President Barack Obama’s Town Hall speech has, quite predictably, triggered a minor storm. The government side has, not unnaturally, brushed aside suggestions that the eloquent sermon that also touched upon themes such as religious and minority rights was a veiled indictment of the Narendra Modi government. However, both the media and Modi’s other critics have gloated over this apparent sting in the tail at the fag end of an otherwise successful visit. They have used Obama’s invocation of Article 25 to add to the existing turbulence over religious conversions. Regardless of how the visit of the US President was perceived in the larger public, they have cited the subtext of the Town Hall speech to try and puncture the Modi momentum.
The argument proffered by some over-enthusiastic members of the Modi ministry that Obama was speaking in broad generalities and peppering the media with tasty—but essentially banal—soundbites isn’t entirely persuasive. American politicians invariably tend to be salesmen for an “American dream” which they combine it with gratuitous advice to peoples that are not driven by the same national vision.
The belief that Western civilisation and its way of life is both materially and ethically superior has underpinned US diplomacy since World War II, even when it has involved shoddy compromises with disreputable regimes. President Ronald Reagan—an accomplished communicator, on par with President Bill Clinton and Obama—made effective use of the “truth, justice and the American way” spiel to demolish the “Evil Empire” that was the Soviet Union. Over time it has also incorporated facets of the condescension that was a feature of British imperial diplomacy, at least until the Suez debacle of 1956 drove home the end of Empire. A possible reason why this approach has persisted is due to the undeniable fact that national elites, particularly in the erstwhile colonised parts of the globe, have actually internalised the belief in the superiority of the “American way.” It is only very recently that this perception has been challenged by first, an ever-rising China, and subsequently, Islamism—neither of which are benign influences..
Given this backdrop, it would be misleading to believe that Obama’s references to harmony, co-existence and cultural pluralism was entirely innocent and divorced from the specific. The reference to Article 25 of the India’s Constitution conferring untramelled rights to all religious communities (apart, interestingly, from Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs) to profess, practice and propagate their faith wasn’t innocent. In the wake of the ghar vyapsi initiative by a section of Hindu activists, there has been a call by the RSS and even the BJP to effect a legal ban on all conversions—a move that would necessitate a modification of the existing Article 25. The initiative has been resolutely opposed by the Christian clergy, not least because it feels that evangelism is central to its larger religious mission. The foremost foreign funding for the evangelists comes from the US which has witnessed the rise of political Christianity. Although the Christian Coalition isn’t well disposed towards the Obama administration, its priorities are nevertheless an important input in the making of American foreign policy. With Republicans dominating Capitol Hill, the White House was no doubt mindful of the need to accommodate some these Christian concerns, even by way of a token utterance. Thanks to the manner in which Modi’s detractors have interpreted the Town Hall utterances and the debate it has generated, Obama can at least draw satisfaction that one of his domestic compulsions has been met.
Such an argument isn’t either fanciful or needlessly paranoic. The extent to which security concerns and business interests have moulded US foreign policy has been richly documented. Less appreciated is the extent to which Christian lobbies—those institutions that send money to India as opposed to those who see India as a zone of potential profit—provide a non-secular input to the workings of the State Department. During the term of the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led NDA Government, for example, the US Embassy in Delhi was quite active in mobilising domestic opposition to the sporadic attacks on improvised churches in the Dangs district of Gujarat. Domestic opponents of the BJP (and Modi in particular) have received unending encouragement and patronage from institutions such as the official US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
In its 2014 annual report, USCIRF clubbed India with Afghanistan, Cuba, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia and Turkey as a mid-level threat to religious freedom. It listed three issues that the US Government should keep in mind while deepening its strategic relationship with India. First, it advised the administration to “integrate concern for religious freedom into bilateral contacts with India.” Secondly, it wanted steps to “increase the US Embassy’s attention to issues of religious freedom and related human rights” concerns. Finally, and in more specific terms, it “urge(d) the central Indian government to press states that have adopted anti-conversion laws to repeal or amend them to conform with internationally recognised human rights standards.”
President Obama’s brief mention of religious tolerance last Tuesday could well be read in this context. Obviously, the demand for anti-conversion laws to prevent mass-scale “harvesting” of souls has ruffled a few feathers in the world of political Christianity.
However, these sectarian concerns that stem from the US’s domestic compulsions must be kept in perspective. India may be pervesely equated with Afghanistan in the USCIRF’s index of religious freedom but this is offset by the acknowledgement of India’s economic potential and its importance in the emerging Great Game in Asia centred on an assertive China. Obama didn’t come to India because he wanted to wag a finger at Modi and lecture the country on how to conduct itself. As far as his priorities went, the USCIRF agenda was just a footnote. No wonder the sermon was left till the very end of his visit and delivered at a non-official function. More to the point it was couched in the language of economic self-interest and made to appear as a universal truism: that growth and prosperity need a climate of social harmony.
It is understandable that both the mainstream and social media have picked on these contentious sentences to either berate Modi or denounce the US for being oh-so patronising. By its very nature the media in its entirety loves acrimony and polemical exchanges. The complicated negotions over the civil nuclear partnership was too abstruse for studio brawls; Michelle Obama kept a low profile and didn’t provide the much-anticipated glamour quotient; and the sheer stodgniess of the President’s official banquet at an outhouse in the Rashtrapati Bhavan complex couldn’t really be pinned on Modi. So, in the end, the largely successful Obama visit boiled down to two contrived brawls: the first over the gratuitous references to India’s duty at the Siri Fort auditorium and, finally, over Modi’s monogrammed pin stripes. The first allowed the disoriented army of Modi-sceptics to feel that America still cares. The second permitted the pillars of entitlement a snigger or two at the expense of a man they despise but whose popularity remains undiminished.
Obama’s Republic Day visit was the first occasion that Modi’s skills in public diplomacy was put to the test—earlier visits by the China’s premier and Russia’s President didn’t generate the same measure of popular interest. In their minds, Indians were comparing Modi with representatives of the Gandhi family who had excelled in the meeting-the-foreigner department. The ‘chaiwala’ didn’t let the side down. He did well out of the visit and, ironically, the little storm over Obama’s parting shot won’t do him any harm politically.
The Telegraph, January 30, 2015