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US and them

Modern antipathy for America is more to do with its cowboy rancher President who has converted foreign policy into a spectator sport, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Aug 25, 2007 00:25 IST

We gobble up our Big Macs with relish and wonder when Starbucks is coming. We are almost as addicted to the twists and turns of American suburbia in Desperate Housewives as we are to the mother-in-law machinations of the K-serials. We scour the internet for wisdom on how to get our kids admitted to an Ivy League University. And we often tolerate rudeness and racism if its helps us wangle a Green card.

But we also laugh at George Bush’s moronic mumblings and bristle at his global misadventures. We have too much self-confidence as a nation to ever accept America’s unilateralism. Much before public opinion turned a corner anywhere else in the world, we instinctively opposed the invasion of Iraq. And though the West has culturally influenced much of Urban India, we fiercely resist homogenisation. Most of us are like the McAloos on the McDonald’s menu — a masala mix of east and west.

The Left’s absolutist rejection of the Indo-US nuclear deal got me thinking about how complex our relationship is with America. Most of us (and here I mean the middle-class) have no patience with the reflexive, blind anti-Americanism that is the ideological cornerstone of the Marxists. We think their contempt is more historical than contemporary. In any case as global dependencies go, language, cultural affinities and the fact that we are both democracies would make us choose America any day over China or Russia.

Modern antipathy for America has much less to do with Karl Marx and much more to do with its cowboy rancher President who has converted foreign policy into a spectator sport. Indians, I think, are astute enough to see that separation. Today, the civil societies that are being swept away by a wave of anti-Americanism tend to fall into two categories: theocracies of the Muslim world where political Islam is potent (Pakistan, Iran and Syria) or democracies that have been complicit in the mistakes made by Bush (England and Australia). So far, India is clear on both counts.

Let’s be honest: when we see TV images of the American flag being burnt on the streets of Pakistan by men who wear skull caps and long beards, we feel even more secure about our secularism. We have never believed our critique of America has anything to do with religion and (despite recent rumblings) we don’t think that the Indian Muslim has a standardised response to the US, based on his faith. It’s the reason we were so worried when the communists marched with protestors from “Muslim groups” during the Bush visit last year; it was the first time the issue had been imbued with an Islamic hue. But for the most part we believe our pluralism has helped us escape a religion-based discourse on foreign policy. Even now, several Muslim commentators have pleaded against lazy assumptions about how the Indian Muslim views the nuclear deal. Perhaps that’s what prompted Pakistani columnist Ejaz Haider to write that, “there is a difference between the anti-Americanism of India and Pakistan. Anti-Americanism in Pakistan is emotion-based, honour-based, and does not have an intellectual origin”. At our end, we have always been puzzled at this volatile, emotional response across the border. Perhaps, our absence of vulnerability comes from the fact that India was never a stomping ground for Americans in the way Pakistan has been over the decades. By the time Washington was ready to shift gear from its patently unequal relationship with Islamabad and focus on New Delhi, we were already a global player. That, to me, is what distinguishes our response to America from the rest of the subcontinent; we have come to the relationship from a relative position of strength and self-confidence. And for the most part, we have held our own against American foreign policy disasters (except for a controversial Iran vote).

Apart from democracy, globalisation and economic liberalism is our 20th century area of commonality with the US, the burgeoning numbers of skilled Indian workers in the US and the outsourcing of American jobs to Indians who never even had to leave their desks, makes us feel that the relationship can eventually be a two-way street of equals. We don’t just feel needy; we also feel needed. And that’s what makes it possible for us to be benign about America when we need to, and also enables us to reject the bits we don’t like.

To that extent Indians are a bit of a peculiarity in the world today.

A 2005 Global Attitudes survey by the Pew Foundation found that seven in ten Indians (71 per cent) had a favourable view of the US. Of the 17 countries polled, only Americans had a better view of themselves. Contrast this with an article in the Guardian that described Americans as having a “bug up their collective arse the size of Manhattan,” and “American” as a type of personality which is “intense, humourless, partial to psychobabble and utterly convinced of its own importance”.

We may even laugh at the insults heaped on Americans by the British because our relationship with the US is utilitarian rather than emotional.

And when it comes down to the contentious nuclear deal, Urban India, I suspect, will approach the issue as it has the rest of its relationship with the US. (And it’s not yet clear whether Rural India has a different view or is largely unconcerned with a debate that seems too remote and irrelevant to its immediate needs). We will want to be convinced that the deal does not involve a surrender of our sovereignty. We can even see the logic in the demand from the Left and the BJP that such a major foreign policy decision needs national debate. But once we are persuaded that we won’t play the poodle to Washington’s bull terrier, we’d be more than willing for a long run in the park. Anti-Americanism then will be thrown to the wolves.

After all, our whimsical and ever-demanding tastes forced the Big Mac to be re-born as the Maharaja Mac. It’s that sort of individuality we seek to assert, even within President Bush’s horrific and frightening Pax Americana.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7

barkha@ndtv.com