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Obama in his memoir: ‘(Dr Singh) looked frail…I wondered what would happen when he left office’

Obama has said this in his memoir while recalling his conversation with Singh during his visit to India in December 2010. The first volume of the much-anticipated book, 'A Promised Land', hits the bookstores on Tuesday.

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi | Updated: November 18, 2020 8:35:10 pm
Obama in his memoir: ‘(Dr Singh) looked frail...I wondered what would happen when he left office'Obama with then PM Singh in Delhi, in Nov 2010. (Reuters file photo)

Then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had resisted calls to retaliate against Pakistan after the 26/11 attacks, “but his restraint had cost him politically”, and Singh had expressed fears to US President Barack Obama that the rising anti-Muslim sentiment had strengthened the BJP.

Obama has said this in his memoir while recalling his conversation with Singh during his visit to India in December 2010. The first volume of the much-anticipated book, ‘A Promised Land’, hits the bookstores on Tuesday.

“He feared that rising anti-Muslim sentiment had strengthened the influence of India’s main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In uncertain times, Mr. President,” the prime minister said, “the call of religious and ethnic solidarity can be intoxicating. And it’s not so hard for politicians to exploit that, in India or anywhere else,” Obama wrote about the conversation.

Obama said he found Singh to be “wise, thoughtful, and scrupulously honest”. “Singh and I had developed a warm and productive relationship. While he could be cautious in foreign policy, unwilling to get out too far ahead of an Indian bureaucracy that was historically suspicious of U.S. intentions, our time together confirmed my initial impression of him as a man of uncommon wisdom and decency…. What I couldn’t tell was whether Singh’s rise to power represented the future of India’s democracy or merely an aberration.”

READ | Barack Obama: Rahul Gandhi has a ‘nervous, unformed quality’, Manmohan Singh ‘impassive integrity’

The former US President wrote, “In fact, he owed his position to Sonia Gandhi…more than one political observer believed that she’d chosen Singh precisely because as an elderly Sikh with no national political base, he posed no threat to her forty-year-old son, Rahul, whom she was grooming to take over the Congress Party.”

Obama described Sonia Gandhi a “striking woman in her sixties, dressed in a traditional sari, with dark, probing eyes and a quiet, regal presence.”

“At dinner that night, Sonia Gandhi listened more than she spoke, careful to defer to Singh when policy matters came up, and often steered the conversation toward her son. It became clear to me, though, that her power was attributable to a shrewd and forceful intelligence. As for Rahul, he seemed smart and earnest, his good looks resembling his mother’s.

“He offered up his thoughts on the future of progressive politics, occasionally pausing to probe me on the details of my 2008 campaign. But there was a nervous, unformed quality about him, as if he were a student who’d done the coursework and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject.”

Obama wrote, “As it was getting late, I noticed Singh fighting off sleep, lifting his glass every so often to wake himself up with a sip of water. I signalled to Michelle that it was time to say our goodbyes.”

As Singh and his wife walked them to their car, he wrote, “In the dim light, he looked frail, older than his seventy-eight years, and as we drove off I wondered what would happen when he left office. Would the baton be successfully passed to Rahul, fulfilling the destiny laid out by his mother and preserving the Congress Party’s dominance over the divisive nationalism touted by the BJP?”

“Somehow, I was doubtful. It wasn’t Singh’s fault. He had done his part, following the playbook of liberal democracies across the post–Cold War world,” he wrote.

“Except now I found myself asking 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. For they seemed to lie in wait everywhere, ready to resurface whenever growth rates stalled or demographics changed or a charismatic leader chose to ride the wave of people’s fears and resentments. And as much as I might have wished otherwise, there was no Mahatma Gandhi around to tell me what I might do to hold such impulses back,” he wrote, as he winds his India section.

Obama’s 768-page memoir stops in 2011, and covers the first term of his Presidency and there is no mention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who he met in 2014. His second volume is expected to cover the second term of his administration.

The former US President describes the Abbottabad raid to kill Al Qaeda chief and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in May 2011 in detail, and talks about Pakistan’s “open secret” that ISI had links with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He wrote: “Although Pakistan’s government cooperated with us on a host of counterterrorism operations and provided a vital supply path for our forces in Afghanistan, it was an open secret that certain elements inside the country’s military, and especially its intelligence services, maintained links to the Taliban and perhaps even al-Qaeda, sometimes using them as strategic assets to ensure that the Afghan government remained weak and unable to align itself with Pakistan’s number one rival, India. The fact that the Abbottabad compound was just a few miles from the Pakistan military’s equivalent of West Point only heightened the possibility that anything we told the Pakistanis could end up tipping off our target.”

After the successful raid killing Osama bin Laden, he was pleasantly surprised to have a much less hostile phone conversation with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari.

“I expected my most difficult call to be with Pakistan’s beleaguered president, Asif Ali Zardari, who would surely face a backlash at home over our violation of Pakistani sovereignty. When I reached him, however, he expressed congratulations and support. “Whatever the fallout,” he said, “it’s very good news.” He showed genuine emotion, recalling how his wife, Benazir Bhutto, had been killed by extremists with reported ties to al-Qaeda,” Obama wrote.

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