*A Monumental Non-event: The Commonwealth Games and All That Rubbish

Mani Shankar Aiyar, a veteran Congress politician who has held various Cabinet positions in previous decades, and is presently a sitting Member of Parliament, has said the unsayable, indeed the unthinkable.  Aiyar is characterized in yesterday’s Times of India as an “outspoken and somewhat maverick” politician on account of his outburst against the Commonwealth Games, though the consideration that his intellectual perspicacity, unusual for a politician of any party, may be one reason why he is a maverick seems not to have occurred to the Times’ writer. Aiyar has now gone on record with the view that the failure of the Commonwealth Games, scheduled to be held in Delhi this October, is – taking a leaf from Shakespeare — a consummation devoutly to be wished for.  ‘I am delighted in a way’, said Aiyar recently, ‘because rains are causing difficulties for the Commonwealth Games.  Basically, I will be very unhappy if the Games are successful because then they will start bringing Asian Games, Olympic Games and all these.’

It is not often that a senior politician, one moreover who has served as the Sports Minister and harbored close ties to the Nehru clan, would go on record hoping that the Commonwealth Games become a resounding failure.   In some countries, such an observation would be tantamount to political suicide, and I would not be surprised that had some official in China made a similar comment before the onset of the Beijing Olympics, he or she would have been roasted alive on burning coals.   One might say that Aiyar is no longer eyeing a cabinet seat, or, if one had a more expansive view of the matter, Aiyar’s comment may be taken as a testimony to the ‘live and let live’ mentality that, after all the fistfights, scuffles, abuses, and occasionally violence that mark the relationships between Indian politicians, still characterizes the world of Indian politics.  To be sure, Aiyar’s remarks did not go down well with Suresh Kalmadi, the chairperson of the organizing committee, or Sheila Dikshit, the Chief Minister of Delhi.  Aiyar’s remarks, Kalmadi charged, are ‘anti-national’ and ‘irresponsible’.  To be called an anti-national these days in India is to invite comparison with Maoists, terrorists, or young insurgents in Kashmir, and if Kalmadi had any of these comparisons in mind, his own rebuke of Aiyar strikes one as bordering on the ‘irresponsible’.  (This is not at all to say that Maoists or Kashmiri insurgents are anti-national, but the overwhelming middle-class propensity to think so must be kept in mind in assessing Kalmadi’s remarks.)

Let us, however, leave aside for the moment the redoubtable Aiyar and the dull Kalmadi.  We can turn our attention more profitably to this elephant in the room called ‘Commonwealth Games’.  Obscure as they are, the most monumental non-event planned in India in decades, the Commonwealth Games are giving Indian officials, who have a monstrously mistaken idea of the importance of these games, sleepless nights.  Mrs. Dikshit, an intelligent, highly experienced, and shrewd politician, has more reason than anyone else to feel troubled and restless.   Unlike Mani Shankar Aiyar, she would feel exceedingly unhappy, I should say wretched, if the Games failed.  With just a little over two months left before the commencement of the Games, Delhi, which is supposed to showcase India to the rest of the world – assuming, as we shall see, that the ‘rest of the world’ is at all interested in this sporting event – appears woefully unprepared to host the games.  Most of the stadiums have not yet been completed, and the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, which was inaugurated earlier this week, has already sprung a leak.  Connaught Place, once viewed as the pride of the city, has the appearance of a war zone, and nearly the entire city has been dug up by the MCD, CWPD, NDMC, and other government agencies.  [Yes, India is a country of acronyms, as I have observed before on this blog —  here, at any rate, are the translations, respectively:  Municipal Corporation of Delhi; Central Works Public Department; New Delhi Municipal Corporation.]  Delhi has three World Heritage sites, which are expected to receive many more visitors during the Games, and none has the basic facilities mandated as a condition for continued listing.

Let us, however, suppose that the city’s officials pull off a miracle and everything is patched together just in time for the opening ceremony.  Whether out of respect for the ‘Father of the Nation’, whose birth anniversary is celebrated on October 2nd, a national holiday in India, or owing simply to the calendar set by the international secretariat, the Commonwealth Games are scheduled to open on October 3rd.  (We can add Gandhi’s name to the list of those who would have been unhappy, not, in this case, either by the success or the failure of the Games, but by the very idea of the Games.  So, in our inventory, we already have three forms of unhappiness.)  The most expensive tickets to the opening ceremony, which the organizers hope will instill incalculable pride in the inhabitants of Delhi, cost an astounding Rs 50,000 [see http://www.cwgdelhi2010.org/] — an amount that would be nearly equivalent to the annual earnings in Delhi of many a maid, night watchman at a factory, and unskilled worker.  Mr Aiyar claims, justifiably so, that the astronomical amount, something in the neighbourhood of Rs 30,000 crores [1 crore = 10 million], spent on preparing India or rather Delhi for the Games would have been better spent on enhancing sports facilities in Indian towns and villages and giving training to tens of thousands of school-children.  Others have argued, just as plausibly, that many of the huge stadiums are likely to lie idle once the Commonwealth Games are over, and that the Games have drained the country’s resources.

There is no gainsaying the merit of these arguments, and Indian critics might make a yet stronger case by pointing to the Athens Olympics, which, by some estimates, put Greece on the course of economic disaster.  The city of Montreal was paying for its Olympics three decades after the fact.  Nevertheless, the folly of holding the Commonwealth Games runs much deeper than is commonly imagined, though this can only be gauged by considering the immense psychological, cultural, and political investment India has made in the Games.  The Indian state and its mandarins are labouring under the impression that the Commonwealth Games will bring India before the world stage and enhance the prestige of the country, something – though admittedly on a smaller stage – like what the World Cup has allegedly done for South Africa or what the Chinese thought that the Beijing Olympics did for the People’s Republic of China, but this is a wholly erroneous view.  The idea of the Commonwealth is obsolete, and has never meant anything more to people in India, Ghana, Nigeria, and other former British colonies than the prospect of studying in Britain on a Commonwealth Scholarship.  To the rest of the world, the Commonwealth is about as hot a topic of conversation as Lapland.  The Americans don’t have the foggiest idea about the Commonwealth, but this will not suffice as a demonstration of the sheer irrelevancy of the Commonwealth (and its Games) since the Americans are in any case colossally ignorant about much of the world.   The point here is that no one else in the world much cares about the Commonwealth either.  The Indian government is claiming that it expects to receive something like an additional 40,000 overseas visitors, but if the foreign tourists had their wits about them, they might understand why those among Delhi’s citizens who can afford it plan to flee the city during the Games.  The city will be lucky if it gets any foreign tourists beyond the norm.

India has aspirations to be a world power, or at least a country of considerable consequence for its neighbors in south, southeast and west Asia, and it views the Commonwealth Games as a platform to stake its claim to be taken seriously as an emerging power.  However, the Commonwealth Games are not merely a poor cousin of the Olympics, but rather a sure sign of the continuing irrelevance of India in the larger arena of world affairs.  In this respect, how the Commonwealth Games turn out is quite immaterial, though Mani Shankar Aiyar is doubtless right that a successful Games, whatever that might mean, will be construed by the Indian state as a sign to move on to something bigger.  The Commonwealth Games is, in the last analysis, a rather trifling and tiresome affair – and it should be treated as such.

*Gandhi’s Photograph and the Politics of the Frame

The popular Hindi film brings to mind the framed portrait of Mohandas Gandhi, ‘Father of the Nation’.  Hindi films are often described as formulaic, and perhaps not without reason:  their ingredients, many imagine, are utterly predictable, and indeed one of the pleasures of watching such films may reside precisely in the fact that often one is aware of the dialogue even before it has been uttered.  The plot generally holds no suspense, and that may be one reason why the Hindi film thriller is, barring an exception or two, still an anomaly.  Whatever the merits of the argument, I have been struck by something else in viewing hundreds of films over the years.  In the Hindi film of the 1960s through the 1980s, as in real life, one could almost always expect to find the framed photograph of Mohandas Gandhi, most often in the police station, the government office, or the receiving room of the senior politician’s headquarters.  Occasionally, one would encounter the framed Gandhi in the home of the pious teacher, the dedicated social worker, or the plain old-fashioned patriot.  The framed Gandhi, if one were to watch mainstream Hindi films from the decades of the 1960s to the 1980s with a modicum of attention, seems to have been nearly as essential to the Hindi film as songs, the staged fights (orchestrated by the ‘fight master’), or the suffering mother.  One might argue, of course, that the Hindi film was merely following the script set by the state:  the protocol apparently required that Gandhi’s photograph be hung visibly in the most prominent office of a government institution.

