(This column, intended entirely in jest, was published in DNA edition dated November 19, 2010.)
Reading media narratives of US President Barack Obama’s visit to India last week leaves me wondering if these commentators and I are on the same planet. So uniformly fulsome is their praise of what Obama said, and so unanimous is their verdict that his visit was an enormous success from an Indian perspective, that I’m beginning to doubt the analytical capabilities of our ceaselessly talking heads.
It’s true that Obama massaged our collective ego by claiming repeatedly that India was no longer a ‘rising power’ but one that had already ‘risen’. He even made some gratuitous comments about wanting to see India as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. But, as everyone ought to know, these are mere talking points prepared for him by his gifted speech-writers that he reads out from a teleprompter. They don’t count for anything substantive.
On the other hand, I have compelling reasons to argue that Obama’s visit was a colossal flop – on account of the things that he didn’t say and didn’t do – on the issues that really matter. Straight off, here are five…
1. He didn’t fall for Prez Patil
In an earlier column, published on January 1 this year, I’d listed my 10 whacky wishes for 2010. One of them was my wish to see President Obama go beyond the dictates of protocol during his visit to India by falling at President Pratibha Patil’s feet – because that was the correct way to show respect to elders in India. It would have been entirely in keeping with his show of elaborate courtesy during other overseas visits, when he bowed deep to the Japanese Emperor and the Saudi King. I was looking closely to see if Obama would at least make that showy feint– where you pretend to reach for the feet of the elder, but are stopped mid-stoop with a ‘nahin beta’. But he stood ramrod stiff next to our pint-sized President, making not the feeblest attempt to fall at her feet. By not respecting our feudal, deferential practices in the way he did others’, Obama has slighted Indian sensibilities.
2. No gate-crashers at the banquet
As anyone who followed the White House banquet for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last year knows, the success of such glamorous events is determined by whether or not there are gate-crashers. Not only does it establish that even uninvited people want to come to the event, it also keeps the banquet alive in the news-cycle for days after the desserts have been tucked away. On that count, the Rashtrapati Bhavan banquet for Obama was a social disaster: there were no gate-crashers, and consequently even our hyper-media didn’t have endless re-runs of glitterati comings-and-goings, and rapidly ran out of things to hype up.
3. Not a squeak about Rajnikant
Obama may have pleased our geriatric politicians with ritualistic invocations of Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar in his address to Parliament, but he disappointed millions of Indians by not taking the name of a real modern-day hero: Superstar Rajnikant. The nearest he came was when he moved his arms jerkily while dancing with some schoolchildren in Mumbai. If he’d made a joke about how his mechanical moves were inspired by Rajnikant’s movie Robot, he’d have won a billion hearts, shown himself as being clued into contemporary Indian popular culture and averted embarrassing critiques of his artless dance moves. An opportunity lost.
4. And what’s with that ‘Jai Hind’?
In ending his teleprompted speech to Parliament with a cheery but dated ‘Jai Hind’, Obama showed an inadequate appreciation of post-millennial India’s preference of populist slogans. If he’d instead signed off with a rousing ‘Jai Ho’, he’d have made up for that failure to invoke Rajnikant’s name and projected the classy-cool image of a President who is familiar with Bollywood (and not just bailouts) and A.R. Rahman (and not just Rahm Emanuel).
5. He didn’t take on our media lions
During his visit, Obama for the most part fielded soft-ball questions from the media pack, and had it not been for one Mumbai schoolgirl (who, at Michelle Obama’s urging, asked him a “tough question”), he’d have gone entirely unchallenged. By not venturing into our TV media lions’ studio-dens and by not subjecting himself to their hysterically shrill hectoring, Obama paid manifest disrespect to our famed Indian television culture.
So my point, framed in the trademark style of television talk-show anchors, is: India wants to know if Obama’s visit was really the success it’s made out to be…