Barack Obama's HTLS address was diplomacy at its best: Former US president steered clear of controversy
On Friday, former US president Barack Obama was a relaxed man, who has seen it all, been there, done that; and the relaxed demeanor showed in his countenance.
When it comes to India, Barack Obama will always remain a superstar. This was more than evident on the second day of the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit (HTLS) 2017 in New Delhi. As Shobhana Bhartia, chairperson, Hindustan Times, said in her welcome comments, if he were to run for election as the leader of India, he would definitely win.
Obama, president of the United States of America from 2009 to 2016, came to a heavily attended gathering that was clearly charmed by his presence even before he arrived. And as a leader who did memorable work in cementing India-US relations during his tenure as the president, the audience listened keenly to every word he said.
However, there was a stark difference between the Obama in India today and the Obama visiting India in 2010 and 2015 in the capacity of the president of the US. Those were the days when every minute of his was calibrated according to the demands of the most powerful man in the world. But on Friday, he was a relaxed man, who has seen it all, been there, done that; and the relaxed demeanor showed in his countenance.
Obama at the HTLS was surprisingly guarded in his answers to questions posed by veteran journalist and anchor of the session, Karan Thapar. He refused to play into the hands of Thapar and avoided taking any names in answers that could lead to controversy.
In his opening statement, when Thapar informed him about his popularity in India far exceeding that of ‘his successor’ according to a Pew Research Centre’s report, Obama steered the conversation to his daughters and ‘dal’ (lentil) without naming ‘his successor’ Donald Trump. He replied, “May be you could transmit this to my daughters. It’s said you are never a prophet in your own land. At the dinner table, my daughters make fun of me and think I’m silly. I want to tell them that billions believe in me!”
He added that the strength of India-US relationship was based on family and friends and told the gathering about how he knew how to make ‘daal’. “At dinner last night, when I was being told what ‘dal’ was, I said, ‘I don’t need to know that.’ In college, I had an Indian roomie and a Pakistani roomie and their mothers taught me how to cook dal. I’m the first US president to have a dal recipe. My kheema is excellent, chicken okay,” he responded obliquely to the question.
On other occasions as well, he refused to be drawn into a conversation that would make him take sides, whether it was in relation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi or Pakistan or China.
When asked what he thought of PM Modi who had once declared Obama as “my friend,” the former president said, “I like him. He has a vision for the country, he is modernising bureaucracy… I was also great friends with Dr Singh (Manmohan Singh). It is also important to note the steps that Dr Singh took in opening up and modernising the economy… It’s important that both the leaders have a unifying theme—to make India strong. Each leader has different ways of doing it. My job is not evaluate it but to see that it remains on track…”
With a dollop of humour he then added, “You would not get me to play games with my good friends in India.”
Similarly on issues related to terrorism supported by Pakistan, and China’s resistance to India’s entry into the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group), Obama maintained a stoic distance from committing his words to any side of the argument.
When asked if and why the U.S. administration treated terrorism affecting it differently from terrorism affecting India, Obama replied, “That’s not how we viewed it. I think the Bush administration felt the same. That terrorism directed at any country in any way will eventually affect you. There are sometimes conflicts between [terrorist] groups based in Pakistan and other official groups in Pakistan. And Pakistan has been a partner in fighting terrorism, but there are some elements…”
When asked if he could name those ‘elements’, Obama said, “No! Next question!” He repeated with a laugh a little later on the topic, “You’ve to stop trying to get me into trouble.”
China too was spared a direct attack by Obama in being named as the primary reason why India couldn’t make it to the exclusive Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
“In NSG, the decision has to be unanimous. Some felt that India was short-circuiting its way into it. I was not able to get that completed. PM Modi is working on it.”
On being asked if he blamed China, he said, “In international affairs, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between motives of certain countries in doing a certain thing. It would not be wise of me to characterise any country with any motive.”
However, the former president as a father and a groomer of future leaders through Obama Foundation, was more direct in his views on how modern technology is changing the lives of people all over the world.
“My daughters are an excellent focus group. Twitter/ Facebook/ WhatsApp are extraordinarily powerful tools. These can be used for good or bad. We are only now beginning to understand [these fully]. But this leads to a lot of snap judgment. We need initial skepticism towards information that is being given out by these tools… Your mother and your father knew better. Think before you speak, think before you tweet. Don’t say the first thing that pops in your head.”
Much as he tried, Thapar couldn’t get the former president to utter the name of the current president, in oblique references, he did mention, “For leaders in any field, it is important to be mindful of the power and limits of these tools.”
When he was pointedly asked if Donald Duck or Donald Trump was the true representative of the US, Obama said without batting an eyelid, “The thing I love about the US or perhaps you love about India is the cacophony of life. It throws up all kinds of variety. There are political trends in the US that I don’t agree with or abide by, but instead of being contrarian or short-sighted, one has to be kind and noble. We have to aim for more kindness, more inclusion, more health, more education, more equality.”
That was Obama diplomacy at its best!
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