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Phas Gaye Re Obama

July 03, 2023 16:25 IST

The Democrats, especially the Biden administration, wanted to deliver a sharper message to Mr Modi than would be possible in a formal summit setting.
So, why not get the most prominent Democrat in decades to deliver it?, explains Shekhar Gupta.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

The headline isn't a typing mix-up, but borrowed from the title of a brilliant 2010 Subhash Kapoor film.

The reference now, as you may have guessed, is to former US President Barack Obama's sharp criticism of Narendra Modi on the very day of his summit with Joe Biden in Washington DC.

As you'd expect, he drew immediate anger from Mr Modi's fans. His lucrative paid-speaking career may be over in India, at least for now.

Heads of State or chief executives of nations would almost never be seen saying halfway unfriendly things to their foreign counterparts, least of all admonish them in public.

Often enough they might do so through proxies, private enough to maintain a distance from their government, but close enough for the world to understand who the message is from.

Think President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama.

How does such an approach work, especially when such homilies are delivered by leaders of a nation with a stellar record of courting and cultivating the worst unelected dictators over the decades, from the first dictator Somoza of Nicaragua, (1937-1947, 1950-1956) to the third one, also with the same first name (1967-72, 1974-1979) to Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi now, to Zia-ul Haq, Musharraf, the Shah of Iran, Indonesia's Suharto, the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos, Cuba's Batista, Chilean Pinochet, Zaire's Mobutu, and many more?

The American approach has always been more cynical than pragmatic.

There is no better way to understand this than to remember that immortal line from Franklin D Roosevelt on the senior-most Somoza, who founded a three-generation dictatorial dynasty in Nicaragua: 'He may be a son of a bitch,' FDR famously said, 'but he's our son of a bitch.'

'Look who's talking' could be a reasonable response.

So what is Mr Obama talking about?

In the run-up to the summit, at least 70 US Senators and Congress members had jointly written to Mr Biden, asking him to raise the issues of the treatment of minorities (mostly Muslims), civil society and media in India with Mr Modi.

At his short joint press conference, Mr Biden didn't deny having done so, but packed it in platitudes: Shared values, common democratic DNA etc.

The joint statement issued after the meeting also made similar anodyne mentions.

The headline, however, had come just before the bilateral began.

In a strategically timed interview with Christiane Amanpour on CNN, Barack Obama was asked pointed questions on how he and other US presidents would deal with authoritarian rulers or an 'illiberal democrat like Modi' who also happen to be allies.

With the context set, he was specifically asked how he would advise Mr Biden to deal with similar issues in his talks with Mr Modi.

Admitting that not everybody he dealt with as an American ally was running their government in an 'ideal' democratic way, he gave the justification of the larger national interest.

National security, for example, and climate change, such as the Paris accord, where he interacted with Xi Jinping and Mr Modi.

Finally, on what he would advise Mr Biden to tell Mr Modi, he said that when they first meet 'the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India is something worth mentioning'.

Then, he elaborated somewhat casually: 'If you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities in India, there is a strong possibility that India, at some point, starts pulling apart...that would be contrary to the interests of not only the Muslim India, but also to Hindu India.'

I cannot claim any insights here, but it is possible to add two and two.

The Democrats, especially the Biden administration, wanted to deliver a sharper message to Mr Modi than would be possible in a formal summit setting.

So, why not get the most prominent Democrat in decades to deliver it?

Remember also that Mr Biden served as vice-president in the two Obama administrations.

Several important questions arise here.

First, is the health of India's democracy in perfect shape?

The answer, at its mildest, would be: Could be better. Or, it could even be, name a time when it was perfect.

The second, can the Americans, given their own 'stellar' record of cohabiting with the worst dictatorships in the past eight decades, be lecturing others on the quality of their democracy?

Where does that moral authority come from?

And third, why would the recipient of such a lecture bother?

As senior members of the Modi government have often done, and the ministry of external affairs has noted formally, the treatment of minorities in the US is also far from perfect.

We have pretty much answered the first two questions early on. The third needs some discussion.

One big difference between a garden variety dictator and an illiberal, elected one is that criticism means nothing to the former but usually greatly bothers the latter. Even in that case, not always.

Viktor Orban of Hungary and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey are both US allies by virtue of being NATO members.

The first is fully an elected dictator, the second has been halfway there for almost a decade now.

Both are recipients of frequent criticism by the US and other Western allies, are not as bothered as a Mr Modi might be, but won't be as indifferent as, say, a Zia-ul Haq.

We use that example over many tougher dictators only because we are so familiar with him. He deposed, jailed and executed his predecessor to impose martial law.

Soon enough, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and he became an indispensable ally for the Americans in their proxy war.

It is important to record his first response to then US president Jimmy Carter, who offered $500 million in return for his support to that secret war.

'Peanuts,' said Zia with scorn. Of course, for those who might not remember, he was directly mocking Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia. We know what followed.

Rather than take umbrage, the US opened the purse strings wider, pouring in the billions and the F-16s, and looking the other way as the Pakistanis completed their nuclear weapons project.

Just over a decade after Zia's death -- fittingly in a US-gifted C-130 -- the new dictator, General Musharraf, rose to the same status, being hailed as 'stalwart ally' by the Bush administration after 9/11.

If anybody lectured Musharraf on the quality of his 'democracy', we didn't hear very much about it.

Three short points arise from this:

1. Whatever their moral pretences, nations act in what they see as their national interest. We've listed so many examples for America.

Check out Indian 'neutrality' on Kampuchea (Cambodia) with its genocide, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and now the junta in Myanmar.

Moral issues are always subservient to the larger national interest.

2. Friendly nations (translated as those with shared strategic interests) can admonish each other directly or indirectly, but would never push the issue hard enough to ruin their relationship.

Often some of this so-called tough talk will be needed to satisfy their domestic constituencies. As seems the case with the US Democrats now.

3. And third, while an elected leader, particularly one with the popularity of Narendra Modi, can't be as indifferent to such criticism as regular dictators, it won't persuade him to change the politics that's working for him.

In conclusion, therefore, facts, arguments and counter-arguments apart, any democratic nation and society will have to work on preserving and enhancing its democracy by itself.

Especially one as large as India. It is impossible for any foreign power to subvert it.

Equally, no foreign voices, however influential, whether of serving or former US presidents, can improve or protect it.

Interventions like Mr Obama's are good for no more than a day's excitement, besides indeed satisfying a domestic constituency.

By Special Arrangement with The Print

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

Shekhar Gupta
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