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'The answers could have been better'

November 08, 2010 10:37 IST
Rediff.com's Krishnakumar P was present at St Xavier's College when Mumbai collegians took on the most powerful man on the planet.

First they welcomed him with an ovation befitting that of a rockstar. Then they put him in the dock and grilled him on hot button issues.

From Pakistan to his Afghan policy to the mid-term election debacle to his views on outsourcing, Mumbai's college students weren't cowed down by the occasion or the stature of their guest as they quizzed United States President Barack Obama on pertinent issues.

While some chose to keep it simple -- What do you think of jihad, what do you think of spirituality -- the others were hardnosed.

Johan Fleury's borderline-snarky question drew the sniggers from the press corps and his longest pause from Obama. "You came to power on the back of one word: Change. Now the American voters have spoken: They want change. How will you handle this situation? And what will you do for guaranteeing jobs for immigrant Americans?"

In fact, this was not the question that Fleury and his collegemate Dwayne Gumree had prepared.

"We wanted to ask him about jihad, Pakistan, and outsourcing. But all these questions were raised before our turn came. So we had thought up this question on the spot just before he pointed to Johan," Gumree said.

Fleury, a third year literature student at St Andrew's College in Mumbai, is 20 and says he will soon need to find a job and excel in his career.

"I will look for jobs in both India and abroad. And America, being the sole superpower, will have a great impact on the future of the world. So I wanted to know about how US policy will impact the jobs scene -- both in the US and elsewhere," he said.

But the President's reply, which was centred more around the outsourcing issue, was not to the point, he thought.

"I don't think he was very forthright in his reply. But then I understand that he can't say something without giving it proper thought. If he says something here on the issue of jobs, which is a tricky issue there, it can displease people back home in the US," Fleury said.

But he added that India has come far with its policies and it doesn't need other countries' help in such matters any more.

"We don't need favours any more. We have to look at what is beneficial for us and work accordingly," he said.

Fleury has not read Obama's books.

"We have so much to read that there is no time for extra reading. I definitely want to pick up one of his books after the term is over. But I read his speeches with more interest. I find them very interesting," he said.

"He is a great orator," Fleury said. I wanted to listen to him live and in person. He looked me in the eye when he answered. His body language was not that of a President talking to a foreign student. I sensed that he was talking person-to-person. He came across as a human being with great values."

No sooner had the President heaved a sigh of relief after Fleury's question, than came the next big issue: Pakistan.

Afsheen Irani's was also the crispest of the six questions: "Why is Pakistan so important an ally to the US that so far the US has not called it a terrorist State?"

The assembled crowd's reaction was a sort of collective nervous titter.

"No, no. It is a good question and I must admit I was expecting it," Obama said, relieving the tension.

The jist of Obama's reply was this: Pakistan is an enormous country, which is of strategic importance. If Pakistan is unstable it is bad news for India, which is beginning to succeed in the international arena. So, for its own good, India must look forward to a stable Pakistan.

But Afsheen was not entirely convinced.

"He gave a very diplomatic answer," she said.

The question she had in mind was on education. But the evening before the event, she realised that Obama did not address the Pakistan angle at his speech at the Taj Mahal hotel, which was attacked on November 26, 2008 by Pakistani terrorists.

"I was discussing with my friends what question to ask. And we realised that he hasn't spoken about Pakistan in India. So I decided if I get a chance that will be my question," she said.

Her intended question on education was also topical and could have been equally tricky for the President.

"I wanted to ask him that with so many Indian corporate leaders donating so much money to their American alma maters, what can India expect from the US on the education front?" she said.

The Tata Group recently donated $50 million to Harvard and Anand Mahindra gave $10 million to the Harvard School of Business.

She also wanted to ask him about the increase in the visa fees.

"With the way they have increased the visa fees, ordinary students will find it tough to afford. So, it is obvious that they don't want our students going to their universities. I wanted to ask him about that too," she said.

But there were some positives in the President's answers, she conceded.

"He made it clear that the US -- at least his administration's foreign policy -- was proactive and that they are doing everything to ensure that the situation improves in the region. So some aspects of the answer were satisfactory," she said.

Then there was question on jihad. It was the equivalent of a fast bowler's limb-loosener. Obama deftly patted it to third man for an easy single.

"Jihad has a lot of meanings and is subject to a lot of interpretations," began Obama deliberately, at a pace much slower than the canter he maintains in his speeches.

"Islam is among the world's greatest religions. It has in the hands of a few extremists been distorted to justify violence against innocent people. More than a billion people who follow it do so in a peaceful and tolerant manner. The question is how do we isolate those few people who have distorted notions of religious war. We need to treat each other with dignity and respect," Obama said.

The next was on what he thought of materialism. Aren't youngsters these days swaying more towards materialism and are found wanting in spirituality and morality, a young man wanted to know.

his one was right up Obama's alley. He treated it like how a Virender Sehwag would have treated a half volley outside the off-stump.

"We should not underestimate how liberating economic growth can be for a country," he said. "Nobody should be dismissive of materialism because in India you have people living in poverty and it is your responsibility to lift them out of it. But you should not be completely materialistic. That will mean a poverty of ambition. When I was at Mani Bhavan, the only objects I saw in the room were a map, a spinning wheel, some sandals and some papers. And he is probably the most important man of the 20th century. That's because he had an indomitable spirit. Also, giving back to the community is good for you too. It makes you happier."

Noting that politics is looked down upon in all places, he said some of the youngsters should enter public service too because without that, things won't change.

After another easy question on Gandhi, which Obama dispatched with elan, the Xavierites sharpened their knives. The next questions were on Afghanistan, the mid-term election loss, and Pakistan.

Clearly, if one had to take a call, it was the Xavierites who pipped the President to the post.

And what's more, they dismissively swatted any such notion. With lines like "He was very diplomatic", "I don't think he got my question right," and "The answers could have been better", the students let it be known who they thought came out trumps.

Image: US President Barack Obama addresses students at St Xavier's College. Photograph: Sahil Salvi.

ALSO SEE: When a young Xavierite put Obama in a spot
Ask Obama tough questions. Keep him on his toes
'I want to encourage you to keep dreaming big'

Krishnakumar P in Mumbai