Words in India: Tough but Necessary
Credit: Flickr/ MEAphotogallery

Imagine that you go to the home of a friend — a friend with whom you have considerable business and political dealings. Imagine as well that you have heard that your friend’s supporters may not be living up to the ideals that you share.

When you arrive, you essentially have two options. Either you speak up or you hold your tongue — and let the conversation revolve around your friendship and your mutual business and political interests.

When he visited New Delhi last week, U.S. President Obama — or “Barack,” as his friend Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India repeatedly called him in public — chose to speak up. In a remarkable public address at Siri Fort auditorium delivered to an audience composed primarily of young Indians, Obama reprised for his hosts the themes of unity and equality that first catapulted him to national attention and eventually to the presidency. In the past, Obama had presented these themes in relation to U.S. partisanship and race relations. In New Delhi, the primary targets were the equality of women and the relations among people of different religions.

The theme of gender equality was explosive enough.  Against a backdrop of widespread adverse publicity about gang rapes and sexual harassment in India, the theme of the Republic Day parade (which Obama had attended as Modi’s guest the previous day) was women’s empowerment.  Indeed, Obama had watched as women’s military units paraded — and as a female officer commanded the honor guard. In his speech, Obama skillfully wove his own experiences as an African American into a narrative that called for the empowerment of women.  Gender equality was not only a moral imperative, he declared, but would also be a boost for India’s economic development.

However, it was the theme of religious unity that was most remarkable. Obama’s friend Modi became prime minister last year amid deep misgivings about his commitment to religious harmony. As chief minister of Gujarat state, Modi had been denied a U.S. visa because of concerns that he had not acted to prevent Hindu rioters from killing as many as 1,000 Muslims in 2002. More importantly, his early political career was based upon service in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu militant partner of his own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

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The BJP preaches “Hindutva” as a core tenet of its political agenda. “Hindutva” is an elastic concept, but there is no doubt that elevating the role of Hinduism in cultural nationalism is a part of the concept. Some BJP supporters of Modi have even gone so far as to advocate payment for conversions to Hinduism and to blame political problems on Muslim and Christian minorities.

Immediately after Obama’s Siri Fort speech, some commentators in New Delhi — where one of us was present during Obama’s visit — were not pleased. In conversations about the speech, they decried how the U.S. president had exercised “bad manners” akin to “rapping the knuckles” of a host after having enjoyed the hospitality of his home. Some pointed out that Obama would not have dared make such a speech in Saudi Arabia, his next stop after India. Such a speech in that kingdom, where neither women’s empowerment nor religious freedom is tolerated, would surely have endangered American interests: the free flow of oil out of the kingdom, which Washington regards as a counterweight to Iran and ISIS. Some in New Delhi even contended that the Siri Fort speech was like the 13th stroke of the clock that threw doubt on all of the good things that had happened earlier. Such sentiment — which was not captured in Western media coverage of Obama’s visit — gave rise to a troubling question: Was the goodwill and camaraderie on display in the previous days of the visit sincere, or merely a cover for the usual American arrogance that insists on lecturing and dictating to India?

Most serious were the charges alleging that the speech would make more difficult efforts to accomplish the next steps necessary to deliver tangible results from the achievements of the Obama-Modi summit. After all, the purported “breakthrough” made in a civil nuclear deal — ratified in 2008 but still not implemented due to disagreements on liability — will require additional agreements before there are any civil nuclear exports from the United States. Cooperation on clean energy reached new heights during the visit, but further joint action will be necessary to achieve a climate change agreement in Paris this year.  Additionally, there was a commitment to co-produce several defense items — which would be a major boost to U.S.-India strategic relations. However, this will require additional bilateral cooperation to achieve. Furthermore, the joint statement issued by Obama and Modi pointed toward getting China to settle maritime claims peacefully and in accordance with international law was a major achievement. However, more meat will need to be put on the bones of the Obama rebalance toward Asia for there to be more forward movement.  One can certainly acknowledge that Obama’s parting speech did nothing to move the BJP and its leaders toward closer cooperation with the United States.

However, all this said, Obama did the right thing in making the Siri Fort speech.

First, the speech addressed great issues of our time that impact the interests of the United States and India and their ability to actually create, as Obama has said, one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century. The empowerment of women is a key to economic growth. No economy can reach its potential so long as women remain undereducated and underemployed. Economic engagement driven by Indian economic growth has been and will be a driver in bringing the United States and India closer together on strategic issues. This engine of economic engagement cannot function fully if India and the United States are not utilizing the full talents of half their populations.

Throughout history, religious intolerance has been a particularly divisive issue, often leading to violence both within and among societies. Obama quoted Gandhi on different religions being “beautiful flowers from the same garden” or “branches from the same majestic tree.”  This may be.  However, unfortunately, history has repeatedly been marked by the weakening of societies by internal religious conflict and transnational violence — as represented currently by ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups that confront both the India and the United States. This is why addressing the role of religious intolerance is important in the context of building stronger U.S.-India relations.

Second, as with all major political summits, there had been an air of unreality about some aspects of the Obama visit. The Indian press had placed overwhelming emphasis on the bonhomie between Modi and Obama instead of on the issues. This emphasis extended from the greeting hug between the two men, to Modi serving tea to Obama, and to the joint radio address of the leaders. Also, it was a bit premature to hail a “breakthrough” on the civil nuclear deal when neither of the implementing U.S. companies would confirm the liability problem had indeed been solved. As for climate change, the rhetoric on clean energy was encouraging, but by no means did it commit India to anything. Thus, Obama’s bold decision to bring up major U.S. concerns about women and religion intolerance given India’s difficulties with these issues was useful — in that it restored a sense that there are real and continuing challenges that the United States and India need to jointly address.

Finally, the Siri Fort speech was appropriate and helpful to U.S.-India relations because it reached out to U.S. and Indian constituencies that are vital to those relations. Modi did that when he was in the United States through his Madison Square Garden speech. His admonitions to Indian Americans, as if they were simply Indians resident in the United States, could have caused offense.  Instead, he appealed to interests in the environment and health that had resonance with both American and Indian constituencies. And so it was with Obama. Faced with the divisiveness of Ferguson, he linked both American and personal experiences with racial and religious prejudice to the themes of his Siri Fort speech. This was not just to build support with his Indian audience, but to tie U.S.-India relations to key American constituencies.

In making the Siri Fort speech, Obama was certainly taking some chances. And yet thus far, the results seem positive. Indian minorities have been ecstatic, while Modi and the BJP have not (at least not publicly) been critical.

In religion and philosophy, reality is always more than what appears on the surface.  Obama’s Siri Fort speech plumbed underlying realities that affect the U.S.-India relationship. From that perspective, his speech was both unusual, historic, and, ultimately, immensely helpful for the U.S.-India relationship.

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Raymond Vickery, a former Assistant Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration and former Woodrow Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar, is senior adviser to the Albright Stonebridge Group, Of Counsel to Hogan Lovells, and author of several works on U.S.-India relations. Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors.