Obama says young people are key to charting the course of US-India relations

Former US president pledges to fight forces of discrimination, tribalism and racism at townhall in Delhi.

By Geeta Goindi

Former President Barack Obama was in full form at a townhall in India’s capital city doing among the things he does best: engaging young activists on a whole range of issues which impact their community, country, and the world.  A leader in the true sense, blessed with oratory skills, he is committed to training the next generation of leadership all over the world.

His first international townhall saw a packed crowd at the Nehru Memorial, a promising start to many such events planned by the Obama Foundation.

“It is wonderful to be back in India and back in Delhi,” Obama told some 300 young activists.  He is the first American president to visit India twice: in 2010, and five years later as the chief guest on Republic Day.

“Both of our countries are hugely diverse,” he noted.  “We’ve got different languages, different backgrounds, different ethnicities and different faiths.  But, what we also have in common is the set of values that we believe in deeply.  I believe the partnership between the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy could be a defining partnership of the 21st century.  I also believe that charting the course for that better future is going to depend on all of you.  It is going to depend on young people,” he underscored.

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The US, he noted, “is home to millions of Indian-Americans and their proud heritage is at the same time combined with an incredible contribution that they make in every field in the United States”.

When asked by a transgender person in the audience about overcoming obstacles and making their voices heard, he replied, “You have to find allies” and tell your story so that any perception in people’s mind that you are different from them can be eradicated.

“Find the right alliances, and then it’s a matter of mobilizing political opinions,” he emphasized, acknowledging it will take time.  “You should take some measure of hope by just looking at what has happened in many countries around LGBT issues,” he added.

On his part, the former US president vowed that he would continue to fight the forces of discrimination, tribalism and racism.  He pledged to ceaselessly advocate for climate change, equality, making sure women are getting the same opportunities as men.

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“The single most important thing that I want to focus on is lifting up and identifying and working with and training the next generation of leadership not just in the United States, but all around the world,” he said, pointing out it is the central goal of the Obama Foundation based in his hometown of Chicago.

On building consensus, he advised the budding leaders “to listen more than you speak.”  At the same time, he noted, “You can’t be a purist if you want to make change”.

When it came to mentoring others, he expressed a willingness “because I didn’t have anyone who took me under their wing and groomed me,” he said.

Explaining why it was important to host a townhall in India, he noted the country has “the largest population of young people in the world.  That’s a lot, so we might as well start big,” he said.

Obama credited his Foundation for identifying “young people doing extraordinary work in India” including authors, athletes, artistes, entrepreneurs, civic leaders from all across the country, and activists working on everything from education to gender equality to climate change.

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“Since we’re in Delhi, I must mention the need for clean air,” he said, to much applause from the audience.

Earlier, at another event in the city, Obama was queried about the fact that much has been written about his friendship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The former US president pondered and then reminded the gathering that he was “also great friends” with another prime minister that India had not so long ago.

About Modi, he said, “I like him.  I think he has a vision for the country that he is implementing.  He is, in many ways, modernizing certain elements of the bureaucracy”.

“But, I really also was great friends with Dr. (Manmohan) Singh” who “launched the foundation for the modern Indian economy,” he added.

Obama credited both Modi and Singh for showing “political courage” to solve global problems.