It is tempting to think that, from his lofty position on the wall, Gandhi is there to inspire men and women to do good; but perhaps he is also there to cast a look, as we shall see, at all that transpires in his name and under his photograph.  Though the ‘Father of the Nation’ did not much believe in surveillance, and was notoriously indifferent to considerations of his own security, eventually surrendering his life to an assassin who had absolutely no difficulty in penetrating the Birla House gardens where Gandhi held his evening prayer meetings, the framed Gandhi appears to peer down from his lofty position on mere mortals.  However critical one may be of Gandhi at times, even his worst enemies would have a hard time thinking of him as a ‘Big Brother’.   Even Gandhi’s authoritarianism, for such is how it is has been described by some of his critics, was tempered by a radical catholicity of thought.  Nevertheless, perhaps the framed Gandhi is there to remind the thinker or doer that Gandhi Baba’s eyes are cast at their deeds:  his blessings will be showered on those who act ethically and his admonitions will caution those who are set on the path of wrong-doing.  One can understand why Indian embassies and consulates throughout the world prominently display the framed Gandhi:  whatever India’s standing in any particular country, the name of Gandhi is calculated to earn India some goodwill.  Similarly, the person who puts up Gandhi’s photograph may be attempting to acquire cultural capital, suggesting to others that the admiration for Gandhi points to some element of nobility in his or her own personality.  If we are associated in people’s minds with the friends we keep, there is reason to suppose that the photographs of venerable elders on display are meant to signify something about us to others.

The gesture of the framed Gandhi can, of course, be read in myriad other ways.   It is customary for states to hang framed photographs of the highest officials – often elected, just as often self-appointed, as in the case of ‘presidents for life’, or otherwise chosen to preside over the destinies of their people – but Gandhi occupied an anomalous position in the immediate aftermath of independence, holding no office and yet being bestowed with the epithet of ‘Father of the Nation’.  But, in India, framed photographs of the gods and goddesses are even more common than the photographs of netas, ‘leaders’ of the nation.  Let us, for a moment, overlook the fact that many of those canonized or celebrated as netas have been scarcely deserving of that honorific, and it is no surprise that the word ‘neta’ is commonly and justly viewed as a term of abuse and vilification.  Netas are often those who plunder the nation.  Holding no elected office in either independent India or even in the Congress party after his one-year term of presidency of the Congress in the early 1920s, and having no riches or possessions to his name, Gandhi cannot be bunched together with the netas, small and big, who populate the Indian scene.  But Gandhi was equally reluctant to being deified:  he openly disowned the idea of being a Mahatma, and would have shuddered at the thought of being assimilated into Hinduism’s gods and goddesses.   Gandhi occupies, we may say, a position betwixt the politicians and the gods, and yet a position that is akin to neither.  Perhaps that old and tiresome question, of whether he was a politician in saint’s garb or a saint who muddled his way through politics, will never go away.

One keen observer of Indian politics who has always remained aware of the framed Gandhi is the cartoonist R. K. Laxman, famous among other things for his creation of the ‘common man’.   In one cartoon after another, Laxman lampooned the netas, bureaucrats, and the sycophants who came to define ‘politics’; significantly, the framed photograph of Gandhi looms large in his work, as the three cartoons reproduced here amply demonstrate.  Laxman was keen to underscore the hypocrisy of politicians, leaders, and party office holders, though ‘hypocrisy’ is perhaps a banal and even relatively benign word to characterize those who, under Gandhi’s portrait, did not hesitate to offer or accept bribes, engage in horse-trading, engineer ‘disturbances’ in the interest of advancing the party’s electoral prospects, and so on.  Still, Laxman may have missed out on one element in his representation of the Gandhi looming behind the frame.   As I have had occasion to write elsewhere, there is no constituency in India – liberals, Marxists, constitutionalists, Hindutvavadis, militants, feminists, Dalits, Punjabis, Bengalis, communalists, gays and lesbians, most of all Gujaratis, and then countless more – that does not love to hate Gandhi'The Framed Gandhi', cartoon by R. K. Laxman.  He has been framed for every imaginable ill that has afflicted India:  some hold him responsible for the partition of India; others for upholding caste, relegating women to the household, and allowing the bourgeoisie an easy ride; and many others for betraying his fellow Hindus.  There are even those who find the hand of Gandhi behind the culture of gherao, strikes, hartal, and the evasion of law.  And one could continue in this vein.  So, when we frame Gandhi, we do far more than enclose his photograph or portrait behind glass.  Our habit of framing Gandhi has more to it than meets the eye.

