Washington is a city of frequent surprises, but this latest one about Barack Obama and Narendra Modi takes the cake. President Obama was at a fundraiser, a very, very exclusive one, to raise money for Democrats in the Senate and in the House of Representatives who are fighting the November election with their backs to the wall. There — predictably as Indians in their current national mood are prone to assumptions — one of the fat cat donors asked about India’s new prime minister.
Obama replied in his calm, no-nonsense style that he continued to have concerns about Modi’s past. The reply shook up the small audience which was hanging on to every word that came out of the president. It was a surprise because the media coverage after Modi’s rise as the new star over the Indian political horizon had created an impression that bygones are now bygones in the Modi-Obama equation, which the incumbent president, in any case, had inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush.
The invitation to Modi to visit the White House in September, rarely extended to leaders who travel to New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly, had additionally been interpreted — quite wrongly as it turns out — that the United States of America had reversed course on its visa ban on the long-time former chief minister of Gujarat. One television station went so far as to assert that the US had done a U-turn on Modi. Nothing is farther from the truth.
Given such atmospherics, it was only natural that Obama’s admission that he continues to have concerns about Modi’s past triggered a supplementary question to Obama as a follow-up. The president was unflappable. He was a master of understatement. His reply was a classic. Once again, the answer vindicated the 2008 rhyming description of him during his first successful presidential campaign as “No Drama Obama.”
“My name is Barack ‘HUSSEIN’ Obama,” was all that he said in a reply that was pithy but pregnant in its implications. The president did not, of course, emphasize his Muslim middle name. The emphasis in the text here is mine. He did not have to: because the self-sustaining emphasis was not lost on anyone present at the fundraiser. There was a brief, but stunned, silence as everyone who heard the president digested the import of what Obama had said in six words that were worth a thousand.
Ever since I first met Obama in 2004 when he was elected to the Senate as one of its junior-most members and easily accessible then, I have heard him use his middle name only twice. At his inauguration on the steps of the Capitol building in 2009 and again in 2013. Those who follow Obama closely agreed that this fundraiser was probably the third time he used his Muslim name and its significance cannot be overlooked.
On a visit to Washington last week, I was recounted this very revealing anecdote on the strict understanding that if I ever wrote about it I would leave no clues about the source of my information, that I would be as vague as possible about this fundraiser and that I would also balance my account of the incident against the reality that notwithstanding the president’s personal concerns about Modi, the Obama administration will leave no stone unturned to work towards a thriving relationship with the new Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in New Delhi.
Whatever maybe tugging at the president’s heartstrings and triggering his feelings about the man who became India’s prime minister over a month ago, it is a given certainty that Modi will receive a spectacular red carpet welcome in the White House in September. There will not even be a hint during the visit of past baggage in Modi’s equation with two successive American administrations. Every effort will be made to live up to the prime minister’s expectation — which he has shared in the last few weeks in more than one private conversation — that his September sojourn is to be the most important of his foreign visits in the immediate future.
More than most politicians elsewhere, the only times US presidents and presidential hopefuls come anywhere near telling the whole truth is when they are at fundraisers. Which is not surprising because without fat cat donors, no public servant seeking high elected office has any chance of succeeding in America where money is the pivot on which elections revolve.
During the 2012 US presidential campaign, with only seven weeks to go before voting, the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, was caught in a surreptitiously taped video as admitting at a fundraiser that he did not care about the kind of people who support Obama because they take no responsibility for their livelihoods and think they are entitled to government handouts. Romney acknowledged in the leaked video that such Obama supporters account for “47 percent” of voters and that he, Romney, does not “worry about those people.”
Romney, according to opinion polls then, had a reasonable chance of defeating Obama, but Romney’s true self that was revealed to donors in a purportedly secret conversation severely damaged the Republicans and they did not recover in that presidential poll cycle. Obama quickly pounced on Romney’s disparaging remarks about nearly half of America’s population. His campaign said, “the president certainly does not think that men and women on Social Security are irresponsible or victims, that students aren’t responsible or are victims…”
Politics in America is replete with examples of truth having brought down aspirants for high office. In the 2006 Senate election season, a potential presidential hopeful, Virginia Senator George Allen, was caught on video making racist comments about an Indian American student volunteer for Democrats who was at his campaign event. “This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is. He is with my opponent. He is following us around everywhere.” The leaked video did Allen in and he lost.
Wiser by such experiences, Obama’s fundraiser where he opened a small window to his true feelings about Modi was carefully managed to avoid any faux pas on account of leaks. Video cameras were out of question, of course. Donors had to deposit their mobile phones outside the venue, pens or even notebooks were not allowed. Every donor was then frisked to ensure that the president would not have to confront the ghosts of any of his truthful assertions to his moneyed supporters.
But there is nothing to beat the most conventional method of passing information which has stood the test of time: word of mouth. I have verified with a second donor what I was told by one donor about Obama’s remarks referring to the prime minister. The second donor, too, insisted on discretion, however, and protection of his identity because this US administration is seen in Washington as the most unforgiving in recent years, where those who fail tests of loyalty to the White House are treated as no less than apostates.
Yet it is a tribute to the perennial concessions that America makes to its larger interests and an example of its diversity of State machinery that work has already begun in earnest in Washington to guarantee that Modi’s first visit to the city as prime minister will be a milestone to remember in Indo-US relations. Like all successes, the perceived transformation of Modi from persona non grata into a welcome friend in the White House is a success that has many claimants for its fatherhood.
However, two names deserve mention: Frank Wisner, former US ambassador in New Delhi, and Ron Somers, who recently resigned as president of the US-India Business Council. These two men took it upon themselves while the Lok Sabha election campaign was under way to mobilize America’s business community as the vanguard of a change in attitude towards Modi.
Contrary to the impression in India, there is no evidence to support any claim that the US has changed its policy on a visa for Modi. His new job as head of India’s national government entitles him to an A-1 visa. As chief minister, he was not entitled to this visa and he was denied a visa in the category that he was eligible for as Gujarat’s top official. What the campaign by Wisner and Somers achieved was to cover up this zone of discomfort and provide respectability to the process of inviting Modi to Washington.