Indo-U.S. love-fest

Published : Apr 07, 2006 00:00 IST

Faced with eroding public support because of its elitist policies, the Congressparty will be left with difficult choices between left- and right-leaning options.

IT is now apparent that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his key aides did not fully take into reckoning the likely domestic consequences of their decision to radically reorient India's foreign policy by jumping onto the U.S. bandwagon. The shift was not only a decisive departure from India's non-aligned orientation (long whittled down in practice), but represented an abandonment of all other options of dealing with the U.S. in a non-adversarial way. These options include balancing Washington's overwhelming power by cultivating strong relations with China, and Russia, Europe and West, Southwest, Central and Southeast Asia, while vigorously pursuing the peace process with Pakistan. They also include various other ways of promoting a multi-polar world order to which the United Progressive Alliance is formally pledged.

The shift has not gone down well with a majority of the people, but is breathlessly welcomed by tiny sections of the metropolitan elite who look up to the U.S. for their economic, political cultural and lifestyle models, who are tightly integrated into the global corporate economy and who have increasingly strong personal and family ties with America. The public is discovering the many hidden economic and political costs of the India-U.S. deal, including its likely impact on agricultural livelihoods. This realisation is translating itself into disillusionment with the UPA, in particular, the Congress. Such disillusionment is likely to grow because India-U.S. relations is a highly contentious subject.

The Indian public has a negative perception of America, going back to Vietnam and Bangladesh. For decades, the government - and much of the media - has portrayed the U.S. as an unhelpful power driven by prejudice and narrow self-interest (especially vis--vis Pakistan) and prone to bullying others: 61 per cent of people surveyed by The Times of India in five cities say they "can't trust" America. Passions run high in India on issues like the Iraq war, Washington's unilateral "global war on terrorism" (itself seen as linked to its pursuit of Empire) and the cornering of Iran.

Given the profound hiatus between these sentiments and the presumption of common interests and bonhomie underlying the bandwagoning, large numbers of people are predictably dismayed at the radical discontinuity and lack of integrity in the UPA's foreign policy shift. This comes on top of the UPA's two-year-long pursuit of economic and social policies which, barring a few exceptions like the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, whose effect is as yet intangible, bear continuity with the National Democratic Alliance's orientation. Equally important is the people's lived experience of acute agrarian distress, growing unemployment, creeping inflation and regressing social indicators.

Although widespread, disillusionment with the UPA has been more visible among Muslims, especially in the North, through protests against the Danish cartoons maligning the Prophet Mohammed and against Bush's visit. The latter combined several issues, including Iraq's occupation, Afghanistan, U.S. support for Israel's Palestine policy, attempts to isolate and victimise Iran and Washington's one-sided characterisation of terrorism (which by definition exonerates state terrorism). These concerns are basically secular, but heightened among Muslims because the issues pertain to Muslim-majority countries and because of repeated media emphasis on "Islamic terrorism". The term, whose "Christian" or "Hindu" equivalent is rarely used, is suffused with prejudice and deeply offensive to Muslims.

The anti-Bush protests were energetic, spontaneous, and among the best-attended in the past 20 to 30 years. Among those who joined them in Delhi were students from elite conservative institutions like St. Stephen's College - a rarity.

However, the UPA's spin-masters have - strangely, much like Hindutva supporters - tried to trivialise and paint these protests in communal hues as expressions of growing "extremism" and "intolerance" among Muslims. The media have been inundating Muslims with unsolicited advice about how they should combat this "intolerance" to avoid a repeat of the post-Shah Bano "Hindu backlash" of the 1980s.

The spin-masters' cause was significantly advanced by Uttar Pradesh Minister Yaqoob Qureshi's condemnable offer of a Rs. 51-crore reward for murdering the Danish cartoonists and by the March 7 Varanasi bomb blasts. They are loudly admonishing "moderate Muslims" to stand up against extremism. This shop-worn exhortation might sound reasonable, but is based on the patently prejudiced presumption that most Muslims, even "moderates," quintessentially or "naturally" sympathise with extremism - because Islam is itself intolerant. Such Islamophobia is unworthy of discussion.