(This piece is available in an Uzbek translation here:  http://eduworksdb.com/gandhis-photograph-and-the-politics-of-the-frame/)

An Estonian translation of this article by Martin Aus can be found here:  http://techglobaleducation.com/gandhis-photograph-and-the-politics-of-the-frame/

*Be What You Can: Indian Americans Triumphant at the National Spelling Bee, Again!

Early June in the United States, and it’s that time of the year when a peculiarly American institution comes into the national news – and, on listening to the news, the feeling of déjà vu is absolutely inescapable.  Some years ago, the particular phenomenon of the national spelling bee, over which Indian Americans have come to exercise something of a monopoly, captivated a documentary filmmaker who attempted to leave his viewers “spellbound” with a film of the same title.   Many viewers may not find “Spellbound” (2002) as mesmerizing as Hitchcock’s thriller (1945) with which the documentary, barring its name, cannot otherwise be confused, but its director, Jeffrey Blitz, succeeded remarkably well in conveying the palpable tension that participants, their parents, and viewers experience each year as the national spelling bee comes to a nail-biting finish.  Who will falter over words such as consuetude, phillumenist, foggara, osteomyelitis, mirin, epiphysis, mirin, ochidore, and juvia?  What evidently also struck Blitz is the lightning war – blitzkrieg – with which Indian Americans have staged their recent dominion over this 85-year old competition.  For eight of the last twelve years, Indian Americans have been the national champions; and when Animika Veeramani triumphed this year with the word “stromuhr”, which does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary but is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary as a “rheometer designed to measure the amount and speed of blood blow through an artery”, she became the third Indian American to triumph in as many years.

As Indian Americans continue their winning spree at the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, which annually brings to Washington the winners of the regional bees, this somewhat strange competition is understandably garnering increased attention in India.  Writing for the Hindu (6 June 2010) on this year’s competition and its winner Anamika Veeeramani, a 14-year old from the state of Ohio, Narayan Lakshman commenced the article thus:  “Is it because of Indian colonial history with Britain or is it something at the level of genetic programming?  Whatever the explanation, there is no denying that Indians have a penchant for the English language, a transgenerational, linguistic love affair that gets transmitted even to [the] far-flung diaspora.”  That characterization of Indians as having “a penchant for the English language” is seemingly endorsed by a recent article in the New York Times, which reports that American law firms have now begun to outsource legal documents to India not only for legal assistance at a fraction of the cost in the US but also to ensure that correct and indeed elegant English is used in such documents.  That penchant will also be self-evident to those who have observed the rise of the English novel in India, from the time of R. K. Narayana, Mulk Raj Anand, and Rajo Rao to G. V. Desani, Anita Desai, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, and Kiran Desai.  Nevertheless, anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the manner in which English is relentlessly butchered in Indian newspapers or the shocking errors of grammar and syntax found in most English-language books published in India would have reason to pause over this wildly generous reading of the alleged mastery over English exercised by Indians.

Lakshman’s speculations on the “mystery of the enduring Indian passion for all things English” conclude, however, on a different note.  Anamika’s father, on being pressed to explain the success of his daughter, who has set her eyes on Harvard and a career as a cardiovascular surgeon, praised her for dreaming big and attributed her triumph to the family’s “emphasis on education”.  This is, of course, very much in keeping with the general perception of Indian Americans as an ambitious, hard-working, and law-abiding ethnic group, and Lakshman all too easily moves to the triumphalist conclusion that “Indians are simply people who believe that hard work, a rigorous education and familial support are the keys to their dreams.”  But is it the Indians alone who believe in hard work and the virtues of family life?  And, by implication, are we not to believe that other ethnic groups in the US are much less appreciative of education?  There is no reason to believe that other immigrant communities are less invested in “the American dream” than Indian Americans; similarly, whatever their facility with the English language, it is far from being demonstrably true that Indians in the US have a greater command over it than those from other immigrant communities.

