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American idol

Indian-born Newsweek International editor Zakaria has emerged as the new posterboy of US national television. He has a non-fussy way of analysing world politics. Zia Haq writes.

india Updated: Jul 25, 2008 23:05 IST
Zia Haq

"When was the last time you saw 850 kids sit quiet for an hour that you could hear a pin drop?”

Thomas Hudnut, the headmaster of Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood, had said this about Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria, where he had addressed students back in 2003.

Cut to 2008. Zakaria, 44, has emerged as the new posterboy of US national television. This could hardly have escaped people’s attention: he has a non-fussy way of analysing world politics. It is remarkable how the American audience has come to depend on a man from India for his views.

When he talks on television, they listen in rapt attention, like the kids from Harvard-Westlake School. When he writes, they read. And when he cautions, they heed.

So, just who is Fareed Zakaria? That he was born to well-known scholar and politician Rafiq Zakaria and journalist Fatima Zakaria, grew up at his Mumbai home and always obsessed with American foreign policy is one part of the story.

The other part is the stuff fame is made of. Zakaria last week bagged the No. 18 spot on UK’s Prospect Magazine list of 100 public intellectuals.

America has surely rewarded him for so much falling in love with that country and what it stands for: Condoleezza Rice thinks Zakaria is “intelligent about just about every area of the world”. And Jon Stewart who hosts The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central is said to have a “man crush” on him. Esquire has him on its list of “21 most important people of the 21st century”. And, by the way, New York magazine thinks he could just be the “first Muslim secretary of state”.

What’s up? Why has this Indian — who migrated to the US as a young man, went to Yale University and earned a doctorate in political science from Harvard — been so widely accepted?

“Whatever I have achieved is a testimony of the openness of America. I don’t think there were enormous barriers but one had to work hard. It’s a bit of a cliché but the US system is wide open to outsiders. What’s stopping you is your own talent,” Zakaria says in a telephone interview that had to be deferred twice because of his tight schedule.

He shot into fame with a seminal piece, The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us, in the Newsweek in the aftermath of 9/11. It was delusional, he argued, to think that terrorists target America because they are simply insane. There must be a reason, he stated, and Americans must try to find that out. This central thesis appealed to the Americans — still grappling to figure out why bin Laden decided to have two planes slam into the World Trade Center.

Zakaria now hosts Fareed Zakaria GPS, an hour-long show that takes a comprehensive look at foreign affairs on CNN and CNN International.

Many say Zakaria, as a foreign policy expert, speaks a language Americans speak, understand and talk in. Often, this appears to be the language of the Right. He thinks Iraq is a rogue state but, nonetheless, it must be talked to. Outlook editor Vinod Mehta says: “He is one of the brightest sparks on the Right of American politics. I used to know his father rather well. (Fareed is) very energetic, very versatile, good on television and a great supporter of Bush on Iraq. His latest best-selling book (The Post-American World) has had both good and bad reviews.”

Explaining the moot point he makes in his new book, Zakaria says: “The fundamental reality that is changing the world is not that the US is collapsing but the rise of the rest. The US is going to face greater constraints.” In many ways, he himself could be one example of this — the rise of Zakaria in a field dominated by many natives.

Islamic terror — he has no qualms using the tag — is not as big as it is made out to be. It does not rank as a threat on the order of Hitler’s ambition or Soviet expansionism. “You are making it to be 10-feet tall when it is no more than maybe five.”

India and the US, he believes, are going to come closer than ever before. “Destiny is pointing to a deep relationship. It’s not just a state-to-state strategic relationship but one that has a broader cultural connection.” And it really doesn’t matter whether Barack Obama or John McCain wins. “Both,” he says, “will be fine for India.”