President Barack Obama is an American constitutional law expert which means he has a sound grasp of the US constitution. However, that does not automatically mean that his grasp extends to India’s constitution.
In order for him to make any comment at all on India’s constitution, he or someone whom he trusts in such matters would have to carry out some basic research before making a public pronouncement about one of its articles.
This context is necessary before making any comment about a controversy being generated by the television media in India about some observations he made during a town-hall type speech in New Delhi. In his characteristically expansive but eventually inconsequential address, Obama said many things about India and America as diverse societies.
In a monumental stating of the obvious he said things such as “India will succeed so long as it is not split along the lines of religious faith,” or “In big and diverse societies like ours progress basically depends upon how we see each other. We are strongest when we see inherent dignity in every human being”.
But then he got more specific and also said this, "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…In both our countries, in all countries, upholding this fundamental freedom is the responsibility of government, but it’s also the responsibility of every person."
It is this bit that is prompting TV anchors to wonder whether it was the president’s parting shot at Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose aggressive Hindu political ideology is viewed as running counter to the spirit of Article 25. I would not like to go into the complex details of that ideology and why it is not as simplistic as some would have us believe.
I would restrict myself to the question of whether Obama was consciously making what he knew could be interpreted as something out of the ordinary, if not provocative. The simple answer is yes. I say this because it would have required his speechwriter specific effort to find out about Article 25 and what it says, even if this specific effort merely meant doing a Google search. I am not concerned with how much effort but any effort at all. That suggests premeditation and calibration which in this case mean that under general urgings from the president the speechwriter/researcher would have looked for a particular article of India’s constitution that fits neatly into his overall case for religious and other freedoms.
It is from this standpoint that I think that Obama had consciously chosen to make the point he did about religious and other freedoms. Was it a shot at Prime Minister Modi with who he had just had two days full of brotherly bonhomie and bro-hugging? Possibly so but then so what? In the end both are seasoned politicians and both know very well they have their constituencies to humor from time to time. I would like to get facetious and say it was Obama’s way of getting even with Modi for wearing a suit embroidered with his full name in its pinstripes.
The point is if the leaders of two great democracies cannot afford each other this much room for something mildly unpalatable, then what’s the point in being democracies? One question heard on a debate on NDTV was whether Prime Minister Modi can get away by making a comment about a politically and culturally fraught situation in America while on a visit here. The answer again is yes if that is what he wants to do. No one is stopping him because it is not a question of getting away but the freedom of speech. Would it be construed bad form for him to do so? Possibly but that is still superseded by the freedom of speech. I don’t even think it is bad form because what Obama said may have been calibrated but was certainly not exceptionable. In short, a staggering non-story.