Monday, August 30, 2010

Farce and Facts for Obama

Farce and Facts for Obama
Saaed Naqvi

When I heard that President Barak Obama would address a joint session of Parliament during his November visit, a chill ran down my spine. Images of President Bill Clinton’s foray into the Central Hall of Parliament during his visit in March 2000, for exactly one such exercise, swam into my ken, vivid and real.

President Clinton was first ringed by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, Speaker Balyogi and Ex Prime Minister Dewe Gowda who clasped Clinton’s right hand in both his hands and wouldn’t let go.

This obstructed the US President circulating among the peoples’ representatives, generating panic among them: were they going to miss out on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of shaking hands with a real life US President? Don’t forget, Clinton at that stage had acquired an indescribable aura after the Monica Lewinsky affair.

That this aura or halo is not available to Obama does not in any way diminish chances of scenes being repeated in Central Hall reminiscent of the March 2000 event.

As happens at the Kumbh or distribution of langar at a shrine, one unidentifiable MP broke the imaginary cordon. This opened the floodgates. Pressure exerted by the last backbencher, created waves which first encircled Balyogi, a short man, who got lost in the melee like a ball in a rugby scrum.

Over the speaker’s frame, by now horizontal, hands reached out to touch Clinton like he were a deity or a Dul-dul in a Moharram procession. I am not exaggerating: members clambered onto members for a touch.

That is why I shudder at the thought of history repeating itself when in November Obama is exposed to the exuberance of Indian Parliamentarians.

No such enthusiasm was on show when, say, President Jimmy Carter visited New Delhi in 1979. This was not because Carter did not possess Clinton’s sex appeal. The difference lies elsewhere: Carter represented America in a bipolar world. Also, he represented the US in post Vietnam retreat.

Clinton exuded the confidence of a nation which had defeated the Soviet Union exactly a decade ago.

Also, it should not be forgotten that throughout the 43 year tilt towards the Soviet Union, the Indian establishment, as it were – industry, newspapers – never severed their western affiliations. It is generally not noticed that Indian newspapers never posted correspondents in Moscow, but they did to London and Washington.

This was strange because Indian journalist in those days had no access at any level in either London or Washington. Had there been news bureaus in Moscow, Indian journalists would have had access to the Central Committee. Newspaper owners did not allow then and do not allow now the media to waver away from the West, an attitude probably embedded in the battle of Plassey!

This explains the post Soviet lurch towards the US, sometimes inelegant, as symbolized by that scene in Central Hall.

Compare Ambassador “Tikky” Kaul’s elevated status in Moscow, for example, with the mortifications of an Indian Ambassador in Washington, right upto the 90s. Mortification may be a strong word but that is what it amounted to when someone of distinction, say, Nani Palkhivala, is posted as ambassador to Washington. The red carpet is rolled out to the ramp of the aircraft for the outward journey. But upon landing, the Ambassador looks out for a reception, which is simply not there.

Palkhivala, like others before him, had taken upon himself the task of “sacking” Mister Ganju, lobbyist, media adviser, an all purpose handyman parked in the embassy as B.K. Kaul’s protégé during the latter’s term as ambassador. Kauls came and went but Ganju went on forever.

So, Palkhivala decided to cut him short. Then something predictable happened. A realization dawned on the Indian Ambassador that Washington DC was taking no note of him. As if on cue, Ganju surfaced with his magic potion, the panacaea for ambassadors feeling neglected in Washington.

The lady who resided with Ben Bradlee, the powerful editor of Washington Post, was Sally Quin who, from that vantage point, wrote an influential gossip column. With an imagination that would put Jeeves to shame, Ganju arranged for Sally Quin to materialize at the ambassador’s dinner.

Next morning was, for the ambassador, the sunniest in every sense of the term, ever since he arrived. There, in real print, were glowing references to the cuisine at the Indian ambassador’s residence in Sally Quin’s column dignified by the Washington Post. I believe Ganju stayed on for a few more terms, until Indian economy was unshackled by Rajiv Gandhi and Manmohan Singh and India became a big enough player to afford high profile lobbyists on the Hill and elsewhere. The Indian Ambassador became among the most sought after diplomats in Washington.

Remember, Clinton came here as the leader of a victorious West. Obama is saddled with two wasteful wars and an economy which Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says is in “Freefall”. Germany in Europe and China globally are the risen economic powers. Is India somewhere there?

There is another truth the Obama team must have taken note of: India is the only country, along with Israel, with an abiding nostalgia for the Bush years. Why? It would be nice to know from his team – how they decipher this one.

Also, it is becoming ever more transparent, in Washington as well as in India, that governments elected by the people are increasingly immobilized by entrenched establishments which are not answerable to the people. Is this not exactly the opposite of democratic progress?

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