President Barack Obama's visit to India drew much media attention. Analysts focused as much on the high politics of strategic and global importance, as they did on the personal "chemistry" between the US President and the Indian Prime Minister. That Prime Minister Narendra Modi took efforts to underline his personal equation with Obama in a way added to the buzz and expectations surrounding the turnaround of the bilateral relations between the two countries, which until few months ago appeared to be as cold as New Delhi's foggy winters. However, analysts and observers, taken in by the flamboyant displays of bonhomie, seem to have missed the forest for the trees.
It's true that the visit underscores the importance the Obama presidency accords to India, in terms of a defining strategic partnership of the 21st century. For the new government of Prime Minister Modi it is an attempt to end the non-alignment posturing of the previous government. Hardly had the visit concluded and agreements fructified that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj left for Beijing to prepare for Mr Modi's forthcoming visit to that country. As the "poker game" of alliances and counter-alliances between great powers play out in the constantly changing power dynamics of the Asia-Pacific, it is President Obama's final address at the Siri Fort auditorium (see full transcript here) that will be remembered for its message of inclusiveness, empathy and opportunity - particularly for the youth, women and the "excluded".
In a packed auditorium with people from various walks of life, Obama's was a "dare to dream" speech. As the first lady sat with Vishal, a construction worker's son, the President constantly referred to the aspirations of "others" - manual labourers, domestic workers, auto-rickshaw drivers - who are unable to realise their dreams for lack of equal opportunity. It delivered a strong message of emancipation and hope.
Making a personal connect, President Obama did not hesitate to speak of his own story of discrimination based on the colour of his skin while growing up. It was the opportunity of education that he was fortunate to have, Obama insisted, that provided the "grandson of a cook" an opportunity to break free of socio-economic barriers. Drawing on the strong diasporic connection and the rich historical and spiritual connect through the words of Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., Obama envisioned a future where the people of the largest and oldest democracies would work together in building an equitable world order.
Talking of individual rights, President Obama emphasised the importance of Article 25 of the Indian constitution. Indian analysts and TV commentators, however, insisted that this reference was in fact a veiled reference to the ongoing controversy over religious conversions. As the first US president to be the chief guest of India's Republic Day celebrations, Obama witnessed panoply of India's diversity through various tableaus. Surely, the country's strength lies in its assimilative model of "unity in diversity". Of late, the strains are evident and the dangers of polarisation run high if the fruits of the economic miracle are not equitably distributed.
In a country with a rising middle class and a land of "new wealth", he talked of those excluded and in abject poverty. He also had a word of caution for those who were left out due to lack of opportunity. For any visitor to India, affluence and wretched poverty are strange cohabitants. It is not surprising to see slums right beside a mansion or a five-star hotel. As India rises and aspires to achieve a major economic power status through its development agenda, the continued exclusion of a significant section of the populace would create a contradiction of sorts. Left Wing extremism in large swathes of the country is of growing concern and a consequence of the politics of exclusion that the adivasis of the country have been subjected to for decades.
President Obama also spoke in recognition of the important role women play in India, acknowledging Wing Commander Pooja Thakur, who led the inter-service guard of honour. The fact, however, remains that while many women have joined the armed forces, their role in combat remains ambiguous. While women in India have made significant strides in politics, business and are joining the urban work force in increasing numbers, his emphasis on the rights and safety of the women finds resonance in a society where the rights and opportunities of women are stymied due to socio-structural constraints. India still sees an unacceptable number female foeticides, child marriages and other types of violence against women.
As I sat in the audience listening, I was struck by the response of the youth to the President's message. India is home to the largest youth population in the world, and provision of equal opportunity, education and employment will be critical to build on the country's internal strength. Merit is a great leveller of societal inequalities; hence, creation of a meritocratic society will help reduce the glaring disparity among different sections of society. However, merit is a function of education, knowledge and skill. Therefore, to build a meritocratic society, there is a need to invest in establishing high-quality educational institutions. All citizens must have equal opportunity to access that education and acquire skills and knowledge.
For the Americans, to address the "empathy deficit" and translate the President's social messaging into action, there is a need for continued assistance in areas that impact a significant section of the Indian populace i.e. agriculture, education, health, skill-based training> There is a need to make "inclusive growth" a mantra for rising India and building a strong societal partnership. While much has been stated in the joint statement, it would also call for government-led reforms in India to facilitate more trade and investment, public-private partnerships, improved educational and economic opportunities. The three million-strong Indian diaspora in the US, with their growing economic and political clout, are connecting threads of enhanced bilateral relationship, and have social responsibility as enablers whilst they reap the benefits of increased economic cooperation.