Whenever an American president wings his way to India, we always seem to get entangled in a bewildering variety of contradictory, confusing emotions. There’s jubilation at the chance to host the most powerful man of the world, to show him the wonder that’s India. Every word of his is decoded, every movement dissected. Underlying this excitement, though, persist the fears we have harboured over decades. Can’t we fathom the surreptitious American agenda, some ask. No matter how liberal a president of the United States may be, his principal goal is to dominate the world, conquer markets, and enrich his own citizens, they claim. Such warnings emanate from, and stoke, a vague anxiety about the future.
This emotional confusion about America, though, has become less acute over the years, largely because of the psychotherapeutic impact of cataclysmic changes around the globe. For instance, the end of the cold war and the disintegration of the Soviet Union into fragments have treated our paranoid propensity to see the spectre of cia behind developments not to our liking. And the ensuing withering of the non-aligned movement has removed the immobilising effect of having to constantly walk the tightrope between Moscow and Washington. This also seems to have resolved the contradiction in the hearts of those Indians who subscribed to a broad leftism but found the pull of the ‘elitist’ lifestyle of India, neither capitalist nor socialist, simply irresistible.
Even during those years of a more pronounced anti-America stance, our dislike was balanced by our admiration for certain aspects of its culture. Our responses to the then two powers were contradictory—we coveted Moscow’s affection but hated its totalitarian system; and even when we hated America, we admired its democracy, its idea of individual freedom. We have always loved Hollywood; American music always found an echo in us, from country to rock to jazz; from Hemingway to Steinbeck to Roth, their writers have influenced us deeply; and intellectuals like Noam Chomsky have as much a following in India as anywhere else. Poet Rukmini Bhaya Nair explains vividly, “America belongs at once to the top drawer of the individual imagination, representing all sorts of personal aspirations and impossible desires, and to the bottom drawer of the political psyche, representing our deepest apprehensions and uncontrollable fears.”
American Degree: US universities are a huge lure for Indians. (Photograph by Mohd. Jaffer/Snaps India)
Our contradictory emotions about America explain why it hasn’t outraged us as much as it should have—we tolerated it because there is still much to love about it. We hated America’s war against Vietnam, but also celebrated its people’s opposition to it, particularly as it spawned a rich array of cultural expressions. As former cricketer Bishen Singh Bedi says, “The war in Vietnam made me think of the US as a big bully, and I am still not its fan. But there’s much to admire about the US, especially its outstanding democracy, which has made a black man the president.”
About this phenomenon, author-activist Arundhati Roy says, “To most elite Indians, businessmen, bureaucrats, politicians, legal luminaries, artistes, cultural czars—it is a home away from home. Everyone seems to have a close relative who is studying there or working there. We’re talking of hundreds of thousands of people here. And each of them has a network of family at home.” This element is what prompts political scientist Professor C. Lakshmanan to say, “The US-India relationship is all about middle-class hype.”
Dr Naresh Trehan, chairman and MD, Medanta, would have us believe otherwise. He feels America represents a complex culture for two reasons, each evoking admiration among Indians. “One,” he says, “is its identity—right from its earliest days—as a melting pot of people from different cultures. The other is its tremendous spirit of entrepreneurship, which has only gained momentum through the years. They live by the theory that if you are not better today than what you were yesterday, you have wasted 24 hours.”
Feeling The Eat: American fast food chains are at home in India now. (Photograph by Dinesh Parab)
But even opponents of America say a distinction must be made between its government and its people. As sociologist Nandini Sundar says, “I criticise the US government’s policies such as what they are doing in Iraq or Afghanistan. But then, even large numbers of Americans have opposed these policies of their government.” Having studied in the US, Sundar says the US reminds her of “those Americans, like some of my teachers, who are liberal in their outlook, who have worked hard on India and whose knowledge of India is perhaps far more than that of many Indians. It also reminds me of the democratic tradition of the US where the emphasis on equality is very strong”. For historian Dilip Simeon, America is “a dynamic country with a vibrant culture and academic life”, but it is also “a nation whose insularity, self-obsession and militarism” were endangering its own democratic values. “America combines immense technological expertise with a sad lack of reflectiveness about the negative ramifications of the capitalist system,” he declares.
Agrees film lyricist Javed Akhtar, “America must be respected for its positivity, democracy, intellectual thought and vigour.” But what disturbs him too is the country’s lopsided foreign policy, and its arrogance vis-a-vis other cultures. “You can’t have one set of rules for yourself and another set for the others, and then get away with it because you are so powerful,” says Akhtar. Though also opposed to America’s conduct abroad, filmmaker Sudhir Mishra points out, “But there are possibilities there. A guy like Oliver Stone can exist and be idealised in Hollywood. He couldn’t exist in India. A person who questions holy cows, who is critical of his own country, who dissents is allowed to work in Hollywood.”
