After hugs and handshakes, Obama has some tough love for Modi

Listen carefully.
Listen carefully.
Image: Reuters/Ahmad Masood
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In 2010, it was Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College. On Tuesday (Jan. 27), it was the Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi.

At both town halls speeches, US president Barack Obama’s scripts were similar: countering terrorism, partnering India’s farmers, fighting climate change, helping young people achieve their dreams and working together towards ensuring basic rights for all citizens.

But some things have changed in the last five years—including what is being seen as a rebuke to Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Right to religion

At a time when India’s Hindu right-wing groups have been pushing for religious conversions and a member of parliament from Modi’s party publicly asked Hindu women to bear at least four children, Obama underlined the need for religious tolerance.

“Nowhere is it going to be more necessary to uphold religious faith than in India. India will succeed so long as it is not splintered on religious lines,” Obama said.

“Your Article 25 (of the Constitution) says that all people are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion. Every person has the right to practice their religion and beliefs and not practice it if they choose so without any persecution,” he added.

In his 2010 town hall address, the US president had spoken of religion mainly in reply to a question on jihad and the distortion of Islam by extremists.

Women’s safety

Obama was also much more vocal on women’s issues, unlike last time.

“A measure of a country’s success depends on how it treats its women. Nations are more successful when their women are successful. Every woman should be able to go about her day—to walk the street or ride the bus—and be safe and be treated with the respect and dignity that she deserves,” Obama said on Jan. 27.

The allusion to the brutal Dec. 2012 gang rape of a 23-year-old girl in New Delhi was clear.

“Our nations are strongest when we uphold the equality of all our people and that includes our women,” he added.

The president also made mention of the Guard of Honour at Rashtrapati Bhavan on Jan. 25, which was led by the Indian Air Force’s wing commander Puja Thakur, the first lady officer to command such a ceremony for a foreign head of state.

“One of the favourite things of my trip this time has been to see the incredible Indian women in the armed forces, including the person who commanded the guard that greeted me when I arrived,” he said. “It is remarkable and is a sign of great strength and progress.”

Fleeting FLOTUS

Michelle Obama stole the show in 2010, as the US first lady danced and played with street children, and then spoke to students at St Xavier’s college.

“You are here today because, like me and my husband, you believe in your dreams and you’re working hard every single day to fulfill them,” she said in 2010, speaking before the US president. “We are so proud of you. I want to encourage you to keep dreams—keep dreaming big huge, gigantic dreams—not just for yourselves, but also for your communities and for our world”

This time round, she left the country without speaking publicly during the three-day visit to India.