Sunday Magazine -- March 12 2006
When Bush comes to shove RUCHIR JOSHI
Riding shotgun during the American President's trip were interlocking rings of lies intended to mow down serious questioning of what this visit actually means to India and to the U.S.
ESCORTING or preceding George Bush during his visit to India were U.S. Army helicopters, armoured limousines, washing-machines, table-cloths, pillows and pillow-cases, small and big napkins, china and cutlery, his favourite food items including jams and marmalades. For all we know, accompanying him was also the remaining half of the pretzel he survived choking on while watching TV a few years ago, the thing encased in a small glass box, carried along by a Secret Service agent and placed on every mantelpiece in every bedroom the guy slept in as a totem of his incredible resilience to threats to his existence.
Newspapers tell us that the American President moved surrounded by a "six-ring" circle of security. If you happened to be in either of the cities Bush visited, you would, at most, have come up against the outer seventh ring consisting of the tetchy traffic cop who moved you along in the direction opposite to the emergency operation or school-board exam you needed to get to.
Rings of lies
Riding shotgun during the trip were also interlocking rings of lies that were intended to mow down any serious questioning of what this visit actually means to both India and to the United States. Unlike the elite Secret Service Agents who stuck close to their "Chancellor", these have constantly been in your face and mine.
Let us look at just two or three of these lies:
Lie #1 is that George Bush and Condi Rice et al are "passionate" about spreading democracy around the world. In Egypt, Rice spoke sonorous words about how the U.S. has, over the past 60 years, chosen stability over democracy in the Middle East and got neither, and how that thinking has now changed. But the reality is that this White House and State Department will keep warm and cosy with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and not too much will be said to the Sheikhs and the General about the pesky business of free elections and freedom of speech; the reality is that this American administration, like every administration preceding it since 1948, will not even dream of getting tough with Israel about what it is doing in Palestine, or now, with Russia about what it is doing in Chechnya.
Besides having many other new uses, part of India's function is that of a tri-coloured fig leaf for the most authoritarian and profoundly anti-democratic American Presidency since the heydays of Richard Nixon. Even as the Republicans go around tweaking the boundaries of the Congressional districts to their electoral advantage, even as the Patriot Act is expanded to strangle all sorts of freedoms, even as the torture-disco rocks on at Guantanamo Bay, the "largest democracy in the world" and all its leaders from Mohandas to Manmohan are and will be deployed as PR troops for Bush Two and possibly even for Bush (Jeb) Three.
Lie #2 is that George Bush, (himself, personally, ceaselessly) "wants to help India become a world power of the 21st Century". But the great beauty of this huge, white whopper is that it uses our own greed for grandeur to drill its way right through the fundamental humiliation that is implied to prop up the absurd idea that one world power will help another, far less powerful, country to come up alongside and challenge the helping power itself.
To take this to its logical end, try and imagine an economically unfettered India, with Kashmir sorted out and Pakistan genuinely friendly, with the obscene military budgets slashed, with poverty eradicated, free to make its own alliances, willing and able to compete with anyone and everyone; imagine, ye horrors, a changed China and a changed India in partnership; now try and tell yourself that this is something that: a) no one in the American establishment can vividly envisage or, b) that the American establishment would have no problem if this were to actually come about.
Rather than fantasising about how, one day soon, India and America will hand in sweaty hand "lead" the world, it might be instructive to look at what the Bush-Cheney machine has managed to do to the United Kingdom. In the short span of three years, the Americans have terminally cobbled any pretensions Britain might have had that it could continue being a world power. The geo-political demise that began with the rout of the British army in France in 1940 was finally completed in the "victory" of the British forces in Southern Iraq in 2003. Britain may have its own culture and its own economy, but militarily it is now nothing short of a vassal-mercenary. Similarly, we will be allowed our little Natya Shastras and our little nukes, but economically we will become the 53rd U.S. state if we allow ourselves to be doped by this cabal of con artists.
Alternatively, if we do manage to show any independence of thought, one tiny "mistake" according to Washington, one tiny blip by the Indian establishment of what these people perceive as "anti-Americanism" and bingo! The "new", "special" relationship is going to be burnt toast. And this will happen regardless of whether the Presidency and the Congress are under Republican control or Democratic. Let's keep the moral computations for later. In plain terms of strategic self-interest, there has to be a strong and supple firewall between the people controlling the U.S. and ourselves.
Lie #2A: The logic is that India is now a socially and economically stable country and it crucially needs the alliance with another economically and socially stable country, but one that is far stronger like the U.S. The fact is, India is far from stable and the nasty upheavals that await us are ones we are going to have to handle all by ourselves. The Hindu fascists of the VHP and RSS haven't gone away and neither have the Maoists. Around, over and under these and other extremists is the vast majority of Indians, poor and still very cut-off from the world, but who live within a close distance of the now very visible new-rich. To some sections of the urban middle-class the country may feel calmer than it did a couple of years ago, but all that has happened is the fuse running to the packed dynamite has been re-extended a bit.
Legacy of violence
On the other side, as a legacy amplified by the current brutally uncaring administration, small and big explosions are likely going to rock American society in the coming years. The people starting and participating in these explosions will mostly be people who eat a lot of pork and like their alcoholic drinks, i.e. not "Fundamentalist Izlamic Mozlem Trrrists". There will be mini-civil wars in America, triggered by poor and angry Blacks and Hispanics, set-off by disgruntled white right-wingers, and the party will not exclude the fractured middle-class we saw quantified in the last Presidential elections. The exigencies of those crises will not leave much space in American minds for the needs of even another G-8 member, forget a wannabe like India. When the legacy of Bush comes to shove, "economic allies" such as India will be the first to feel the heavy hand, two million American desis or no.
Lie #3 is that America is winning the "war on terror" or even that it wants to win it. Sure, if tomorrow the Gwubya could hang the corpses of Osama and Al-Zawahiri from lampposts in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he would do it without hesitation. But the backroom boys in his administration will have no problem agreeing with those analysts on the left and centre who argue that the capture or execution of OBL, Mullah Omar and their close circle is now irrelevant, that the disease of Islamic terrorism has now shattered and spread into the bloodstream of so many societies that it will take not years but decades to eradicate.
The plug line for the "War on Terror" is that America wants to finish the fight it didn't start and get on with the peaceable pursuit of happiness. The reality is that 9/11 and ensuing so-called WOT actually provides the U.S. with many different short-cuts towards hanging on to and expanding whatever control it has over the world. The Gwubya administration isn't going to easily let go of these levers and neither is any succeeding U.S. President. Just as Bin Laden's legacy will continue, so will Gwubya's. Not all terrorists are equal: while some will be killed ruthlessly, others will be left contained but alive and active so that they can provide the American military and security services with budgetary and operational raisons d`etre. American planes will bomb Baluchistan but leave tracts of the Afghan-Pakistan border alone. On Kashmir, Musharraf will not have his arm and epaulettes twisted beyond a point. The "great democratic brother" India will continue to pay the price, not to mention the people of Kashmir on either side of the LOC/ border, who will continue to bleed.
As I said earlier, let's not even get into the moral sums that future generations might wish we had added up now and might retrospectively demand of us. Let us, in slow motion, just look at George W. Bush's patronising arm creeping up Manmohan Singh's back, right after he landed at Palam, and let's try and calculate how much of a price and how many different kinds of price we are going to have to pay for that brief half-embrace.