Light a Diwali diya, Obama!

(This column was published in DNA edition dated November 6, 2010, the day US President Barack Obama arrived in Mumbai at the start of a three-day official tour of India.)

Venky Vembu

Dear President Obama

By now, you would have gotten an up-close experience of how noisily we Indians celebrate our Diwali. The festival was traditionally celebrated, with fireworks and diya lamps, to mark the return to Ayodhya of Lord Ram. In more recent times, however, Diwali has become more of a joyous multicultural observance, in which people of other religious faiths too join in.

In that spirit, we invite you to light a diya for this Diwali: that flickering flame will tell you more about India than any number of ‘country briefing’ papers that your staff would have prepared for you ahead of this trip.

It will tell you, first, that India is a timeless civilization with an eternal quest for the Light of Knowledge, which is embodied in a line from a Vedic prayer: tamaso ma jyotirgamaya (From Darkness, lead us unto Light). That quest, however, remains unfulfilled in modern India: by 2020, India will likely account for a majority of the world’s illiterate population. Remember that the next time you hype up Indian education to rouse Americans: some of us Indians are beginning to believe your rhetoric, and it’s puffing us up with a false sense of pride when we have much unfinished business at hand.  

The oil lamp, which still serves as the primary source of illumination in many parts of India, will also tell you something about India’s huge and growing power deficit. Power cuts are routine even in our big cities, and 50% of our rural population has no access to electricity. It is in this context that we value the civilian nuclear agreement with the US, rather than as a symbol of an emerging strategic relationship. It opens the door to commerce in nuclear energy, which we desperately need to address our ‘power poverty’; don’t let US energy conglomerates hold that hostage because they don’t want to abide by our well-intentioned nuclear liability bill.

The flickering flame should also remind you of a chilling moment in India’s recent history when Pakistan-backed terrorists attacked and set fire to the magnificent hotel you’re staying in, along with other targets in Mumbai two years ago. That attack is symptomatic of the terrorist threats that India and other countries around the world, including the US, face from Pakistani state-sponsored jihadis. Never yield to the pressure therefore, while cajoling the Pakistan government to cooperate with you, to sell India short in any way.

With all its imperfections, India is a shining beacon of democracy in a troubled neighbourhood and a force for good in an unstable world. Over centuries, it’s been – as much as America – a crucible for the agglomeration of cultures. Shield this lamp from the ill winds that blow, and the world will be a better place.

Happy Diwali wishes
From a billion-plus Indians.

Related reading
Obama’s visit marks the end of innocence for India
China is edgy about India’s rise as an East Asian power
‘Don’ be a pawn for US’:
Advice to India from Shen Dingli,  executive dean of the Institute of International Studies and the director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
China ‘supports’ India’s enhanced role in the UN
Over here, Mr Obama, you can still win

Interview with Stephen P. Cohen, senior fellow at Brookings Institution
Obama won’t seek high-profile role in Kashmir‘:
Interview with Lisa Curtis,  South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation.
Is India a tiger or a pussy-cat?
Politically immature Asia needs the US to stay engaged‘: Interview with Simon SC Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs
More on Obama’s visit here, here and here.

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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
This entry was posted in Columns, Geopolitics, India and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Light a Diwali diya, Obama!

  1. Pingback: Over here, Mr Obama, you can still win | It's only words…

  2. Pingback: China is edgy about India’s rise as an East Asian power | It's only words…

  3. Hariharan says:

    There’s a lot of brouhaha recently about the Coal India Ltd IPO. Has anyone at Coal India talked about CCS (carbon capture and storage) technologies? Also, coal being a nonrenewable energy resource, we have to also think about saving some for future generations too. Solar panels in Rajasthan would be ideal. I also recommend building submersibles to mine uranium and other resources from the ocean bed. Build molten salt thorium reactors – it’s a green technology and will light up all of India for thousands of years. Happy Diwali~!

  4. Pingback: China ‘supports’ India’s enhanced role at UN | It's only words…

  5. Pingback: Obama’s visit marks the end of India’s innocence | It's only words…

  6. Pingback: Round-up: Barack Obama’s India visit | It's only words…

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