In a relatively recent book, The Other IndiansA Political and Cultural History of South Asians in America (Los Angeles:  UCLA; Delhi: HarperCollins, 2008), I ventured to provide a different reading of the phenomenal success of Indian Americans in the national spelling bee.  As I wrote, we must first ponder on how a minority comes to view itself as a ‘model minority’.  Here, then, are the relevant passages:  “A somewhat more sociological explanation [of the Indian success at the national spelling bee] would perhaps stress the fact that Indian students to a disproportionately high degree come from highly educated families and that knowledge of English, which is almost a native tongue to many Indians in the United States, confers advantages on Indians denied to other ethnic groups.   Yet the evidence from the Census Bureau’s latest reports on this question is somewhat ambiguous.  The Asian Community Survey of February 2007, based on data collected in 2004, shows that Japanese and even Filipinos far outstrip Indian Americans in describing English as the language that is spoken at home; however, among people who claimed that English was not spoken at their home, or was not at any rate the predominant language of everyday conversation, Indians easily outnumbered all other Asians in describing themselves as speaking English ‘very well’.  One might also take the view that all immigrant communities attempt to create particular niches for themselves, and that Indians excel in spelling bees just as Dominicans dominate American baseball and Kenyans and Ethiopians appear to have monopolized long-distance running.

“The difference here is that baseball has a huge following in the Dominican Republic, just as the longer races, extending from 5,000 meters to the marathon, have been part of the repertoire of Kenyans and Ethiopians in their own country for some time; however, by contrast, the ‘Spelling Bee’ is a cultural artifact of American society that has no resonance in India itself.  It may well be the case that the present generation of affluent middle-class Indians settled in Bangalore and Mumbai who are plotting futures in the United States may already be preparing their very young children in India for the near future when the family will be comfortably settled in an American suburb and the children will be memorizing the spelling of arcane words, but there is no evidence yet that the institution of the Spelling Bee has winged its way to India.  (British rather than American spellings prevail in India, though with Britain’s diminishing influence in Indian life this legacy of the Raj may soon show signs of fracture — and perhaps the American institution of the spelling bee will add its own color to the demise of the world of colour.)  When a particular community is viewed as having a stranglehold over some profession, trade, or cultural phenomenon, other communities might be inclined to direct their resources elsewhere.  Thus success breeds more success.

“It can well be argued, however, that all these interpretations fall quite short in their explanatory power, and that many Indians themselves might not have an adequate understanding of the manner in which they are able to call upon certain cultural resources.  Indian intellectual traditions persist in continuing to emphasize memorization, and various mnemonic devices are still deployed in various Indian traditions for the retention of texts.  Thus ‘Indian culture’ may well be a potent factor in understanding why Indian Americans have nearly monopolized the spelling bee, though this is not the Indian culture that students and their parents have in mind when they are probed by outsiders.”

It is unlikely that we will ever know what exactly accounts for the resounding success of Indian Americans at the National Spelling Bee.   The 8-year old sister of Kavya Shivashankar, the winner of the 2009 competition, already made it to the pre-semifinal round this year, and two of the three contestants vying for the second position were Indian Americans.  To speak only of the near future, the ‘invisible minority’ of which I spoke in my blog yesterday is clearly endeavoring, not without success, to render itself visible as equally the partaker and shaper of “the American dream”.

*Joel Stein’s Edison and the Rage of Indian Americans

Indian Americans, the so-called model minority, have recently been up in arms. The object of their rage is an American columnist by the name of Joel Stein, who had the audacity, Indian Americans bitterly object, to write a piece called ‘My Own Private India’ [after ‘My Own Private Idaho’] which begins thus:  “I am very much in favor of immigration everywhere in the U.S. except Edison, N.J.  The mostly white suburban town I left when I graduated from high school in 1989 – the town that was called Menlo Park when Thomas Ava Edison set up shop there and was later renamed in his honor – has become home to one of the biggest Indian communities in the U.S. . . .”  When Joel writes that he is “very much in favor of immigration”, he seems to want to signal his distance from those bigots, in Arizona and elsewhere in the US, who have declared their determination to keep the US as much free of immigrants as is possible; but the qualifier, “except Edison, NJ”, was not bound to go down well with Indian Americans who feel outraged that Time’s columnist should have marked Indian Americans as the undesirable immigrant community.

