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How Obama’s gift to Modi sowed seeds of their friendship

Last September, a gesture by US President Barack Obama towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi deeply moved the latter. Modi was in Washington for their first meeting when Obama gifted him a compilation of speeches made at the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. The volume was specially reprinted for Modi.

In the past couple of days, Modi has spoken warmly of his close rapport with his “friend Barack”. Modi revealed the genesis of this bonding – how “Barack’s” gift “touched him” at his joint radio address with Obama, broadcast on Tuesday evening on All India Radio. The speeches included the address by Swami Vivekananda, whom Modi considers his life’s inspiration.

However, it was more than that, said Modi. The PM said that “Barack” sat with him flipping through the compilation, pointing out interesting details. Modi said he was, at that very moment, reminded of his first visit to the US in the early 1990s – and how as a tourist, he had clicked a photograph outside the White House fence. He could have never imagined sitting inside the White House one day.

Modi told the listeners that the memory of that trip flooded back as he sat with Obama, while the US President showed him the compilation that was not only specially printed for Modi, but which Obama had taken an effort to read before he gifted it to Modi.

The ‘sajha’ or shared ‘Mann ki Baat’ had Modi telling his listeners how the name ‘Barack’ meant “one who is blessed” in Swahili, while Obama said that people in the US were “very excited” at the energy that Modi had brought to solving India’s problems such as poverty, empowering women, building infrastructure, etc. Obama said he has also tried to address some of these concerns in the US, like ensuring better wages and health facilities.

The two leaders took up questions sent by listeners from across India, one of which was whether India interested Obama’s daughters. The US President said India’s culture and the history of its independence movement, particularly the non-violent struggle that Mahatma Gandhi led and its influence on the American civil rights movement fascinated his daughters and that he would visit India with them after his Presidential term was over.

On a question on what helped them get over a bad day at work, both said they derived immense satisfaction from serving people. Modi also shared how the life of one of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, had deeply influenced him, while he considered John F Kennedy had an “impressive personality”.

Both also spoke about their humble origins. Obama said Modi’s rise from being a tea seller and his being the son of a single mother to becoming the American President showed the opportunities that exist in India and the US. He said there were “millions of children” with the same potential, the drive and talent to achieve things, and they should be provided opportunities to accomplish things.

Obama said governance has changed with the youth of today having all the information at their fingertips on their mobile phones. He said governments and leaders cannot rule with a “top down strategy”, but need to reach out to people, strike a dialogue and have inclusive decision making. The US President said decision-making in democracies can at times be frustrating, but the US and India were both open societies and will succeed unlike “closed societies” who try to regulate the kind of information their people receive.

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