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'Little people' matter

The official line between India and the US has been at odds with the cultural ties between the people of the two nations. The Obama visit has now replaced Uncle Sam with Cousin Sam. Sagarika Ghose writes.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 16:53 IST
Sagarika Ghose

My 13-year-old daughter has been depressed lately. She's missed her favourite TV show Friends due to school assignments. Her classmates are depressed too, as their weekends are simply not complete without Friends. But they're also waiting for the day they can take the SAT and join a good American university.

They needn't worry about where to stay in America. From Chicago to New York to New Jersey to Los Angeles, there are enough Indian-American aunts and uncles to stay with. My communist uncle in Kolkata, who hates American imperialism, only listens to American singers Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. In fact when he's in a particularly anti-American mood, he reads American political activist Noam Chomsky to remind himself of the evils of American power.

Even at the height of the Cold War over a million Indians lived in the US. Today, it would be difficult to find an urban Indian family which does not have a relative residing in the US or a relative aspiring to migrate to America. Every top foreign policy babu or nationalist netaji who expresses his outrage over American unilateralism at seminars sends his son or daughter to American universities. To paraphrase Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Indians indeed love America and Barack Obama's visit is a de jure recognition of what has been a de facto reality for decades.

Obama's address to the joint session of Parliament has the strategic community excited about his offer of US support for India's UN Security Council membership, mention of Pakistan's terror havens and recognition of India's ambitions in Afghanistan. But these were really the least remarkable bits of the speech, as mouthing support to India's "strategic" ambitions costs America nothing and are relevant only for the small community of foreign policy folk.

The really remarkable bits of the speech were the rich and detailed references to Indian society, thought and language. When was the last time you heard an American president quoting from the Panchatantra? Or referring to Swami Vivekananda by name? Or quoting Tagore? Or referring to Kolkata, Chandni Chowk and Dharavi? And when did you last hear an American president say bahut dhanyavaad, refer to 'Lok Sabha' and 'Rajya Sabha' and end a speech with Jai Hind?

In fact, the India-US encounter was never about ministers and governments and foreign policy elites mouthing diplomatic gobbledygook. It's about students, scientists, musicians, farmers, teachers, academics, charitable organisations, entrepreneurs, musicians, fashion designers — in short it's about the range of talent available in plural multicultural democracies and the links they have forged and continue to forge. The invasion of Silicon Valley by IIT-trained engineers and the setting up of the software and BPO industry has created an entire subculture of Americanised Indian software engineers.

In Bangalore, they don't speak the Queen's English, they speak a charming Kannada-accented American slang and the young Bangalorean has created a wholesome cultural mix where an American and Indian way of life mix and merge like a smooth milkshake. It's not just McDonalds and Coke. From books, movies, Hollywood, fashion, slang, music and thought and education, Indians have always been avid consumers of what is called American "soft power".

That soft power lives and breathes in India. Without a visionary American John Bissell, India wouldn't have had the iconic Fabindia chain of stores. Without American agronomist Norman Borlaug, India would not have had a Green Revolution. Without the American designer couple Charles and Ray Eames, there would have been no blueprint for the setting up of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. And without the American architect Joseph Stein, New Delhi would not have its landmark buildings like the India Habitat Centre or the India International Centre. Yet the relationship between India and America has always been "a love that dare not speak its name".

But this time the highly-successful three-day visit by US President Barack Obama has resulted in the India-US relationship being called the defining alliance of the 21st century. Some writers have even said that we have embarked on the 'India-US century'. For decades though, the official line between India and the US has been at odds with the cultural ties between the people. The US mistrusted India for its so called "moral righteousness", its non-alignment and pro-Soviet tilt.

For India, America was the imperialist superpower, enmeshed in military alliances with Pakistan and a country that invaded and bombed its way around the world. After 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, India worried that being pro-US was in effect becoming a 'US poodle' because the world's sole hegemon required camp followers not allies. Worries about being a 'yes man' to the US are justified, as India's neighbourhood is a troubled one and Indian and US interests can hardly be constantly harmonised in a region spanning countries as diverse as Iran and Myanmar. The right to act in our own pragmatic self-interest, as the Chinese so famously do, is a right that India should never sacrifice at the altar of the so-called new love affair with America. But for the first time, the governments of the two countries have followed where their people have led.

As a 49-year-old highly-educated lawyer, Obama exemplifies a generational change among Americans who may have gone to school and college with Indians and are more familiar with them than ever before. In American author Jonathan Franzen's new bestseller Freedom, an All-American novel, a lead character is an Indian-American named "Lalitha". Uncle Sam is gone and been replaced with Cousin Sam. Cousin Sam is wracked by self-doubt, reeling under economic slowdown, seeking jobs and friendship. So let's cast aside the elitist books on strategy and geopolitics. Instead, let's read the Panchatantra together and learn about the many meanings of friendship between 'little people', not 'big governments'.

Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN. The views expressed by the author are personal