On a three-day historic visit, President Obama hit a home run for India. Anyone watching these events in person would be considered lucky enough to witness rare history in the making. In addition to the symbolism of the moment — India’s 65th anniversary of the founding of the constitutional republic — Obama as the representative of the oldest constitutional democracy spoke to the enduring concerns of the Indian polity.
He connected India with the U.S. in a seamless manner, creating linkages between caste and race, gender equality with democracy, poverty and economic opportunity, and India’s diversity with its ability to shape the 21st century in concert with the U.S.
President Obama seemed by far the most globally connected president the U.S. has elected in many years.
We weren’t around when Washington, Jefferson or Franklin walked the earth, but in listening to Obama one could hear the old voice of the founders, who believed that in the founding of the constitutional democracy they were shaping the future of the humankind for time immemorial. The experiment that began in 1789 in the original 13 colonies carries on in many of the former British colonies today throughout Asia and Africa.
Obama spoke of his Kenyan grandfather, who was a cook for the British, while linking Gandhi’s struggles with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American Civil Rights Movement. He said where a member of the Dalit caste (who have been oppressed as “untouchables”), Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, could write the constitution of India, anything is possible.
He recounted his joy at watching so many women soldiers and cadets marching in the national parade. He said he wanted to bring his daughters to India for a visit someday. One of the magnificent floats at the parade displayed “Women Warriors Conquering the Everest.”
He made a pitch for middle-class values to the Indian audience, urging them to work to alleviate poverty while acknowledging that India has come a long way already in expanding its middle class to more than 300 million people.
He spoke about India’s human capital — younger population, religious and cultural diversity, skills and entrepreneurship — in shaping this century. He described how the U.S. is ready to partner with India on a whole host of projects. Agreements were reached here on nuclear weapons, the climate debate, infrastructure, smart cities, defense, educational exchange, and greater business investment.
All this discussion of democratic ideals and values generated nervous reactions among the Chinese, whose state media declared that the Republic Day events with Obama were a mere charade. The Chinese media recalled that the U.S. had banned Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for 10 years.
Leading up to the events, the Indian media ran stories about how Pakistan would try to disrupt the events out of sheer rivalry. Nothing of the sort materialized, but the security surrounding the events was very tight and almost overwhelming. Even journalists were disallowed from carrying pens or pencils to the parade ground for security reasons.
Many Indians on the streets and at the parade watched the events with pride, at times through the thick of fog and rain, with the backdrop of nationalistic songs from a bygone era blaring through the modern hi-tech speaker systems and flat-screen televisions.
The favorite song of Pandit Nehru, India’s first prime minister, “Aye mere watan ke logon…,” filled the air with timeless nostalgia. Many martyred soldiers, now fighting terrorist threats at the border, were honored with the Ashoka Chakra and other military honors.
It was heartening to observe so many U.S. Congress representatives sit through the rain, huddled under golf umbrellas and rain gear for almost four hours. It showed the dedication and resolve towards India’s emerging role and power.
While the president made a triumphant sixer, to use a cricket analogy, for the Indian democracy and industry, now the hard work has begun. Will the nuclear deal get mired in red tape again? Will infrastructure projects take off the ground on time? Will Prime Minister Modi be able to deliver in the short term? These were the questions on everyone’s mind after the pomp and festivities were over.
For the sheer range of his vision, bolstered by his own cultural biography, as the historian Douglas Brinkley has agreed, Obama will be seen in history as the first global president who ushered in America’s global age. Obama’s concerted push for India as the strategic partnership for the 21st century in the rising Asian region is a testament to this truism.
Dinesh Sharma is associate research professor at Binghamton University’s Institute for Global Cultural Studies in Binghamton, N.Y.