‘All citizens have a responsibility to make sure their democracy works’

CHALLENGES: Barack Obama with
Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi
CHALLENGES: Barack Obama with Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi

“OUR history together, our efforts together, at their best speak to a common set of values – values of pluralism and tolerance, the values of openness and the rule of law, a liberal market-based order that places the primacy on our individual rights in­cluding the freedoms of speech and religion and assembly and, relevant to this session, freedom of the press, along with the commitment to the digni­ty and human rights of all people.

“Prime minister (Narendra) Modi and I met an unprecedented nine times. All of the key challeng­es we face will be easier to achieve if India contin­ues to play a larger role, not just in the Asia-pacific region, but on the world stage.

“We know that economies don’t work as well when only a few prosper and the middle class and people who are working hard to get into the mid­dle class are neglected.

“We can’t unwind globalisation in the global sup­ply chain – we shouldn’t want to. We can’t pretend that automation doesn’t exist, but we can invest in our people and their skills and their education and the capacity for them to start their own businesses.

“I think [prime minister Modi’s] impulses are to recognise the importance of Indian unity. I know that he firmly believes in the need for that in order to advance to the great nation status that India possesses and will continue to amplify in years to come. But I think it’s very important to understand this is the work of all of us.

“One of the things I said in my farewell address in the US is that the most important office in a de­mocracy is not the office of president or a prime minister or governor or mayor – it’s the office of citizen because by definition, each of us has a re­sponsibility in order to make our democracy work.

“Obviously, those of us like myself, prime minis­ter Modi and others, our voices have more reach and we have an obligation to deliver these messag­es but it’s the task of all of us to reinforce it.

“One thing I will say about politicians: rarely do elected officials get out too far ahead of public opinion and so if you see a politician doing things that are questionable, one of the things you have to ask yourself if you are a citizen is ‘am I encour­aging or supporting and giving license to the val­ues that I’m hearing out of the politicians?’

“Frankly politicians tend to be more of a mirror and more reflection of forces in society. Every once in a while, they get out ahead and actually lead but often times they are reflecting. So if communities across India are saying ‘we’re not going to fall prey to division’ then that will strengthen the hand of those politicians who feel the same way.”

Excerpts from Barack Obama’s speech at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in New Del­hi last Friday (1)