Obama’s Indian Diplomacy With A Religious Touch

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS

NEW DELHI:  Interestingly, President Barack Obama’s tour of Asian countries has a religious touch to it, which certainly cannot be sidelined. He begins his India-visit from Mumbai, the country’s financial capital. In Mumbai, besides addressing top business leaders, Obama has decided to spend a little time celebrating the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali. This certainly is suggestive of Obama making special efforts to reach out to Indian populace at large. The same is indicated by his decision to stay at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, which was targeted two years ago by terrorists. He will stay here and pay respects to the people who were killed in the Mumbai-strikes. In addition, Obama is expected to visit the Gandhi Museum, called the Mani Bhawan. Mahatma Gandhi, called the Father of Nation, stayed here whenever he was in the city. The museum has relics associated with Gandhi.

Usually, State leaders visiting India display their respect for Mahatma Gandhi by laying a wreath at his grave in the capital city. When in Delhi, Obama will do so by paying his respects to Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat. But Obama is certainly keen on adding a greater Gandhian-touch to his visit, by including the Mani Bhawan in his schedule. This also suggests that he is apparently leaving no stone unturned to touch Indian people as emotionally as he can. There is yet another angle to it. Obama’s India-visit is followed by his visit to Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. Here, he will visit the Istiqlal Mosque and also make a public address, hoping to strike a favorable chord with Muslim people across the world. Though constitutionally, India is a secular nation, Hindus constitute more than 70 percent of the country’s population. Obama’s decision to celebrate Diwali in Mumbai thus has a greater diplomatic significance than apparent. If his Asian tour did not include Indonesia and/or visit to a mosque there, Obama’s Mumbai-schedule may have been different. But rather than take risk of raising questions of why did he not make any special effort to reach out to Indian Hindus, if he could do so to Muslims in Indonesia, Obama has chosen to kill them by joining Indians in celebrating Diwali in Mumbai. By visiting the Gandhi museum, besides dismissing speculations of his reaching out to “only” Hindus, he has given an Indian “nationalistic” fervor to his program.

Against this backdrop, irrespective of whether Obama’s India-visit yields any major gains for either country or not, the emotional touch added to it in reaching out to Indian people as a whole cannot be sidelined. Undeniably, Obama has well understood that Indians tend to be fairly emotional, where their religious and national sentiments are concerned. He may rest assure that religious sentiments of non-Hindu Indians are least likely to be disturbed by his celebrating Diwali. This is simply because Indian Hindus and Muslims have developed the practice of celebrating each other’s festivals, including Eid and Diwali, by sharing sweets. It may be emphasized that without disturbing religious practices linked with their respective festivals, they join in celebrations by greeting each other and sharing sweets. 

Not surprisingly, Indian Muslim clerics and leaders have not given much importance to a highlight of Obama’s visit being Diwali-celebrations. While they don’t consider him as “Muslim-friendly,” they have till date not announced any “demonstrations” against him. It may be recalled that they had organized rallies against the then US President George Bush’s visit in 2006, displaying their protest towards his Iraq and Afghanistan war policies. Though Obama has not displayed any major change in these policies, the Indian Muslims are not as angry at him as they were towards Bush. Elaborating on this, head cleric of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, Syed Ahmad Bukhari said: “There has been less anti-Muslim rhetoric from the White House since Obama took over. Obama doesn’t sound as fiery as Bush was.” Nevertheless, the Muslims remain concerned about Palestinian issue remaining unresolved, he said. “Peace and justice for Palestinians is the biggest test for Obama to pass before he wins the love of the Muslim world,” Bukhari pointed out. Besides, he stated: “The Muslim world still awaits justice in Afghanistan and in Iraq.” In general, the Indian Muslims remain hopeful of Obama taking some constructive steps leading to changes in these areas. This “hope” makes them feel that “Bush and Obama are different.” Obama is expected to bring about changes in perception held towards Muslim world, in keeping with the image he built about his being a “change-seeker,” soon after taking charge as the US President. This is partly responsible for Indian Muslims having developed a “soft” feeling for him.

Notwithstanding the hard fact that Obama’s India-visit may well be confined to cosmetic diplomacy, it will certainly go down in records as one where US President took special steps to win over the Indians emotionally. The coming days will answer the question on whether he has succeeded or not. If he does succeed, it shall definitely mark opening of a new chapter in Indo-US ties!


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