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A Night With Shining Obama

The American East India Company

by FARZANA VERSEY

Minutiae have rarely been of such importance. Or symbolic. A white tent might have been more appropriate for an Arab head of state, but it works just as well for a fairytale. There was special vegetarian food to tickle the guest’s palate. Most important of all is that the First Lady wore a gown designed by an Indian American, never mind that it seemed more appropriate to walk the red carpet at Cannes.

Was India truly the flavour of recent times? The media, not only at home but in the United States, did give the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the state dinner a lot of mileage. There are Indians in the Obama administration, there are Indians who do business in America. There have been nine state dinners hosted for the Indian heads of state thus far. These are at the simplest level courtesy visits.

In the 90s, Indians who participated in beauty pageants began to win. We thought it was because of what they were and what they said in their trained elocution contest manner. This was the American East India Company at work marketing its cosmetic brands to the large middle-class population. Once they had consolidated their hegemony, the Indian beauty was junked. She continues to appear on the fringes as arm candy for a slumdog or the dusky woman as exotic breed as well as in exile trauma and triumph stories that feed literary vultures.

With the arrival of the 21st century and Indian consolidation and recognition in areas of intellectual endeavour, the West had to use other terms of trade. America, for all its worldly-wise attitude, is not as canny as the British were over a century ago. The Englishman knew us so well that he could as coloniser make us fight his enemy on the prompting of none other than the father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi. It was quite easy, for Indians have always been ruled, by others and their own. We relish the pomp and pageantry of durbars; we like to see those superior to us in terms of wealth and power to prosper. Our problems are always with those like us.

The US is the outsider with little history of its own let alone historical colonising. It has been mimicking the British model by co-opting certain segments of society. Market politics have changed and you need to pit one against the other and then settle for a deal that is so completely abstract that no one knows what the trade was about.

Manmohan Singh went on his soft mission with the hard truth. Obama had told the Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing that the US wanted China to play an important monitoring role in the region. A joint statement consolidated to “support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan”.

China has been at war with India and continues to lurk near the border; China is on special terms with Pakistan and Pakistan is also lurking at our border and inside. America is inside Pakistan and Afghanistan, and its interest in China is one of staying away from a potential enemy.

It would have been clear to anyone that the US was telling India something. And it was telling China and Pakistan and Afghanistan something. China is the most powerful in this group; the other two countries have no options. Where does that leave India?

With the fly in the asparagus soup, a fly called a “rising and responsible global power”. Both terms are loaded. A rising power has a long way to go and responsibility means following certain rules and doing what is expected.

China may keep mum at the moment, but the US has thrown a ball of wool for the cat to toy with. It is pertinent to note that following this Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, chief of the Hurriyat Conference, said that China should become a part of negotiations on the Kashmir issue. China has no stake in Kashmir, so it will lie low. America knows that. This is to make the Indians edgy and the Pakistanis feel complacent for a while about their real allies – the Chinese and the Americans.

Singh did not raise any tough questions. All he managed was some tripe about maintaining peace and tranquillity until the pending resolution is dealt with. He even said, “I have received these assurances from Chinese leadership from the highest level”. This is like someone at a gossip session throwing names without really namedropping and not how a statesman would talk.

He repeated his naïve act when he mentioned that “there is but a certain amount of assertiveness on the Chinese part. I don’t fully understand the reasons for it”. What does he not understand about such assertiveness? The political machinations? Or the psychological dimensions? Does he comprehend the reasons for the US assertiveness in Iraq? Or the drone attacks on Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Some reports have talked about him being disturbed about the comparison with Chinese economic growth. This is a fact and was recently evident at a trade fair in India where the Chinese left within a few days because their goods were sold out. But the Indian PM had other ideas about “values” when he said, “I think the respect for fundamental human rights, the respect for the rule of law, respect for multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious rights, I think those have values. So, even the Indian perforce with regard to the GDP might not be as good as the Chinese, certainly I would not like to choose the Chinese path.”

This is most surprising. He heads a country that is a democracy and yet its record on human rights is being questioned, its courts take 17 years to table a report on major riots when the evidence stared them in the face right from the beginning, its multiculturalism is partly a case of being a vast nation with too many ethnicities, regions and languages. No one would suggest that India should go the China way because it cannot be a monolith even if it wanted to.

One might imagine that he was being brave. It came across as quite the opposite. This was the Indian on a levitating moral ground, one more exotic idea that America can chew on.

President Obama used the opportunity to bring Pakistan into the picture. “There were probably times when we were just focused on the (Pakistani) military…instead of (engaging its) civil society.”

This is smart. In September last year Obama, as senator, told Fox News that Pakistan was misusing its aid in “preparing for a war against India”. The tune has changed. The Pakistani army is not important enough in times of the Taliban. The elected government will play along. The US, as always, will seek puppet regimes and India will have to deal with them. The power by default lies with America.

Are we keeling over before the US because of the huge outsourcing potential? Young people despite faking American accents are abused in call centres; they are not considered ‘talent’ – they are cheap labour. They have become the equivalent of the White Man’s burden.

When George Bush visited India as President, there was a front page picture in a newspaper of the cone of a rocket being wheeled on a bicycle to its first launch site in Kerala, in the year 1966. There was a small editorial note alongside. Its post-script addressed Bush: “This isn’t a WMD. It’s a symbol of an upwardly mobile India”. This, after talking about the symbolism of how a technological marvel was being taken on the road in a bicycle and we have come a long way.

It was to convey that we are harmless; we just want to better our lives. Such sniveling reveals a feeling of being indebted to the West. The culture we take pride in is precisely the one that they find ‘interesting’. What are we then catering to? What powers do we have in the international arena, the Security Council, the United Nations?

Due to the sneaky fears we are saddled with, we are spending most of our budget on defence and not on education, literacy, health. Is this upward mobility?

What did Manmohan Singh’s visit achieve except for the benevolent catch-phrase from Barack Obama that US-India ties would be the defining partnership of the 21st century?

And Angelina Jolie adopts one more baby.

FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based columnist and author of A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan, Harper Collins, India. She can be reached at kaaghaz.kalam@gmail.com