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Editorial: The Gandhi who still matters

Former US President Barack Obama’s new book, A Promised Land, a presidential memoir and the first in a two-volume series, has already made headlines the world over. Known for being gracious and quick to recognise the ability of others, Obama was legendary for sizing up his political opponents as well.

Editorial: The Gandhi who still matters


This is possibly why the parts of the book where he shares his observations on world leaders have been covered in more detail than other chapters. And in a rare display of candour, there are some leaders he has painted with broad strokes in a far from flattering light, while others are shielded from the pointed end of his precise critique. For instance, while referring to India’s former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and US Secretary of Defence Bob Gates, Obama wrote they both ‘come across as having a kind of impassive integrity.’ His views on Russian President Vladimir Putin are quite the opposite, as he’s chosen to comment on his appearance rather than personality – “Physically, he was unremarkable”, - adding that Putin had “kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom”.

However, what seems to have ruffled many feathers in India’s multi-hued political circles, is his commentary on Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. The scion of India’s most well-known political family has, in Obama’s view, “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.” Obama went on to wonder if the Congress party’s baton could be successfully passed on to Rahul, by his mother Sonia, who is described as shrewd, with a forceful intelligence. Needless to say, the Congress party hasn’t taken too lightly to Obama’s perspective and offered a crisp retort last week, saying it would not comment on an individual’s view in a book. Considering the Congress party’s diluted role in national politics, that’s a fitting response as Rahul Gandhi has often played to his advantage the role of a seeker of knowledge, sharing the view of experts to emphasise his political rhetoric.

On the other hand, it would be of far greater interest to know Obama’s opinion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who arguably could go down in history as one of India’s most influential leaders. While there’s no mention of Modi in the first volume of the book that spans over 900 pages, Obama does speak of India and his concerns about rising “impulses of violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance.”

One can choose to downplay these remarks, but it might do us some good to look inwards and analyse how severely we have deviated from the vision of communal harmony and peaceful co-existence that was once enshrined as a fundamental right. Rather than feeling thin-skinned about Obama’s opinion of a younger Gandhi who appears to still be unsure of his path in politics, it would do better to meditate on his more telling observation about certain disruptive elements who are getting increasingly dominant in the country: “They seemed to lie in wait everywhere, ready to resurface whenever growth rates stalled or demographics changed or a charismatic leader chose to ride the wave of people’s fears and resentments. And as much as I might have wished otherwise, there was no Mahatma Gandhi around”.

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