The dance of diplomacy

The dance of diplomacy

Joining The Dots

The dance of diplomacy

Michelle ObamaImagine for a while that  US  President Barack Obama had landed in India without his wife. Politically speaking, maybe, things would have developed the way they did this time but maybe we would not have been treated to the heart-warming moments that pretty much etched themselves on our collective memory.

We really can’t say whether the joie-de-vivre and the dance steps were well rehearsed but they definitely softened and flavoured the hard-edged diplomatic proceedings.Those seemingly spontaneous gestures  seemed so very casually inter - webbed in the packed three days of the Obama sojourn. Almost as though  diplomacy had to alter itself to keep abreast with the changing times where the  spouse  is not incidental but intrinsic to the screenplay. Where she has a definite role to play and is not a shadow but a personality.
Approachable and real

What Michelle Obama did in India went beyond diplomacy. She forged connections with young people and children, subtly underplaying the role play of the American First Lady. She broke gently the protocol of waving from a distance and smiling detachedly and let India’s music and warmth sweep her off her feet. 

Jackie Kennedy with her sartorial elegance and radiant wit was once considered to be the perfect companion of  arguably the most powerful man in the world but Michelle Obama’s warmth is more approachable, more real.

Her  energy washed off traces  of  boredom congealing over long winding  speech sessions  as  she  mingled freely with India’s unknown, speaking out candidly  about her own rather humble   background. She connected with us as she spoke of her kids, of her mother and members of her extended family.

And she shopped like a tourist in love with a new country, not like someone who just wanted to make a token statement.

The best part of her presence in India was that she seemed like one of us and not someone sitting prim on a pedestal.

So while the man of the hour came up with those speeches, she came up with the subtext written with smiles, eye contact, warm hugs, handshakes, subtle style statements to the point that serious news channels spent hours discussing her  clothes, her accessories. There were full length features on what she wore and why. Talk about getting attention without obviously seeking it. Maybe the spouses of our leaders will start dressing with more imagination or maybe hopscotch will be added to the  long  list  of   games  we play in this country.

The cynics will call Michelle’s charm  calculated and her brand of diplomacy carefully researched but let us not forget that even if studied, her gestures left something behind. A sense of lingering warmth. And the sense that the Obamas were not unlike us as they bravely gorged on samosas during a meeting with President   Pratibha Patil and used  none  of those forks  and  knives around. Yes, they ate  with their hands.

And instead of being apologetic  about  the very obvious disruptions caused by  their  visit during the very peak of our festive season, they conveyed the joy of being a part of our celebrations.

The fact that India did not change her tune to be heard by America was simply demonstrated by the fact that Michelle danced whole-heartedly to the lilt and thump of Rang De  Basanti. Not to forget her wit. On being  introduced to Priya Dutt, she was told that her parents had been actors and she supposedly quipped that   politics  too was  a bit  of  a performing art. Was this a Freudian slip?

And even as she went on that lengthy  shopping spree at the National Crafts  Museum, conversation came easily and not in clipped sentences. This was no well-guarded discourse but stuff that would interest you and me. She spoke of her sister -in -law who had  lived in Indonesia and of her mother-in-law,  her own daughters and talked as though she was an  integral  part  of  our lives and we were of hers.

First Lady of hope

The Obamas are great at striking a chord and Michelle in particular makes  connections naturally. And she connected with those who did not even speak her language.

In fact, the author of Michelle  Obama -First Lady of Hope, Elizabeth Lightfoot   makes it more than clear that Michelle is  equipped with a robust sense of optimism and that she  focusses on only the positives around and that includes the people she meets.

I quote, “Michelle Obama  set the tone  for  the Democratic Convention, delivering a prime time  speech to 17 million viewers in which she showed how she was ‘one of us.’ Towards the end of her speech, she spoke about her self and Barack as parents and the  way their hopes and dreams for their own daughters mirror the hopes and dreams all  parents have for their children.”

Many years back, Bill Clinton’s visit to India had created a similar surge of warmth and even our moral policing busy bodies had completely overlooked the chinks in his morality.   
Before him, the Kennedys had won us over and only the Bush brand of diplomacy had left us cold and unmoved.

Michelle is the new face of the political diplomacy that has gone beyond  crateful  of  mangoes, hand-woven carpets or those carefully worded  phrases. Sent from here to there .

Diplomacy once was more than just a hand shake. Several ambassadors  from the  Middle Eastern countries still recount    ‘glorious’ anecdotes  from  the  Nehru  era.   In fact, Jawaharlal Nehru  had  even  gifted  a mansion in New Delhi to the Iraqi   government to set up their very first  diplomatic   mission in  India. Indira Gandhi was no less adroit at diplomacy.

During one of my  interviews with Yasser Arafat, he had spoken less of the turmoil in  the Middle East and had infact sung praises of his ‘sister’ Indira Gandhi. He had looked  overwhelmed and his eyes had conveyed an  abundance of affection. Of course, those were the glorious days when diplomacy was not just about shrewd politics but about shared humanity.

Now of course, the constant media presence at every diplomatic event ensures that masks are ripped off and we can see and hear beyond the obvious. Perhaps, Michelle’s rather down-to- earth, unfussy image helped us to connect with her because she did not seem decked  up  or overprepared for any of the events and rather went with the flow.

 She was not intimidating but spoke rather too candidly. In fact, imagine any of our  leaders or their spouses sharing their  personal histories or  humble beginnings.
The fact that she is proud of her humble beginnings is a big source of inspiration.

Elizabeth Lightfoot writes, “Michelle’s life story provides a clue. We know that   Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama grew up in a working-class, largely African-American, Chicago neighbourhood  where  her family  of four lived in a rented one-bedroom apartment.

We know that, supported  by  her hard-working parents, Marian and Frazer  Robinson, she excelled in school and skipped second grade. We know that she  was a  gifted  athlete but that she shied away from competitive sports because, according  to her brother, Craig, she  hated to lose.”

Now of course, winning hearts has become a way of life for her. Perhaps, she’d  be  able to  take  this diplomacy even further to a more meaningful end if she could reach out to people in Iraq and Afghanistan who have been devastated  by the long war her country has unleashed on them.

These are countries  where diplomacy will have to go beyond a jig and a shopping trip.
Maybe she will write herself into history if she is seen playing hopscotch on those war  wrecked lands where death, destruction  and  sorrow  loom  large.

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