Trick Or Treat: Halloween gothic has caught on in India as well. (Photograph by Fotocorp, From Outlook, November 15, 2010)
Film director Aparna Sen, however, is dismissive of the opposition of people to American state policy, its space for dissent. “Barring a bubble of academics, who are very forthright in criticising many policies of the government, a large number of Americans are not well-educated and have very little knowledge about the outside world. They are gullible enough to see themselves as the victim rather than the perpetrator of violence in different parts of the world. The US believes in democracy at home and imperialism outside.”
Some feel the harsher aspects of the American state have been blunted because of Obama. Says MP Asaduddin Owaisi, “The kind of hatred Indian Muslims had for George Bush following the war against Iraq is not there against Obama. But the issue of Palestine continues to haunt our minds.” Despite the deep distrust of America, Owaisi says it remains the land where the youth feel they can achieve their dreams. “If you visit the American embassy, one can find several Muslim youngsters lining up for visas,” says Owaisi, though he cautions New Delhi to think carefully about the kind of relations it wants to nurture with the US.
What kind of relations should India forge with the US? N. Ram, editor-in-chief of The Hindu, feels that under the prime ministership of A.B. Vajpayee and now under Manmohan Singh, India has almost become a camp follower of the US on key policy issues. “We need a cordial relationship with the US but without playing a junior partner or a supplicant’s role,” says Ram. Former diplomat T.P. Sreenivasan thinks Indo-US relations will benefit the world: “A strong and visible partnership that is now growing rapidly between India and the US can certainly help in enhancing peace and stability not only in Asia but also globally.” Another former diplomat, Aravind Vellodi, wants Indians to shed their paranoia about the US and build upon shared values to carve durable relations. “The US influence on India has been largely benign because we have shared interests in democracy, human rights, rule of law and combating terrorism,” says Vellodi.
Love Is In The Air: Valentine’s Day is an import we’ve made ours. (Photograph by Reuters, From Outlook, November 15, 2010)
“The ties between the two countries are like a perfect marriage,” says William Bissell, managing director of FabIndia, jubilant at the way Indo-US relations have gathered momentum over the decade. Many captains of industry, quite understandably, view the relationship with America from a business perspective. Contrary to the popular belief that America has zeroed in on India for its market, Malvinder Mohan Singh, chairman, Fortis Healthcare, says the reverse is equally true: “The US market is one that India and other developing countries aspire to be in.” In other words, this relationship isn’t a one-way street; it suits us too.
This may be the case, but Dr Rajiv Kumar, director-general, FICCI, points to a fundamental difference. “The time to ape the US is over,” he says, “Indians are learning from all over the world, not just America, and Indian companies are acquiring US companies as well as outsourcing them.” These changes in the business sector have changed the patron-client feature of Indo-US relations, he concludes. Adds Gautam Thapar, chairman, Avantha Group, “The US does not influence Indian business as every country makes its own business decisions. But the American mba course is considered a flag-bearer on how to do business.”
True, the industry is upbeat, but business historian Gita Piramal has very legitimate fears about the potential of Indo-US relations not being realised. “I think Indo-US is a good relationship to foster, but by being inward-looking and in trying to balance India and China, the Americans might lose sight of the potential that India presents,” says Piramal.
ATS Greens: American-style gated community. (Photograph by Narendra Bisht)
Perhaps this potential might not be realised for another reason—the US appears to be in decline, beset by pessimism and lack of faith in itself. Actor Rahul Bose expresses the American mood well, “I’ve been going to America for the past 25 years. What strikes me most about the country now is that the entire energy seems to be in coma. Be it business or new ideas, things are comatose. There is a deepest sense of fear and I find that very disturbing. Bush brought the nation down to its knees and the nation realises that. It’s soft human tragedy of massive scale.”
Agrees Prabhat Patnaik, “India’s increasing proximity to the US really means the Indian bourgeoisie’s increasing proximity to the US, and that is just the flip side of the Indian bourgeoisie’s increasing distance from the ordinary people. The Indian bourgeoisie now nurtures ambition of a global reach, for which it needs American support, and is willing to pay the price of entering into a strategic alliance with the US and Israel.” Agreeing with Patnaik is the voice from the Hindu right. Says Yogi Adityanath of the Gorakh Peeth, Gorakhpur, “The US can never be a true friend or well-wisher of India. It may use India as a market, but it can never see India prosper politically or economically.”
