“The distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is dangerous and can wreak havoc on us all”; says Obama.

Former US President Barack Obama’s address at the HT Leadership Summit in New Delhi, on Friday, comes as a mixed bag of applause and understated criticism for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his central government.

At a time when India is witnessing a raging debate on a perceived rise in religious intolerance and communal disharmony – particularly between the Hindu and Muslim communities – Obama said that he had, during a private conversation, told Prime Minister Narendra Modi that “a country shouldn’t be divided on sectarian lines”. He, however, declined to comment on what Prime Minister Modi’s response was on the issue.

Obama was perhaps referring to his discussion with Modi during his last visit to India, in January 2015, when he was still the US President. During that visit, Obama had red-flagged the issue of religious intolerance – or the lack of it – while speaking to journalists before his departure for the US. Though Obama had not specifically said that he was speaking with regard to the situation in India, his comments had stoked a controversy as they were seen as his endorsement of the claims of rising religious intolerance that were making headlines in the country at the time.

Obama spoke at length about the issue of religious polarisation. While his comments were, possibly, largely in the context of US politics which has seen a resurgence of Islam -bashing ever since he demitted office and was succeeded by President Donald Trump, they could just as well be juxtaposed on the Indian socio-political scenario. Perhaps, they were even meant.

Obama praises Dr Manmohan Singh

Obama’s praise for Dr Singh’s contribution towards modernising the Indian economy comes at a time when the Modi-led BJP government is facing flak – domestically and by some economists in the West – for pushing the Indian economy on a downward spiral with his demonetisation move and an alleged hasty implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime. The former US president also underlined that he had worked closely with Dr Singh to get the US and India out of the effects of the 2008 global economic meltdown.

Obama swipes at Trump

A discussion with Obama could not be complete without his views on his successor – US President Donald Trump – with whom he is known to share a frosty, often acrimonious relationship. But the former US President dealt with these questions with a tact that has come to define his style as a world leader.

When senior journalist Karan Thapar asked Obama, “Donald Duck or Donald Trump, which represents America,” the former US President said: “The cacophony of America is what I love about the country. The political trends are a thread of life. One of the joys and frustrations about America is that it can be contradictory. We can be kind and cruel. I think it’s the same with India.”

He did, however, take a few swipes at Trump. Asked how his Twitter habits were different from the indiscriminate and often controversial tweets put out by President Trump, Obama said: “I use punctuation in my text” and added for good measure: “I have more Twitter followers than some people who use it more often.”

While asserting that multiculturalism was a “common bond” between the US and India, former president Obama stressed on tolerance and warned that “the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is dangerous and can wreak havoc on us all”.