However, the exhortation functions as a "loyalty test" - much like Norman Tebbitt's notorious test for Asian migrants in Britain: namely, which team they root for in a cricket match. Like all such tests, it relates loyalty/disloyalty to religious affiliation. This is obnoxiously irrational.

Underlying the "growing intolerance" charge is another dangerous stereotype, which holds Muslims to be so Islam-obsessed as to be incapable of relating to anything except on the basis of religious identity. They are "different". As our "others", they cannot have opinions about the UPA's Iran or U.S. policy independently of religion. This betrays a disgraceful form of superciliousness and arrogance. It fails to comprehend the importance of the laudable participation of Muslims on secular foreign policy issues like the India-U.S. alliance and India's votes against Iran, and that too in far larger numbers than their protests on religion-related issues such as the Gujarat pogrom. Groups like the Samajwadi Party probably tried to use that mobilisation to political ends, but that should not detract from the significance of and inspiration behind the mobilisation.

Talking of parties, what about the Congress itself? It has deviously used the media to appeal for "moderation". But it has not even mustered the courage to condemn Qureshi's open incitement to murder and demand his resignation and prosecution. This despite the fact that Qureshi was roundly condemned by countless Muslim leaders, intellectuals and organisations, including the normally conservative All India Muslim Personal Law Board.

Protests against the Danish cartoons do not signify intolerance or dissent. The cartoons are in appallingly bad taste, lack humour and are meant to slander Islam. They are tantamount to hate speech. Hate speech is a crime and must be punished. Peaceful protests against it must be staunchly defended.

Post-blast Varanasi deflates the last balloon of the spin-masters and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which saw in the bombings the culmination of "minorityism". The city responded to the blasts with such a powerful affirmation of its "Ganga-Jamuni" (Hindu-Muslim) composite culture, including over 50 inter-religious rallies, vigils and fasts, that the Hindutva attempt to exploit the tension collapsed ignominiously. Varanasi has a centuries-old tradition of Hindus and Muslims not just "living together separately", but actively participating in and enriching one another's lives. Inter-community bonds have been further strengthened by common interests in the saree-weaving industry and tourism.

It is futile for the UPA/Congress to deny that its foreign and security policy turn has antagonised large numbers of people across the board. After Bush's visit, Congress leaders speaking off the record write off the party's chances of recovering in U.P. Some Congressmen may pretend/hope that the party will gain in the metropolitan elite what it loses in smaller towns or villages. But that elite is minuscule in comparison to the politically crucial and electorally decisive masses.

Two years ago, the Congress was elected to rule on a left-of-centre platform. It has been drifting rightwards. This has cost it many opportunities to build an enduring plebeian social coalition and eroded its existing base. For the first time, there is no left-of-centre ideological platform or rallying point inside the party while it wields power. The hope that Sonia Gandhi would play that role is betrayed by her endorsement of the foreign policy shift.

The Congress is at a crossroads. Either it stops drifting and takes some bold steps in favour of the poor and underprivileged, including urban slumdwellers, blue-collar workers, landless and poor peasants, as well as Dalits, Most Backward Classes and Adivasis, to build strong programmatic bonds with them, or it will be transformed into a right-of-centre party, oddly endowed with a somewhat amorphous but left-leaning social base. That animal is not viable.

The second option represents the road to perdition - haemorrhage of the party's base, destruction of its image, electoral setbacks and defeats and the further rise of elitist pro-U.S. Ministers who behave much like their Harvard Business School-trained counterparts did in Latin America until recently.

Manmohan Singh, Montek and company have probably opted for the second course, perhaps on the mistaken assumption that a growing middle class in a booming economy can sustain a right-of-centre ruling party in India. This will not and cannot happen. Unless they are effectively challenged and forced to change course, the party's future appears bleak.

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