Barack Obama’s just-released memoir, A Promised Land, an account of his political career until 2011, foresees the “rising tide of illiberalism” across the world, including in India and the United States. Some of this is just the benefit of hindsight, but Obama’s vantage point as former president of the United States, gave him the opportunity to witness the signs at close quarters.
In between the nervous planning for the raid to take out Osama bin Laden, Obama was having to fend off ludicrous attacks questioning the legitimacy of his birth certificate. The attacks were led by one Donald Trump.
When Obama visited India for the first time (ever), he took Prime Minister Manmohan Singh aside for an informal chat without the note-takers. This was 2010, the Manmohan government hadn’t yet started to become unpopular. It was, in fact, still riding high on its reassuring election victory the previous year, an endorsement from the Indian public despite not having taken military action against Pakistan after 26/11.
Yet, Manmohan Singh could sense that 26/11 had changed the public mood in India. Obama recalls Manmohan telling him the “rising anti-Muslim sentiment had strengthened the influence of India’s main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).” Obama directly quotes Manmohan as telling him, “In uncertain times, the call of religious and ethnic solidarity can be intoxicating. And it’s not so hard for politicians to exploit that, in India or anywhere else.”
This was 2010, perhaps the best year ever for India’s economic growth, yet Manmohan could see the times ahead were going to be tough. Obama says that Manmohan told him, “Although India had fared better than many other countries in the wake of the financial crisis, the global slowdown would inevitably make it harder to generate jobs for India’s young and rapidly growing population.”
These conversations explain why Obama felt a strong affinity towards Manmohan Singh. Even while he was president, he famously said of Manmohan, “Whenever the Indian Prime Minister speaks, the whole world listens to him.”
Obama seemed to have looked up to Manmohan Singh as a wise elderly man who had the impossible achievement of India’s economic reforms to his credit, lifting millions out of poverty, making India a modern success story despite all odds.
‘The air of a holy man’
He writes of Manmohan Singh having a “white beard and a turban that were the marks of his Sikh faith but to the Western eye lent him the air of a holy man.”
Yet, this does not lead Obama into an Orientalist romanticisation of Manmohan Singh. On the contrary, Obama almost sees a reflection of himself and the world around him in Manmohan: liberal leaders doing the best they can, but they can all sense they’re fighting a losing battle against the “rising tide of illiberalism”. That private conversation with Manmohan, for example, reminds Obama of a similar one he had with Václav Havel in Prague about a similar turn Europe seemed to be taking.
Despite being risky eyed about Manmohan Singh, Obama says he could see the dangers that lay ahead. Obama paints this cinematic image of Manmohan Singh at the end of the dinner, reminiscent of Guru Dutt in Pyaasa: “In the dim light, he looked frail, older than his seventy-eight years, and as we drove off I wondered what would happen when he left office.”
About that prospect, Obama wasn’t very hopeful. He could see that the impulses of “violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance, the all-too-human desire to beat back our own uncertainty and mortality and sense of insignificance by subordinating others” were rising all around the world, and in India too.
Conversations with Gandhi
Obama wishes, on more than one occasion, that Mahatma Gandhi were still around — for India, for him, and the world at large.
He rues, “There was no Mahatma Gandhi around to tell me what I might do to hold such impulses back.”
Obama is rare among the foreign leaders to have visited Mumbai to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi. He went to Mani Bhavan, where Gandhi had stayed, to see the guest book where Martin Luther King Jr. had signed “in 1959, when he’d traveled to India to draw international attention to the struggle for racial justice in the United States and pay homage to the man whose teachings had inspired him”.
There in Mani Bhavan, Obama saw the room Gandhi lived in, and wishes he could speak face-to-face with Gandhi — “To ask him where he’d found the strength and imagination to do so much with so very little. To ask how he’d recovered from disappointment”.
Obama has four icons he calls his inspiration: Lincoln, Gandhi, King and Mandela. Obama says Gandhi was the top reason why he had been fascinated by India (other than dal and keema).
Gandhi may have been labelled a racist in Africa but thanks to Dr King, in the United States, Gandhi remains such an inspiration in the fight against racism that he motivated not only the icon of the American civil rights movement but also the country’s first Black President.
Obama’s fervent wish to have Gandhi around is a desperate cry for guidance in a difficult world. If only someone could show us the way. If only we could contain the rising tide of hate.
Obama’s book comes out when Donald Trump has just lost. For millions of people in the United States, Gandhi has spoken.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.