Intro: US understanding of India's religious ethos is definitely not in line with the way we as Indians think of multi-religious society, but the way it thinks will form a centre-piece for those that are looking to invest in India on a long term basis.
Barack Obama's visit has opened a lot of questions that need to be debated and seen in a larger spectrum of developing India and its ties with the US and West in the future. Some of the issues are ticklish, while others concern development of India and its economic future, but a debate over issues is a must for a country like India which is looking at the US for its money, technology and more often for stability in the region.
To start with Obama's oblique reference to tolerance for all religions in the Townhall speech should be read carefully. In a way the message that US President was giving was that the US will invest in a country, which is tolerant to multi-religious society and not for a society that has religious exclusivity. But then does the West understand in depth the nuances of India's multi-faith religiosity and its culture of religious tolerance?
India has learnt to accommodate various religions, faiths and people over a period of time because it has faced invasions, which brought in settlers who dominated the society and its religious fabric through conversions and imposing their beliefs. Besides whether Article 25 of the Constitution or not, Partition of the country along religious lines and its splinters are a part of those living in India even till this day. US understanding of India's religious ethos is definitely not in line with the way we as Indians think of multi-religious society, but the way it thinks will form a centre-piece for those that are looking to invest in India on a long term basis.
Another point that stood out in Obama's speech is the specific reference about the faith that he and his family practices? Does any Indian Prime Minister in the history of India, the BJP or Congress, ever made a reference to his faith that too in a foreign land? How else does one read the further clarification given by the US President over his being a Christian and that his political rivals spreading canards over his religious faith being Islam. Why is the religious distinction so emphatically spoken about by Obama after making a reference to multi-religious ethos of US and India? Obama has always been viewed as a young President who took over the reins of his country, which was mired in conflict with the Middle East. Obama came on the mandate of ending the fight between the cross and crescent. The truth is that today the West stands on the forked road despite professing tolerance for all religions it is in no certain terms looking at saving its Christian masses against the onslaught of Islam.
With this backdrop how will the US and the West look at the reign of Hindu led party BJP and its agenda of making India a Hindu Rastra? The Western prism of viewing India under the BJP rule is more likely to be compared with the countries that are being ruled by Islamic fundamentalists. Recent activities like ‘Ghar Vapasi’ will not be read as a sign of religious readjustment and evolution of Indian society but as faultline religious war leading to anarchy, riots and anti-development. It will be termed as a programme of Hindu fundamentalists.
Going further what prospects does US have for country like India in terms of trade, investments and business dealings? Goes without saying that the West will seek India's engagement to counter China by promising billions and dangling the carrot of prospective investment but in reality not much is likely to come in terms long term investment, technology transfer, defence development, etc. What will come from US is aid and trade that too of goods that it wants to sell to the Indians not something that will really bring India to the next level and usher its development.
A lot has to be read in the tone and tenor of the political debate in US that goes to polls starting this year and the next. Development, jobs, economy form a part of their debate but will the issue of religious tolerance leave alone religious empowerment and coexistence come to the fore? Lastly what needs to be seen is not what Obama-led Democrats want, but what Republicans want as they are most likely to be in power and bring the next US President in 2016. What will the policy of the Republicans be in the Asian region, trade, immigration, defence, religious and ethnic tolerance will determine the future of US investments into India. What needs to be read in the din of Obama visit is the undercurrent of the US society and the course of future that it takes through those it sends to power that will determine the way forward in the Indo-US ties.
Bhagyashree Pande (The writer is a freelance journalist)