During a protest against the nuclear deal with the US, in the northeastern Indian city of Agartala July 2008, activists burned an effigy of US President George W. Bush. (Photo: Reuters)
India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the profound affection of his country's people for a prettily blushing President George W. Bush on Friday in Washington. They "deeply love" him, declared Singh. Ever since, this correspondent has been flooded with queries from utterly flabbergasted readers from across continents.
Why and how (I am asked) did the aforementioned people adore, and deeply at that, a US president whose world popularity ratings rival those that warmonger and empire-builder Genghis Khan enjoyed at the height of his horrendous campaigns?
The question deserves a slightly detailed response. So, here goes.
The declaration, it must be noted first, came just a week before October 2, which marks the birth anniversary of someone the Indian people were presumed earlier to love and revere. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi - still the Mahatma (Great Soul) to the country's millions - may not be topping the popularity charts, however, anymore. The Mahatma was the darling or the deity of the masses when India was a colony struggling for freedom. Someone else must take his place in a country that has became the "strategic" partner of a superpower.
To a votary of nonviolence like him, nothing came as a greater shock than the nuclear weapon. The Hiroshima bombing horrified him, and he spent a day of silent agony over the new human capacity for mass destruction. He can no longer serve as the mentor and hallowed memory of a nation that proudly calls itself a nuclear-weapon state and is about to sign a pact with the the largest of nuclear powers.
With the signing of the US-India nuclear deal just days away, it is time to demolish all those Gandhi statues disfiguring Indian streets and squares and to adopt a new idol.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Times have changed, and the people of India have transferred their affection to someone more in tune with their new, macho nationalism. The indigenous apostle of peace, who showed us the path of unarmed opposition to oppression, has yielded his position to the crusader in Iraq with his cluster bombs. The "half-naked fakir" has been replaced with the hero of the "war on global terror" with its torture chambers in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
Firmly to be kept in mind is the fact that, from the Mahatma to Manmohan, the meaning of "people," too, has undergone a major change. The old fogey, whom some still consider the foremost figure of India's freedom struggle, might have identified the "people" with the poorest of the poor. The prime minister, however, speaks for an India that identifies more with the pick of its people with a place in the lists of the world's leading billionaires and millionaires.
The fact must be kept in mind, for example, when faced with the observation that the people seemed to display less than deep love for Bush on his visit to India in February-March 2006. True, tens of thousands turned out to protest against his visit and the aggressive wars he had unleashed. But did these plebeians - who included misguided leftists, peace activists and, of course, Muslim miscreants - represent the "people" as defined before?
Bush's tight schedule then was blamed for his skipping of the Taj Mahal, but he did find time for conversations with the cream of corporate India. He made it a point to visit Hyderabad, the second Silicon Valley of India after Bangalore, but sensitively kept away from close-by areas where agriculturists were setting a new record in suicide rates. Unlike Bill Clinton in 2000, he avoided an address to India's parliament, obviously to avert any damage to the august premises from expressions of deep love from the people's elected representatives.
The deep love seemed to be in danger of some dilution in May 2008, when the president found an Indian reason for a world food crisis. Critics were attributing the crisis to factors including the crops-for-biofuel shift in US farming, but Bush thought this denied credit to his best friend in New Delhi for the economic boom Singh had brought about.
Bush told a bemused American audience that better eating by Indians had caused the crisis, too. Said he: "... there are 350 million people in India who are classified as middle class.... And when you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food, and so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up."
That newspaper report left a bad taste in the mouth of not only the Indians who had just finished a power breakfast, but also of the millions more of the malnourished. A cartoon in a leading Indian daily caught the mood. It depicted a couple of overweight American tourists looking at emaciated Indian men rummaging for leftover food in a garbage heap. "No wonder we're having food shortages back home in the States - these guys in India have started eating way too much," says one of the tourists.
Now, did not the cartoon misrepresent the well-meaning president cruelly? Bush was talking not about the trash-pickers, the wretched of the Indian part of the earth. He was talking of the Indians who promise a market for US corporates, ranging from a retail chain to sellers of nuclear reactors. And he was not saying anything different from India's glossies, which keep warning these Indians against growing obesity.
Have no doubt, Mr. President. The people of India who matter, starting with Manmohan Singh, do love you deeply.