Obama Lectures Modi on Religious Tolerance

U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama pose with India's President Pranab Mukherjee, second from left, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, during a home reception with several hundred Indian political and cultural figures at the Rashtrapati Bhavan presidential palace in New Delhi January 26, 2015. Jim Bourg/Reuters

President Obama flew out of Delhi yesterday after a visit spread over three days that, as he put it, was "rich in symbolism but also in substance."

The symbolism included choreographed meetings and hugs and embraces with Prime MZAinister, Narendra Modi, and the substance included a potential solution to a long-awaited deal on nuclear power projects plus other trade, business and climate change initiatives carrying a $4 billion tag.

With private talks like the one above, and several public meetings, the overall impact of the visit was greater than had been expected. It has reset relations between the two countries on a firm progressive footing, and it has also demonstrated the apparent close rapport between the two leaders.

The biggest combination of symbolism and substance however came yesterday morning when Obama, having broken free from Modi's embraces, addressed his first meeting on his own and implicitly condemned the pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim policies of hard-liners in Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its umbrella organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

I was in the large concert hall where Obama spoke with rare passion and in measured tones on religious freedom, combining that with references to Bollywood and the many ways in which the two countries could move on from being "natural partners" (the usual slogan) to "best partners."

To succeed, India needed to be "unified as one nation" he said, adding that India's and America's strengths came from their diversity and that they should guard against any efforts to divide them along sectarian lines or any other lines. "India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith," he declared.

When Obama came on his first visit to India, in 2010, he said it should play a larger and more positive role in world affairs, specifically by joining America's boycotts of Iran and Burma (Myanmar). That lecture was ignored because it was against India's interests, but this time he has struck a popular chord with his appeal for religious tolerance.

What he said runs counter to recent mass Hindu conversions and other pro-Hindu policies of government ministers, but it chimes with widespread fears about Modi's long term Hindu-nationalist aims—though his remarks will also be resented by many people as interference in India's affairs.

With words that dominated news bulletins as he flew off to Saudi Arabia (having canceled a visit to the Taj Mahal at Agra to meet Saudi's new King Salman), Obama said that "every person has the right to practice his faith without any persecution, fear or discrimination."

A close-up view of Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi's dark pinstripe suit, repeatedly embroidered with the words "Narendra Damodardas Modi," as he talks to U.S. President Barack Obama while walking through the garden at Hyderabad House in New Delhi January 25, 2015. Jim Bourg/Reuters

Listing the world's religions, including Hinduism and Islam, he added that "we are all god's children," and then quoted Mahatma Gandhi: "The different religions are beautiful flowers from the same garden for they are all branches of the same majestic tree."

The two leaders' first joint engagement involved watching yesterday's annual Republic Day parade for two hours, initially in heavy drizzle and including displays of largely Russian defense equipment. With his wife Michelle, Obama applauded some of the colorful tableaux and motorcycle acrobats, but he was widely criticized for chewing gum. That looked undignified at such a formal event, though it was said later that he has recently given up smoking and the gum contained nicotine.

But if Obama was regarded as behaving uncouthly, Modi was widely ridiculed when photos appeared in the media of him wearing, at an earlier meeting with the American president, a formal pinstriped suit with the stripes made up of his full name Narendra Damodardas Modi. The prime minister frequently wears colorful headgear and smart jackets, but this egotistical extravagance led to speculation about who pays for his voluminous wardrobe, which he presumably cannot afford on his own.

The proposed nuclear projects stem from a 2006 initiative by India's prime minister Manmohan Singh and America's president George W. Bush that led to a 2008 deal that freed India from sensitive technology import embargoes and opened the way for U.S. and other companies to build nuclear power plants.

That came unstuck, however, in 2010 when India passed a nuclear liability law that broke with international convention by making the foreign equipment supplier as well as the local operator liable for compensation after a nuclear accident. It also made the supplier responsible for plant defects.

That stemmed partly from India's experience after the 1984 Union Carbide gas leak disaster at Bhopal where the American company (and Dow Chemical, its present owner) have refused to accept responsibility. The U.S. and other countries' companies would not accept the Indian law, and there was stalemate till the two sides agreed last week to have a $122 billion insurance scheme, which, however, could both add to project costs and prove inadequate. The U.S. also dropped demands for tracking the use of nuclear material.

Much now depends on the details of the agreement and the willingness of companies such as GE and Westinghouse to try to make it work.

The growing rapport between the two countries seems to have rattled China, whose foreign ministry warned yesterday that "external countries" should not cause trouble in the region. Modi will now have to ensure that his earlier efforts to draw close to China have not been upset.

He will also have to deal with the fallout from Obama's religious freedom remarks, which have been eagerly quoted by the BJP's opponents in a current election campaign for Delhi's state assembly. That has upset the campaigning advantages Modi's party has gained from him hosting the American president.

John Elliott's new book is IMPLOSION: India's Tryst with Reality (HarperCollins, India). He can be read at ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com.