Obama: Legacy of a civilised mind
Columns, Point of View

Obama: Legacy of a civilised mind

November 24, 2020

By T.J.S. George

Barack Obama’s autobiography caught attention in India because of his remark on Rahul Gandhi and “the nervous unformed quality about him.” In the process, the sheer grandeur of the book, “A Promised Land,” escaped attention. Actually, the Obama opus is a classic, in the range it covers, in its analytical depth, and in the literary quality it displays on every page.

Among other things, Obama is a writer. That is, a writer to whom writing comes. He has something to say and he says it with ease, with confidence and with the finesse of a man to whom writing is a vocation.  See how Russian ruler Putin is put in a single sentence: “Physically, he was unremarkable: short and compact — a wrestler’s build — with thin, sandy hair, a prominent nose and pale, watchful eyes.”

The reference to India is more comprehensive than the description of Rahul Gandhi may suggest.  Having engaged with India at different levels and for a fairly long time, Obama examines how modern India counted as a success story, but does not fight shy of mentioning the “bitter feuds within political parties, various armed separatist movements and all manner of                             corruption scandals.”

It is interesting that in a book published in 2020 and with lengthy segments on India and Indian leaders like Manmohan Singh, there is not even a passing reference to Narendra Modi and what he has meant for India. Modi Narendra is not even an item in the index while Singh Manmohan figures in several pages. It may be that Modi Narendra is seen as a wholly domestic phenomenon and perhaps the world expects India to rediscover its universalist soul after the eclipse has passed. One thing is clear: History has given to India an inspirational role in international relations: the Gandhi Nehru impact on the world was substantial. India’s current abridgement to a smaller religion-based entity is not yet seen by the world as something that overrides the country’s acknowledged legacy. In other words, the world sees India as larger than Narendra Modi and what he      hopes to impose.

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Obama is full of praise for Manmohan Singh. “Like me, he had come to believe that this was all any of us could expect from democracy, especially in big, multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies like India and the United States.” Then he focuses on the peculiar problem of India and asks “whether those impulses — of  violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism, and religious intolerance, the all-too-human desire to beat back our own uncertainty and mortality and sense of insignificance by subordinating others — were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain.”  There was a warning against “a charismatic leader [who] chose to ride the wave of people’s fears and resentments.”  

Manmohan Singh was the architect of India’s emergence as a market-based economy although it was P.V. Narasimha Rao who put him in charge of doing so. Obama gave Manmohan Singh the credit that was due to him.  He described Singh not only as a man of “uncommon wisdom and decency” but also as “a self-effacing technocrat who had won people’s trust not by appealing to their passions but by bringing about higher living standards and maintaining a well-earned reputation for not being corrupt.”

Obama did not fail to record the intricacies of Sonia Gandhi politics. She backed Manmohan Singh, he said, “because as an elderly Sikh with no national political base, he posed no threat to her 40-year-old son Rahul.” Sonia’s power, he said, “was attributable to a shrewd and forceful intelligence.” His summing up of India ought to make us think.  “Despite its genuine economic progress,” he says, “India remained a chaotic and impoverished place, largely divided by religion and caste, captive to the whims of corrupt local officials and power brokers, hamstrung by a parochial bureaucracy that was resistant to change.”

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Candidness and analytical brilliance make the Obama view of the world relevant to everyone. It is a treatise on democracy, how it has to be earned and how it can be lost.  He writes in longhand; not on computer because “a computer gives even my roughest drafts too smooth a gloss and lends half-baked thoughts the mark of tidiness.” By using pen and paper, he gives his thoughts a chance to mature into considered ideas. What we get in the end is an inspirational Obama whose straightforwardness stands out as his most attractive quality.  Obama enriched not just American history.  Every culture in the world, every nation, gained from his thoughts, from his actions, from his civilised mind.

ONE COMMENT ON THIS POST To “Obama: Legacy of a civilised mind”

  1. Hare Krishna! says:

    Obama received tens of millions of Dollars as advance to his memoirs to bring out more than one volume. Interesting, a president who achieved not much in his 2 terms, including his so called Obama care which is not radical at all, and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, who was anyway a creature of the CIA, and the time of his killing in a Pakistan hide out had already passed on his activities to others in terrorist group. Despite the outcry of ISIS emergence, he did very little. He allowed China to become very powerful succumbing to their economic threats.
    Hence, the 2 volume memoirs sound nonsensical for a president who achieved so little.
    In the second volume, he may probably revisit India and mention Modi. By now, it has been clear that unlike Obama, Trump never interfered with Indian politics, and gave Modi a free run. In Washington Democratic circles, Modi has been a Trump man! Obama and other Democratic leaders who Modi did not meet, during his “Howdy Modi Jamboree” visit to Houston concluded so. When Biden-Harris regime become reluctant to confront China, but criticise human rights violation in J and K, that is what both think of the removal of the Article 370, and the modified citizenship laws, however Modi paints Kamala Harris as Indian extraction -she herself is happy to be portrayed as an Afro-American .
    It appears that Obama recruited an army of researchers-each researching on a topic area familiar to them: The Indian political observations appear to be the work of a n Indian -extraction researcher, with an agenda, and similarly about other countries and leaders.
    There perhaps were also a battery of ghost writers-he could afford given the hefty memoir publication fee advance.
    One should not believe what the NewYork Times says about him writing the memoir. The NY Times is a Democrat-supporting newspaper, often very partial to Democrats ignoring their foibles, and was glorifying him when he was the president although his achievements domestically and internationally were very modest.
    One cannot simply imagine, Obama was sitting with his Apple laptop, and typing away the words of his memoir as the NY Times says. It is more like he dictating words into dictaphone devices, which would have been transcribed by again a battery of typists, as rough drafts of chapters, which then would have been corrected and enhanced by the above ghost writers.
    Hence, it makes no sense to praise Obama as a good writer!


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