Is the American influence changing India and its state? Hear what the talented filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee has to say, “My impression of America is drawn from Hollywood films. It’s quite similar to what Bollywood means to India. I see quite a few similarities there. India is trying to be the regional superpower, it’s a struggling bully that has this fantastic cultural export called Bollywood.” In other words, a world bully tying up with a regional bully...Is this what we want India to be? Readers, send in your response.
By Pranay Sharma with Anjali Puri, Sheela Reddy, Namrata Joshi, Arindam Mukherjee, Rohit Mahajan, Pragya Singh and Arpita Basu in Delhi, John Mary in Thiruvananthapuram, Pushpa Iyengar in Chennai, Arti Sharma in Mumbai, Madhavi Tata in Hyderabad and Sharat Pradhan in Lucknow
Historically, what America has said and what America has done world-wide are two different things (Thank God Columbus Lost his Way, Nov 15). For all the middle-class hype and hero worship of the US, we cannot ignore the fact that India is being courted and coerced at the same time. The question is, will India of the future be able to chart its course with an independent mind? Obama is erudite and charming, someone who is admired as an individual, but that doesn’t mean we lose sight of everything else.
India never figured in the to-do list of powerful foreign dignitaries till a few years ago. So it’s only natural that we Indians are still a bit awed and curious about the contents of Uncle Sam’s goodies/takeaway bag.
Jayanthy Subramaniam, Mumbai
For a change, our PM could have put his hand on Obama’s shoulder rather than the photo-op of the US president holding our PM in an ‘arm lock’.
Madhu R.D. Singh, Ambala
We are fascinated with America because it has got all that we yearn to see in India—discipline, national pride, systems, cleanliness, order, respect for merit and so many other values that create a civilised society. Thanks to our politicians, we still remain in that ‘chalega’ cesspool after 60 years of self-rule! I am eagerly looking forward to that one great leader who has the guts to tell us, ‘Folks, we have screwed up’!
Dr B. Sudhakar, Changanasserry, Kerala
We Indians are citizens of the world today because of American inventions and innovations. It is to their credit that they have shared their knowledge with the world. Has any other country done that kind of service to humanity?
S. Gopal Valluri, Bangalore
Obama’s only interest was pushing American kirana shops (with fancy names) and diluting the recently passed nuclear liability bill so that US mncs can have a free run like Union Carbide. I hope the upa will not fall into the trap.
N. Ramamurthy, Chennai
When Bill Gates visited India and threw cash everywhere, people thought he was donating so much to Indians. Later, the government, which had earlier issued a circular to all offices to have free software Linux installed in PCs, revised it and issued a circular for installing MS Office. The cost of MS Office software was about Rs 10,000 and more for every system. So how much did Gates spend and how much did he earn in India? What Obama is offering is also peanuts. Indians are going to be looted, and our rulers are going to aid him in that loot.
S. Gandhi, Chennai
Your last line, “a world bully tying up with a regional bully...” doesn’t stand up to facts on the ground. Has India bullied Bhutan, Nepal (despite its perception), Bangladesh, Myanmar? Paranoid Pakistan is another matter, its army and the isi cannot survive without these misconceptions.
Ravinder Sethi, Dallas
You can’t deny that Obama connected with India’s Gen-next extremely well. Our leadership can take a few lessons here, for Obama gave them a gameplan for the next 20 years.
George Olivera, Mysore
William Bissell of Fab India is happy about this marriage where the US would be the pitcher and India the catcher, similar to what US relations are with the rest of the world except for Israel where it is happy to be the catcher.
Kishore Dasmunshi, Calcutta
The US has a long history of exploiting countries to its advantage. We should remember that in US the S is in capitals and in ‘Us’ the ‘s’ is in lower case. The US will always thinks of itself first, then about ‘Us’.
Rajat Mehta, Chandigarh
Your piece will only lead to more misconceptions. Leaders are not always loved, and they do not care for what everyone thinks of them. They go and do what is right—this is true of America. Even Gandhi was hated and that is why someone shot him.
R. Srinivasan, Los Altos, US
We should have forced America to extradite Warren Anderson before signing any deals. That would have showed those brash US corporates that they can’t cross the law in India.
Padmabushan R., Hyderabad
I fail to understand your fixation with Arundhati Roy. Even on the Obama visit, you have to take her comment. How is she an expert, is she a social scientist, an authority on international relations, an economist? Give us a break.
Debjit, on e-mail
We are all Americans now.
Dinesh Kumar, Chandigarh
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