Shrewd or Smart? Obama’s Views on Cong Netas, BJP & All the Fuss

Here are all the the ifs, buts and whys of the controversy and why Obama’s opinion matters.

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4 min read

Rahul Gandhi – ‘nervous’, ‘eager to impress’

Sonia Gandhi – ‘shrewd’, ‘forceful intelligence’

Dr Manmohan Singh – ‘wise’, ‘scrupulously honest’

The BJP – ‘divisive nationalists’

These words used by former US President Barack Obama for Congress leaders and former PM Manmohan Singh in his new book 'A Promised Land' has kicked-off a debate in India: "Obama ke hisaab se Modi ji bade ya Manmohan?"  (Modi or Singh, who is the taller leader?)

For the love of America, we Indians do tend to get excited with any validation or criticism from the West. And on top of that, this is from none other than Barack Obama!

The former US President's latest book, which talks about his political journey and his presidency, is getting rave reviews and has sold a record number of copies on its first day.

Closer home, however, it has raked up a ‘tu-tu-main-main’ and a validation war between the Congress and the BJP. So much so, that a lawyer in Uttar Pradesh has filed a civil suit against Obama and has demanded that an FIR be lodged as the book allegedly ‘insults’ the leaders and hurts the sentiments of their followers.

Wow! Before getting into the ifs, buts and whys of the controversy, let's see what exactly was said in the book and about whom. Here are some excerpts from Obama's narration of his first India visit of 2010:

Manmohan Singh

Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, meanwhile, had engineered the modernization of his nation’s economy.
For the duration of his tenure as prime minister, I would find Singh to be wise, thoughtful, and scrupulously honest.

Sonia Gandhi:

At dinner that night, Sonia Gandhi listened more than she spoke, careful to defer to Singh when policy matters came up, and often steered the conversation toward her son. It became clear to me, though, that her power was attributable to a shrewd and forceful intelligence.

Rahul Gandhi:

...there was a nervous, unformed quality about him, as if he were a student who’d done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject.

... As we drove off, I wondered what would happen when he (Manmohan Singh) left office. Would the baton be successfully passed to Rahul, fulfilling the destiny laid out by his mother and preserving the Congress Party’s dominance over the divisive nationalism touted by the BJP?

Now, Obama wrte what he had to but his remarks have reked up a political storm.

Everybody has chosen a side and is selectively picking up statements to push their own agenda.

Selective Acceptances, Selective Rejections and 'I Told You So'

Let's start with the Congress. While several Congress supporters were downplaying Obama's observations on Rahul Gandhi until quite recently, they are now chest-thumping about Manmohan Singh. When Obama's comments on Rahul made headlines, the Congress said, “We don't comment on an individual's opinions in a book, we didn't comment when PM Modi was called Divider-in-chief, etc."

Congress leader Tariq Anwar said that Rahul has evolved with time, some other leaders unfollowed Obama on twitter, and so on. But, this week, the Congress said: 'Oh look, Obama praised Manmohan Singh so much.'

As far as the BJP is concerned...several scoffed last week on comments about Rahul saying, 'I told you so.' Meenakshi Lekhi said, 'Obama kitne polite hain, ye toh unhone Rahul ke baare mein bohot kam bola hai.' But all these party leaders are silent on the book accusing the BJP of practising 'divisive nationalism'.


If you are surprised by the selective reactions of the BJP and the Congress, I hate to break it to you, that's how politics works. And while all these 'tu apna dekh pehle' debates were happening, Shashi Tharoor pointed out that PM Modi's name does not even appear in the 902 pages of the book.

Why No Mention of PM Modi?

Mudde ki baat, this is just the first volume of Obama's memoir which talks mostly about his political journey and his time in office till 2011. According to the review of the book by Carlos Lozada for The Washington Post, the book ends in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. PM Modi became 'PM' Modi only in 2014. The period from 2011 till now is expected to be covered in the second volume of the book, where PM Modi is likely to find a mention.

Now why do we say this so confidently? Because of the public display of bonhomie by the two leaders whenever they have met before. Remember, in January 2015, Barack Obama visited India for the second time as the chief guest at the annual Republic Day parade, just months after PM Modi became the prime minister. Four months later in April 2015, PM Modi's description, when he featured on the TIME's 100 most influential list, was written by Obama himself, and he was all praises for PM Modi.

The two leaders again met in 2016 when PM Modi visited the US, and in 2017, in India, after Obama's presidency ended. So, it's highly unlikely that PM Modi won't find a mention in the second volume of the book, whose release date is yet to be announced.

But What Really Is the Fuss About?

Obama is still one of the most influential global voices. So, it's important to ask, how much of his opinions – no matter how valuable – are consequential in India? Does it warrant all the politics that the parties are playing over it? Will it dent the popularity of Modi or Manmohan or Sonia or Rahul in any way back in India? Very unlikely!

BUT, even if that's true, it'd be a bit naive to overlook the fact that Obama is a world leader of the stature whose outlook of America, the world and international ties is still widely valued. His opinions command global respect and consideration. No wonder the book is already setting records for the most copies sold.

So, the political or practical repercussions of his opinions on Indian leaders or India's politics might not be as much back home, but they will definitely be heard by all his followers, leaders and the global media and WILL be taken note of, all the while we, in India, waste our time taking offence, SELECTIVELY!

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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