14 November 2010

Notes on a Presidential Visit

Don’t you think the excitement over Obama’s latest India visit was a bit overdone, that it was hyped and, to some extent, naïve?

Of course, the visit was important and means a lot for not just US and India but a number of other nations as well. Business deals were agreed on, political commitments spelled and mutual niceties exchanged. All that was very prim and propah, all as it should be.

Yet, Obama is, well, just that, a man after all. All the media coverage about the most powerful man in the world landing, the most powerful man in the world shaking a leg, his oh so powerful wife shaking her booty, the ever so powerful couple paying respect to old Gandhi at his memorial…power, power, power. Yes, we all get it, America’s powerful, the American president’s powerful and can bully one and all. Still, that’s that and there is a line.

Not that the Americans themselves crossed it much this time. They had to bring in all their armoury to defend their powerful man, though technically I don’t see why they couldn’t trust him to the security which our own State accords its holy cows. He’d come here after all and he hadn’t really landed in Dantewada; shoot-outs happen, but I’m sure the Indian State had taken all precautions to ensure all were out and out of bounds. Powerful as he is, he could’ve trusted our capability of keeping our big-shots from harm. As for his car being this and that proof, his guard being so and so geared, his…well, if a man’s clever and really sets his heart on murder, not even the Americans can stop him. Certainly not an armada stationed not far off the coast for purposes just in case. Yes, Obama’s an important man and crucial for a lot of things a lot of places, but I really don’t see why his blokes had to send so much ammunition, much less an entire fleet, to keep him one piece. Surely our own Sardarji’s gear would’ve done?

But then, the very fact of Obama being important, powerful. I don’t quite know if they also do it so much where he comes from, but all the shrill rhetoric about the powerful man doing this and that smacked full-on of a feudal servitude that continues to characterise urban Indian discourse. Obama, the mighty god from across the seas, descends upon our shores in his mighty flying machine and goes about our roads in another, equally might wonder on wheels. Everything about Obama is grand, spectacular, epic: he’s the American President, America’s the most powerful state. We bow to thee, great American Obama!

Great American Obama. No, it’s not meant personally and I do think he’s a decent enough man, but really, most powerful man? Most powerful nation? Seriously? Was it just our media which went bonkers as usual or do the Americans too seriously believe their President’s the most powerful in the world? If they do, have they really given him the constitutional authority to be so? Is there really some console hidden in that room from which their President can play Rudra a la the nukes, no questions asked? I’m not ready to believe the Americans trust their President so much as to give him the power to arbitrate war and peace all on his own. If they have, as all the oh-so-powerful rhetoric – unwittingly? – implies, then so much so for their love of freedom and democracy: what is their President then but a tyrant, a big, powerful bully whose writ is law.

Great and American undoubtedly, but not Great American. Yet, that precisely is what our engagement with him seemed to imply. Thank heavens for the frigidity of foreign offices in general, for the way everybody else gushed one would’ve thought the gods themselves had walked the earth. Obama’s wife dances with Mumbai kids: oh, she’s so pretty, so nice, so fashionable! Obama gives a speech in Parliament: oh, he’s so witty, so astute, such a statesman! Yes, all of that is undeniably true: the missus is nice and fashionable, the mister an astute statesman; but the way we did it implied such condescension, that it was such a favour which the Obamas bestowed upon us all by being nice and human.

Of course, as a nation we don’t expect the mighty to descend to such lows: we expect favours to be coated with red tape and rarefy power to Meruvian heights – something of the sort is always expected and people like me ought to be immune to it. Still, one can’t but be irritated at repeated displays of such awe and fawning in front of foreigners. Think about it, was giving that rock such a big thing? Obama donates a piece of marble from some under-construction memorial for Martin Luther King and the keepers of Rajghat erupt in joy and pride. A piece of marble? Yes, personal choice, perfectly valid; valid too the privilege of such choice to a head of state. But seriously, twas just a rock: along with being President, Obama is also just another man.

Regardless, what irks most of all is the development rhetoric. “India is not rising”, quips Obama, “India has risen”. I’m sorry, but I refuse to subscribe to this rising-risen rhetoric: it presupposes a universality, an underlying consensus on a host of notions on developed and developing, advanced and backward. Western economic models make much of the world down and out, but then these models are quite essentially the result of systems of labour which got consolidated by exploiting the rest of the world in the first place. Applying parameters premised on these models to judge a whole people is co-opting them further into those very systems. When Obama says India has arrived, he puts India on a pedestal created historically and sustained still on exploitation and discrimination. One might excuse him for doing so – I’m sure he thinks twas very nice of him – but the sight of people all over India erupting for joy is, to say the least, as distastefully childish as can be: agreed as urban Indian bourgeoisies we’re as much American as Indian, but still, we don’t really need an Obama to tell us whether we’ve ‘arrived’ or not, do we?

Apparently not. Countless activists can cry themselves hoarse about environmental damage, economic disparity, communal tension, sexual harassment, caste violence and so on. But India’s rising nonetheless. At what cost? The lives of millions of voiceless Indians. Being an industrial and military ‘superpower’ a la the American way seems the only goal to work to; why humanity cannot survive peacefully otherwise is a matter not worth consideration…

Barack Obama’s a sensible, intelligent man. His visiting India was a nice enough gesture. Yet, all said and done, it was just a gesture: it merited a nuanced response, not the hysteria which it provoked in so many quarters.


Alok Kumar said...

Beautifully written...

Obama's visit definitely merited a nuanced and realistic reception by the media instead of the brouhaha it generated. However, going by Indian media's track-record, I am not surprised.

Parth Taneja said...

Anubhav, I have known you for the last 15-16 of my life. If I have come to know about you is that your command over the language of the old country (i.e. England) is stupendous. So I will not waste time in putting loads of accolades about the writing of this wonderfully written piece.

But I would like to take issue with two portions of the articles, one being your criticizing the President on saying India not rising but risen. I do not know that you understand how rhetoric works. Its a feel good statement to make the host/home country feel better about themselves. For Eg. Winston Churchill once said, we will fight them on the beaches. This is not actually an invite to war but a self assurance to the countrymen. Hence, what Obama did was justified, and he won his election on hopeful rhetoric of change and hope. He is a master of it.

Secondly, I do not think, India got enough attention in American media, as well as the world media. The world has not realized what India can do for America. It will take many visits and pomp and show, to make the world realize this fact. So the hoopla that was created, the fluff that was created, was not too much. Its always about perception. The International media was half asleep during this. Maybe this was post midterm elections, that's why. But who knows. Its always about the perception, Anu. In a perfect world, where the news reporting is objective, there should be no pomp and show. The guy comes, does his business, and leaves. People know what they need to know and not what the President and the First Lady was wearing, and what was on the menu. But thats in the perfect world, in this world where media is there to blow everything out of proportion, perception is crucial.

AP said...

Thank ye, Alok and Parth!

And yes, I'm aware that these are standard feel-good strategies and that the rhetoric of power and civility dictates so. I also agree with what you say about media attention, for I did not follow the international news closely and you being international in more than one way are better equipped to comment on that. It would, frankly, be quite boring to live in a perfect world and people like you and me would be out of jobs so that's that too.

Yet, my point's more about the very idea of rising and the directions which this movement, rising, is taking. Yes, twas hugely rhetorical, but then the extent to which the so-called Indian people lap it up without even thinking what they're lapping goes beyond rhetoric as rhetoric in the rhetorical sense.