Can We Be Equals?

First published in The Pioneer, November 13, 2010

Ten years since Vajpayee and Clinton scripted a breakthrough, the world’s two leading democracies have taken their special relationship to a new high. But this “equality”, how will it affect professional India bashers in America?

President Barack Obama evokes among the ordinary men and women of the world — be they Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or of any other religious persuasion — goodwill, sympathy, liking, admiration, pride, and even love.

The hard-bitten, the cynical, the partisan, the ideologue, the extremist, and the ignorant, however, see in him an ogre, a “Manchurian candidate”, a covert Muslim, an “empty suit”, a Jew-hater, a Pakistan-lover, a turncoat, a socialist, a Wall Street backer, a racist, or even, as I heard with horror and anger, a right-wing radio commentator last week call him — a “gangster”!

A man who evokes all of these feelings and attracts all of these reactions must wonder at times who he is really. Barack Obama and his elegant, articulate, well-educated wife, Michelle, were official guests in India the past week, and we could, given some of the dynamics leading to and emerging from the visit, therefore pause to reassess the nature of the Indo-US relationship. A lot of water has flowed in the Yamuna and in the Potomac over the past century, and since India gained independence in 1947, and many scholars have written about the on-again, off-again Indo-American relationship in that period.

Without being pernickety, however, we might ask if India, with its 1.1 billion people, the majority of them Hindu, at least a five-millennia-old culture and history, the birth place of four religions, a burgeoning middle class, and truculent if not dangerous neighbours, an equal on the world stage to a “Christian” United States which is still a superpower but whose people are reeling under a ten per cent unemployment rate, and who are burdened by a political system eating into the vitals of a society that is harshly divided, and when there is fear of a national if not a “civilisational” decline? Can India and America, the world’s two largest democracies, be partners in a bright new future, realising that such a time may not present itself again for a productive, equal partnership that can help them both grow stronger and enable them to lead a peaceful resurgence in the world? Or, will they misread each other’s intentions and fall back on the tried but tired old ways of doing business with one another?

After a quarter century in the US, and having watched American media coverage of Indian affairs and Indian events fairly closely, I would not hesitate to say that there has been a noticeable increase in the coverage of matters India and Indian. There are more ‘India experts’ now than ever before from top-tier American universities and think-tanks providing more nuanced and more careful appraisals of the Indian economy, politics and Indian. There are some high-profile Indian-Americans reporting for top newspapers and networks bringing in their wake some changes in American media coverage of India.

Let us also not forget that there are nearly 2 million Indian-Americans who are invested in a healthy Indo-American partnership, and singly or in groups, begun to make their voices heard. President Obama has more than a dozen young Indian-Americans serving in top positions in his administration, and there are Senators and Congressmen, as well as leaders at the state level, who are much better informed about Indian matters and who see India as a vibrant democracy which can play a positive role regionally as well as globally.

In the Indian context, the fact that President Patil is a Hindu woman and a barely known Congress Party loyalist, that the Vice-President is a well-connected Muslim academic and diplomat, the Prime Minister a soft-spoken Sikh with a PhD in economics, and the Congress Party leader an Italian Roman-Catholic training her son to be the next Prime Minister, has changed the tone and tenor of American media coverage. There is none of the hyperventilating coverage of “attacks against minorities” that led every news cycle when the BJP-led NDA government was in power. Sure, Pankaj Mishra writes his quarterly anti-India diatribe in The New York Times, and the very blinkered editors of that newspaper offer space for the seditious writing of Arundhati Roy. And sure, there are the old anti-India curmudgeons at the Pentagon and at Foggy Bottom who love Pakistan and Pakistanis in the strange and rather bizarre co-dependency relationship, and there are the new, born-again Christian staffers in US Commissions and Congressmen’s offices who during President Bush’s tenure gained expertise and experience in using Christian activists and missionaries in India — the Devarajs, the John Dayals, the

Saldanhas, the Macwans, the Father Prakashes — to make trumped up charges of the curtailing of religious freedom, and of the “oppression of minorities” by “upper caste Hindus”.

Many Indian-Christian groups are generously funded by American missionary organisations and they have learned the art of bilking Americans of hundreds of millions of dollars each year promising in turn a perpetual public relations campaign against “Hindu extremists,” and a ramped-up church planting programme. In 2007 for example, about $ 630 million was pumped into India by western missionary groups and agencies, most of it going to Christian-NGOs and church organisations which do not account for how the monies are spent.

The State Department, Congressional human rights committees, and the think tanks also find the services of the Indian and the Indian-American Left academics very useful. Thus, the combination of Christian, Left and Muslim groups is a thorn in the side of those who wish to build a healthy Indo-American relationship. It all depends on how and whether these professional noise-makers are used by whom to undermine India’s cultural heritage and national aspirations and to throw the proverbial spanner into Indo-American works.

Then there is of course China. Over the past two decades the Chinese have learned to play on America’s weaknesses. A simple example is in order. There are more than 60 ‘Confucius Institutes’ that the Chinese government has funded and established at American universities.

Starved for funds, American universities, small or big, have succumbed to the lure of some

renminbi coming their way. In turn, their voices get surprisingly muted when China plays truant. This is an example of the mighty West now beholden to the new, wealthy, aggressive China. How the US deals with China and how India will stand up to China will therefore affect the Indo-US partnership. The Chinese have grandiose plans, and a Communist and nationalistic

China, using Pakistan, can effectively derail Indian plans for partnering with the US.

President Obama is hobbled by an aggressive, rude, rightwing adversary at home. And he is saddled with the wages of the sins committed by his predecessor which leaves him with few chips to make bargains abroad. By nature, he is a “cognitively complex” and “perspective taking” man. That is both his strength and his weakness. His ability to consider all sides of an issue therefore has made him at times an equivocating, overly circumspective president. If he wants to win the presidency for a second term, in 2012, he better act with firmness and conviction. Embracing India as an equal partner can do wonders for his health and well-being, and it can make India a strong, honest broker in world affairs.

To end on a lighter note: Americans may insist that if India wants to be treated as an equal partner, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur have to dance the Texas two-step, the boogie woogie or the jitterbug with schoolchildren when they next visit the US.

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