An American president who forged ties with India, embodied the all-American can-do attitude, turns 100 this October - Hindustan Times
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An American president who forged ties with India, embodied the all-American can-do attitude, turns 100 this October

Apr 02, 2024 12:06 AM IST

Jimmy Carter's visit to a tiny village in Gurugram in the 1970s led to it being renamed Carterpuri. The name remains even as the world has changed

Jimmy Carter, the third US President to visit India, came at a time when Indo-US relations were on the thaw. The days of Indira (Gandhi)-(Richard) Nixon cold war were over. Emergency too was over. A new Janata government was in place with Morarji Desai leading it. The visit in January 1978, thus, was supposed to headline the peacemaking credentials of both Carter and Desai. Though Carter had yet to get the Nobel Peace Prize, and Desai had not yet received either the Bharat Ratna or the Nishan-e-Pakistan (the highest civilian honours of India and Pakistan respectively), both men were known as leaders who brought feuding factions and nations to the table.

US President Jimmy Carter waves to the crowd at Connaught Place, New Delhi, during a state visit on January 1, 1978. (SN Sinha/HT Archive) PREMIUM
US President Jimmy Carter waves to the crowd at Connaught Place, New Delhi, during a state visit on January 1, 1978. (SN Sinha/HT Archive)

However, on the agenda of this meeting of out-and-proud peaceniks were two contradictory demands. Carter wanted India to sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and Desai wanted the US to contain its atomic (bomb) programme. While both these ambitions lay unfulfilled, there came about an unprecedented India and US recognition of each other as democracies that had much to offer the world.

This October, Carter turns 100, making him the longest-living president in the history of the United States. (Incidentally, Morarji Desai also lived to be 99). His one-term presidency has left a long legacy of goodwill across the world in ways no other US president has.

Jimmy Carter has the singular honour of having a village in India named after him. When Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter visited Daulatpur-Nasirabad, a small hamlet in Gurgaon (now Gurugram), the then chief minister Devi Lal, along with local leaders decided to rename it Carterpuri. This sealed a bond with India that had begun with Carter’s mother Lillian (more about this later).

My recent visit to Atlanta opened up my eyes to other lesser-known aspects of Jimmy Carter. He was a Georgia boy, born to a share-cropping peanut farmer family in Plains. The Carters were a conservative lot until Lillian broke out of the family’s segregationist mindset reaching out to and treating African-American women in the area. The Martin Luther King Jr Center in Sweet Auburn is a hall celebrating Jimmy Carter’s sizeable contributions to the Civil Rights movement.

His contributions to his home state were large too. Outside the golden-domed Georgia State Capitol building stands his statue — hands held out, shirt sleeves rolled up, no coat, no tie. It is an unimaginable sight especially if you have been fed the image of the blue-suited red-tied American President as the most powerful man on the planet.

A slice of Carter back home

In India, Carterpuri—though now swallowed up by the construction frenzy of the nation’s cyber capital—is still a village that warms up with excitement whenever a US president visits India. Locals were hoping Trump would visit them too when he came in 2020. Carter’s India connect was neither incidental nor public relations-driven.

His mother Lillian, joined the Peace Corps at the ripe old age of 68. In 1966, as part of her work, Lillian came to Vikhroli, Mumbai, to live and work as a volunteer at the Godrej Colony. In her book Away From Home: Letters to My Family, Lillian writes to her daughter Gloria about the challenges and joys she discovered while working in a foreign country for nearly two years. Miss Lillian, as she was known at the colony clinic, received a hero’s welcome when she returned to the country with her son in 1977 — not as a volunteer nurse but as the US President’s mother.

“I think my mother’s life personifies, better than anybody I know, what America ought to be,” Jimmy Carter recalled in an NPR interview in 2008. “She believed in peace, humility, service of others, human rights, forgiveness… she was strong-willed but still adhering to the basic moral values that make America a great nation.”

A great America

To Trump’s MAGA [Make America Great Again] crowd this definition of what America ought to be may seem to epitomise all that’s wrong with the liberals, but it can actually be a template of what an upright and principled leadership can do to the state of the world.

Carter first became a Georgia state senator, then Governor and a few years later threw his hat in for the presidential polls of 1976. Jimmy Carter’s governorship was an anomaly in the Deep South where politicians routinely tilted towards keeping racial segregation alive. In fact, his father James Earl Carter Sr. was a state senator who voted to keep segregation in place. When in his inaugural speech Jimmy boldly announced: “…Georgians North and South, Rural and Urban, liberal and conservative, I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over,” he took everyone by surprise.

That declaration didn’t impress many integrationists but it alienated many white Southerners who expected Carter to be one of them i.e. a vocal segregationist. But a large chunk of Georgia’s black population was bowled over when he increased the number of black employees in state government by 25%. On the other hand, there were protests by Ku Klux Klan members when he installed a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. in the statehouse.

Kai Bird, author of The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter, was quoted in a 2022 Time magazine article on Carter as saying: “…the perception of him as being weak is way off the mark. He was actually a very determined, stubborn, principled politician who is extremely hard working… I would argue Carter is not only the most decent politician to have occupied the White House in the 20th century, [but] without a doubt, the smartest, most intelligent, best-read president we’ve had.”

Many observers say Jimmy Carter’s real political career began after his presidency. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002; in 2006 he reconnected with India when he arrived in Lonavala to help build houses for low-income families under the aegis of ‘Habitat for Humanity’, an NGO devoted to affordable housing for the poor. Carter, who was accompanied by Rosalynn, his wife, also visited tsunami-affected Tamil Nadu to help rebuild houses there.

The US-style imperial presidency — a term made famous by historian and public intellectual Arthur Schlesinger Jr — has been attractive to dictators who would love to override legislatures mandated for collective governance in favour of a one-nation-one-ruler kind of system. US presidents have presided over world-shaking events like Hiroshima-Nagasaki down to Vietnam, the Gulf War, and Afghanistan in their bid to leave America’s imperial bootprint across the world.

As we approach an AI-enabled future where election agendas, manifestos and campaigning itself are increasingly run by algorithms and search bots, the question to ask is whether chief executives of nations should be like the imperial presidents of America or like anomalies such as Carter who understood the real purpose of political power — to humanise, not weaponize, the system.

Dhiraj Singh is associate dean and director of Dadasaheb Phalke International Film School and department of Media and Communication at MIT World Peace University. The views expressed are personal.

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