By Sanjay Jha
We have to look beyond the usual bromide and boilerplate stuff on the President Barack Obama-PM Narendra Modi White House meet; transformational relationship, shared values, the world’s greatest democracies etc. The joint op-ed in Washington Post too had the cornucopia of the usual trite, devoid of specifics and as vague as the window panes on a sultry day interspersed with raindrops. Characteristically Modi, there was the style and showmanship captured by hyper-kinetic TV channels doing some breathless reporting of the foofaraw for local audiences giving Star Plus and Big Boss a miss for the real reality TV show. Modi was the big cheese, and no one wanted to really grill his controversial past.
Fact is, the TV anchors had outstanding material not just flaky fodder to bring in a stimulating debate , but most struggled to keep pace with content quality. ISIS, US troops withdrawal from Afghanistan, Nawaz Sharif ‘s raising the Kashmir issue in UN, border tensions with China, the anti- FDI in multi-brand retail posture of BJP, USA’s sudden changed view on Modi after the 2005 visa embargo, Pakistan terrorism issue etc demanded analytical discourse. But they got perfunctory attention and thus received embryonic responses too. Expectedly, slogans, shibboleths and symbols ( the 3D kind) dominated the Modi visit, now at best inducing a stifled grin hinting déjà vu.
More than anything, Obama would have been conscious of Mr Modi’s and his ruling dispensation’s views on minority communities in India and it’s growing stridency and intimidating tone. America may have welcomed Mr Modi, but the fact that the State department had denied him a US visa for the shameful lapses of Gujarat 2002 riots leading to death of innocents cannot be obliterated. That both Mr Obama and Mr Modi postured oblivious of that gargantuan discomfiture is what makes political leaders unique. The many who had lined up to protest against Modi for his human rights record outside that soap opera bubble called the Madison Square Garden did not even get a token mention in TV coverage. Seriously, If the Indian media thinks that in the age of social media they can twist and turn a story at will, they are sadly mistaken. Social media is making a revolutionary change and impact, and people read Twitter faster than switch to TV news programs. The latter’s own credibility and character was questioned by many as they displayed pre-appointed vociferous NRI crowds chanting Modi Modi Modi as the camera panned on them, before they headed excitedly for another ubiquitous camera crew at arm’s length proximity. This was community TV, producing commoditized news and tied in an umbilical cord. In the meantime, in India , Meghalaya and Assam floods killed many, communal tensions escalated in Gujarat, and a train accident occurred at Gorakhpur. But the Modi chant was coincidentally reaching a crescendo. No guesses for what got preference.
Imagine what the American paparazzi would do to President Obama if he called Abraham Lincoln as Arthur Lincoln! It would be a cardinal sin, the kind that the US public and media would remind him of at odd, intermittent intervals till he had apologized in his memoirs as an octogenarian. But the Indian Prime minister made the mother of all blunders ( as it happens for the second time), in getting the name of the Father of the Nation wrong. Mohandas was made Mohanlal, but some even justified it saying that is informal usage in Gujarat. Trying telling that to someone in Georgia or Georgetown. Or Gurgaon. Or the poor Doordarshan TV anchor who lost his job for mispronouncing the name of the visiting Chinese President.
Modi mentioned climate change in a token fashion and yet no one asked him if that truly was such a pressing anxiety for the PM, as it should have been. Why did Modi miss the UN Climate Summit that preceded his US visit by just a few days? China, USA and India are amongst the top polluters of the world. Future generations evidently have to fend for themselves against rising carbon dioxide emissions, global warming and rising sea levels. Modi won the elections and plaudits from conservative, free market fundamentalists championing growth over what he ridiculed as doleonomics ( the distribution of subsidies) , then why is he so conveniently now using the pretext of food security subsidies to thwart and throttle the Trade Facilitation Agreement?? Understandably, Secretary of State John Kerry, otherwise uncharacteristically effusive, went away miffed on WTO. No one thought it pertinent to question Modi’s electoral assurances against his contradictory official conduct.
What is objectionable is the usage of public exchequer funds meant for strategic global partnership for a personal branding exercise ; elections are due in states of Haryana and Maharashtra. The MSG event was a brazenly organized Buy One Mask Get Two Modi campaign; a paid for extravaganza with all material showbiz trappings and what was marketed as a lollapalooza. I half-expected a swinging Miley Cyrus dropping down from a gas balloon. Even the handsome Wolverine Hugh Jackman was in attendance to some Star Wars dialogue being recycled . Sure, politics in a new high-tech media driven has changed, but this bit was an epitome of stupidity. Indians with American passports , most unlikely to ever return to India, seemed ecstatic. It is the manufactured creation of a cult status for one man; that is the reason behind the physical assault on senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai. How can you criticize the Lord and Master? And that too on the NRI home ground on Manhattan, minutes away from the green-bucks Modi assuaged Wall street bankers of? Mr Modi, of course, of the acche din fame changed into colorful Nehru ( how ironic) band-galas and jackets with monotonous regularity.
So what should have been most perplexing to the normally bumptious Mr Modi was that the middle name of the most powerful man in the world that he was meeting with was Hussein. A Muslim name from his Kenyan father. And that he was chosen by the world’s most mature, sophisticated democracy. Victims of 9/11 , comprising of several hundred nationalities, and a White population that numbered 77%. The African-Americans number 14%. They are a minority, and remain victims of racial segregation even today, and not along ago the Ku Klux Klan and Mississippi Burning were it’s ugly manifestations. Even the celebrated TV star real-estate tycoon billionaire Donald Trump, whose branded skyscraper towers in South Mumbai is expected to raise funds that could feed millions from a single race-course viewing apartment, had questioned the birth credentials of the US President. And this after Obama was elected overwhelmingly by a popular mandate. We may criticize America for several reasons, and justifiably so, but it’s spirit of unencumbered assimilation and immanent tolerance for diversity is unmatched, exceptions like Trump, Fox News, Tea Party movement and hardline right-wing fanatics notwithstanding.
Interestingly, the Muslim minority population of India is just the same; 14%. For Mr Modi, that ought to be his education and enlightenment. The 14% of India cannot be treated like second-class citizens. But for that he will have to be a leader, not a RSS pracharak and a rock star in saffron.