India’s politicians and media revel in making an enormous fuss of visiting foreign leaders, especially when they are flooded with compliments in return. This week there has been one American leader – former President Barack Obama who slipped in relatively quietly and made a powerful speech – and one leader’s daughter who was accorded such a head-of-state style welcome that India will find it difficult to surpass it when her father visits next year, the daughter being Ivanka Trump and her father the US president.
Obama picked up on India’s main current social issue when he said that, along with other countries (obviously including America), it should ensure that a Muslim population felt integrated. “That is something that should be cherished and nurtured,” he said.
Many of Modi’s critics, and of his Bharatiya Janata Party’s brand of strong Hindu nationalism, doubt that he recognizes such a need for unity because of the way that the Muslim minority has been harassed since his government was elected in April 2014.
Obama had warned during a “town hall” meeting in a Delhi assembly hall, that India needed to be “unified as one nation” and that the country would “succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith.”
This was seen at the time as implicit condemnation of the pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim policies of hardliners in the BJP and its umbrella organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It was not known however till today whether he had said the same thing in private meetings with Modi.
Obama, who is reported to charge up to US$400,000 to speak on Wall Street, went on today implicitly to urge moderate Hindus to make their views heard because, he said that “politicians are often reflections of forces in the society.”
“If you see a politician doing things that are questionable, one of the questions you can ask yourself as a citizen is ‘am I encouraging this?’ If communities across India say they won’t fall prey to division, then it will strengthen the hand of politicians who feel that way.”
“Thank you” prime minister
Ivanka Trump’s visit was more razzmatazz and far less profound. Narendra Modi looked grateful and happy than when she told an audience of 1500 entrepreneurs in Hyderabad on Nov. 28, with him sitting in the front row: “What you are achieving here is truly extraordinary. From your childhood selling tea to your election as India’s prime minister, you’ve proven that transformational change is possible. And now you are bringing that promise to hundreds of millions of people across your country. Thank you.”
It was bemusing to watch Trump, age 36, praise 67-year old Modi and then thank him – on behalf of whom? Modi presumably thought it was for her father, but she didn’t say so, though she did repeat that India had a “true friend in the White House,” which President Trump told Modi in Washington earlier this year.
She was the leader of the US delegation to the conference and switched style after all the praise and attempted laughter-generators to her serious theme of encouraging entrepreneurs, especially women. The next morning she had a business-like approach with no-nonsense points at a seminar on the role of women in business.
She had been personally invited by Modi to come to the conference, and Hyderabad went to enormous lengths to clean up the city, clearing out hundreds (one report said 4,000) beggars from the streets (as it did for President Clinton in 2000), filling potholes and paving ceremonial areas, as well as parading 10,000 security personnel. There was a banquet the first evening at one of India’s most stylish palace hotels, the Falaknuma, with quests seated at what is said to be the longest dining table in the world that accommodates 101 people.
The visit was slightly marred by criticisms that the signature clothing brand that she founded uses cheap labor in India and elsewhere, but this was a minor irritant compared with a trip to Berlin in April where she was booed. In Tokyo a month ago, the media made a fuss of her, but her speech at a conference drew a smaller audience than expected – and, according to reports, was partly recycled in Hyderabad.
There were also rumors that Rex Tillerson, America’s secretary of state (soon to be sacked according to media reports), had stopped his officials accompanying Trump because he was unhappy with her high profile.
Obama rose above such matters, referring only to the Hyderabad conference during a “town hall” meeting with young leaders where he urged them to inspire, mentor and help others to improve society. “There are so many different ways to bring about change, to do good, and to help people. No one should feel limited to one way of doing it,” he said.
The most extraordinary tweet of the week came as the Hyderabad conference finished from Ken Juster, who arrived in Delhi two weeks ago as the new US ambassador. “We have witnessed #USIndia strategic partnership at its finest,” he said. It had been “a smashing success!”
It wasn’t clear what was “strategic,” except in the sense that Modi and his government had feted Trump’s daughter as if she was the president, presumably in order to please her father and boost the two countries’ relations.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. He blogs at ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com