By: Jawed Naqvi
WHEN US President Barack Obama chose to stay at Mumbai`s Taj Hotel last week, it was seen as a gesture of America`s solidarity with India`s fight against terrorism.
The hotel was a target in the Mumbai terror outrage of November 2008. By the time Mr Obama signed a joint statement with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Delhi his choice of the Taj had acquired a more palpable symbolism. The hotel was built with money from the India-China opium trade. The opium export to China was legal under British colonial laws though the Chinese resisted it as an assault on their sovereignty.
The differences resulted in the outrageous Opium Wars between British garrisons and Chinese satraps. Lest we forget, the Chinese resistance to Indian opium was akin to the anti-colonial upsurge against the British crown as evidenced in the Boston harbour.
In a way The Boston Tea Party of 1773 that triggered America`s break from Britain, completed the irony of Mr Obama`s recent visit to India. It involved a significant jostling between three countries that were subjugated in different ways by a common former foe — British colonialism.
While the more readily obsequious among the Indian media parroted the American line in concert with the spurious nationalist assertion about India`s emergence as a global player thanks to Mr Obama`s conditional support for New Delhi`s quest to sit at the UN high table, The New York Times put it plainly, and without excessive waffling.
It observed that Mr Obama`s promise on UNSC membership signalled an American plan for India “that would expand commercial ties and check the influence of an increasingly assertive China”. That the plan envisages pitting India against Myanmar and Iran remains a less discussed fine print.
The timing of the visit was significant. Messrs Obama and Singh are headed to South Korea this week for a meeting of the Group of 20, “apparently in agreement on what is expected to be a significant clash between the world`s big powers over the United States Federal Reserve`s plan to boost the American economy by pumping $600bn into it”.
It so happens that China has severely criticised the move by the US central bank, which it sees as intended to push down the value of the dollar to boost American exports. In fact, Germany`s finance minister equated the move with currency manipulation “with the help of their central bank`s printing presses”.
Mr Obama`s defence of the measure absurdly enough found backing from his Indian host. “Anything that would stimulate the underlying growth and policies of entrepreneurship in the United States would help the cause of global prosperity,” the Indian prime minister ad-libbed.
Should someone have asked him to explain how a weak US dollar was good for anyone wanting to export to America? Dr Singh might have been indulgent because he plans to import huge quantities of military hardware from the US, perhaps for some new wars minus the opium.
It has been a widely caricatured characteristic of the feudal rajas and nawabs that they were susceptible to flattery. Few expected a proud Indian republic to fall prey to the lure of easy praise. However, in a country in which support by Malawi and Tonga for UNSC membership makes newspaper headlines, Mr Obama`s address to parliament was manna from heaven.
The speech, replete with easy praise and distorted history, was naturally applauded by both the ruling Congress and the more stridently nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Had Mr Obama been more objective with his history, his praise for Gandhi`s peaceful methods should have been juxtaposed with George Washington`s military prowess that vanquished British colonialism. His praise for King Jr and Ambedkar should have been followed by a comparison of the continuing and relentless plight of black Americans and Indian Dalits.
However, now and henceforth India was going to be a major military power. It is another matter that its 600 million people, roughly 85 per cent of the population, still eke out a living on a dollar a day. But India was now going to take on all the threatening windmills in its neighbourhood and beyond, militarily if necessary.
Mr Obama would of course not say it to the Indian parliament, but his current four-nation trip of Asia touches base with three other countries — Indonesia, where an American-backed military dictator slaughtered millions of anti-imperialist partisans in the 1960-70s, thus clearing the ground for today`s religious zealots to gain strength; South Korea, where it has stationed troops to sustain an internecine war since the 1950s; and Japan, an economic ally it once nuked. Is there a lesson for India?
For all his talk of global nuclear disarmament in New Delhi, Mr Obama has refused to attend an anti-nuclear meeting of Nobel laureates when he visits Japan because it would be a sign of a weak American presidency to be seen with those who censure the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
There is another symbolism in Mr Obama`s stay at the Taj. It was built by its Indian owner after he was not allowed into Mumbai`s “for whites only” hotels. It is just as well that the first couple stayed in a suite that had no view of Mumbai`s most familiar landmark — its massive clusters of impoverished but unvanquished slums. If India survives Mr Obama`s grizzly embrace, it would be partly because life in its slums remains unaffected by kind words or distorted history.
The writer is Dawn `s correspondent in Delhi.