A Night With Shining Obama

The American East India Company:
A Night With Shining Obama

by Farzana Versey
Countercurrents, November 25, 2009

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 na├»ve 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.

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(Also published in Counterpunch, November26)


  1. Farzana,
    Nothing pleases you.Obama says India and America have a lot in common .Its only lip service to you.Singh is trying to avoid raising unnecessary issues at important relations building event and he can not catch a break. Obama accepts to visit India next year.President and all his staff spends two days with the PM and it is only showmanship.
    India seems to develop soft power in America. Both nations speak the same language and are developing similar thoughts and are getting in sinc.It has convinced even Fareed not Farzana.
    Trade with America has made it possible for India to become a better player in development.US India nuclear deal will provide India power for industry and electrification of villages without creating emisions .

    I think you do not understand that many times people trading from america can as easily be Indian Americans not some firangi's .America is not a colonial power .Individual rights and freedoms are hall mark of its constitution and creed.( yes i am aware that for hundred years till 1866 slavery was legal,some wonder if it is still practiced in our subcontinent.)

    America is the first true internationalist society .To lump it with the colonial powers of the past is unfair and incorrect.
    For India it is important to stand still and move forward so it may progress and bring the poorest of its masses out of dark ages .Give some solutions .Tell us if any better way to deal with China .May be our people will accept your better ideas .Convince me please.

    kul bhushan

  2. Hi FV
    Yeah the 1.1 billion strong Indian democracy has become very important to America .... what with 20% of them suddenly becoming wealthy enough to splurge on American products in Indian soil. That alone gives USA a ready 200 Million strong market. With little bit more effort it can go up to 300 Million also. Which other country can match with such numbers? And add to that the low intensity warfare that is going on for the last 60 years, the beneficiary of which is of course the weapon producing countries. And who cares about the rest 800Million!

    India was more tolerant in the past.. so why this sudden realization now as it has become increasingly more polarized ?

    Why does America have to play chess with India, Pakistan and China? I don't think China cares much about what Obama thinks... they have the mighty USA in their pockets. But India and Pakistan behave like blushing brides, swelling with pride if they get a pat on the back, and sulking when rebuked. And America also slyly praises one country, waits for the other to sulk and then rushes in to say of course we love you too!

    I think I noticed a smirk on Obama's face when he was standing side by side with Mr. Singh...

    PS. It's funny that people expect you and Fareed ( Zakaria I guess) to form the same opinion just because you share the " F " in your names :)

  3. Kul Bhushan:

    I am not here to convince anyone, but have my say. If it does not agree with your idea, then so be it.

    The first portion is entirely a feel-good holding forth and does not take the issues into cognisance at all. Having a meeting does not amount to any real development. What did Dr. Singh return with, and what really happens?

    Re. the rest:

    A colonial power does not always mean occupying territory, though the US has its own version. Where India is concerned what did you not understand about the analogy with beauty pageants and market sneaking? I don't care what its constitution grants its citizens. It is an interfering nuisance in the world. On paper we too have a great constitution but does anyone really follow it in practice? No, I don;t wonder whether slavery is still practised; it does not need those slaves when it has people and nations to do its bidding. Actually, people do not think about it US slavery because Indians are more aware unlike the common Americans who are so illiterate about the rest of the world.

    What exactly do you mean by "first true internationalist society"? It is not even The Hague. We do not need the US to move forwards and we are not living in the dark ages, FYI.

    Asking pertinent questions is part of the solution. It would be interesting if you addressed the solution factories that decide these things to do something.

    The nuclear deal is not good for India and is not going to electrify India. Please read up on that. Just as McDonald's is not going to feed India.
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    Hi RBaruah:

    Exactly. There seems to be no understanding about the co-opting of the middle class and the upsurge of economic interest which is being camouflaged as detente.

    Do you know many US products are way cheaper here than our Indian ones? In fact I found American herbal stuff too. I think the Chinese have upped them in this area!

    While this is going on, the US sneaks into countries, accuses them of having arms all under the garb of 'war on terror' when post 9/11 they have been pounding other people, including civilians.

    It suits the US to see the polarisation. See, how it works in Pakistan. I can understand Pakistan sniveling because they are always worried about coups, but we?

    I wish others had noticed the smirk too.

    PS. It's funny that people expect you and Fareed ( Zakaria I guess) to form the same opinion just because you share the " F " in your names :)

    Oh, there are several other alphabets in the soup...I assume the connotation is that Fareed is our bright export and we can sit across the table and get convinced whereas I am so many miles away and still questioning him. FZ is a lucky sod, for if he has been convinced he does not have to find solutions.


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