What follows in Joel’s piece is not surprising.  The sparkling town where Joel grew up is unrecognizable though, if anyone knows America, it is doubtful in the extreme that it was recognizable in the first instance.  The Pizza hut outlet – one of hundreds of thousands in the country, which along with Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC, Jack in the Box, and Dunkin’ Donuts have succeeded remarkably well in making every American town look like any other – has been replaced by an Indian sweets shop; the local A & P – never mind that this chain was anyhow destined for obscurity – has given way to an Indian grocery store; the Italian restaurant “is now Moghul” (by which our enlightened writer means not that it has become a movie palace or an icon of a movie Moghul but rather that it serves ‘Mughlai’ food); and the local multiplex, where Joel and boys of his ilk once gyrated their loins to the music of R-rated films, now screens Bollywood films with their buxom belles and serves samosas during ‘intermission’.  Joel and his friends, modern-day Huckleberry Finns, shoplifted, raided the cash drawers, and sneaked into places where they did not belong.  But those days belonged to the past:  “There is an entire generation of white children in Edison”, Joel bemoans, “who have nowhere to learn crime.”  The place of those delightful pranksters was taken by nerds from India, who all seemed adept at computers and to the white boys appeared nothing short of “geniuses”.  At this point, one almost expects to read a comment pointing to the winning streak of Indians in the national spelling bee over the last decade and more, but Joel departs from that script only to adopt another predictable point of view.  Over time, he says, that first generation of educated and professional Indians gave way to a more motley crowd of relatives who would run Dunkin’ Donut shops, 7-11 franchises, and gas stations.  Some years later, the not so dazzling “merchant cousins brought [over] their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.”  And, luckily for the white man, he could once again begin to feel like he was on the top of the world.

Joel’s attempt at humour, for that is evidently what he had in mind, appears not to have succeeded.  Following the publication of his column, there have been loud and insistent calls by Indian Americans to have his column removed, and to have Joel censured for his ‘racist’ comments.  Some in the Indian American community have been outraged that as prestigious a journal as Time, for that is how this long-standing conduit of mediocrity is imagined, should have allowed the expression of the most tiresome stereotypes:  perhaps all that is missing from Joel’s piece is a comment about the smell of curry taking over the town.  As I have previously argued on numerous occasions, ours is a culture of ‘apologies’, and it is not surprising that the Indian American community should immediately have striven to exact an apology from Time and Joel Stein.  “We sincerely regret”, responded Time, “that any of our readers were upset by this humor column of Joel Stein’s.  It was in no way intended to cause offense.” Poor Joel followed suit, though his apology deviates from the standard form:  “I truly feel stomach-sick that I hurt so many people. I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life and my hometown in particular, I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it.”  One of the least commonly explored facets of Americanization is how immigrant communities embrace the dominant idiom of literal-mindedness that pervades American society, and the irony and ambivalence of Joel’s remarks was certainly lost on Indian Americans.  A place that he associated with his childhood had irretrievably changed, and Joel found himself outside, so to speak, his ‘comfort zone’.   The small town seems remote, perhaps even an ungainly sight, after the dizzy pace of life in the metropolis; in Joel’s case, the sense of alienation he may have experienced upon his return to Edison was compounded by the fact that even the intimacy and familiarity promised by the town had disappeared.

In the exchange that has followed the publication of Joel Stein’s essay, neither Joel nor Indian Americans have across as impressive figures.  Some commentators have deplored the absence of humour among Indian Americans, to which of course they have responded with the observation that they have for long been the target of insults and jokes and have had enough of “humour”.  In India, some writers and media broadcasters have not fully understood the emotions that are understandably aroused when Joel, adverting to the fact that townsfolk started referring to the Indians as “dot heads”, adds by way of trying to be ironical:  “In retrospect, I question just how good our schools were if ‘dot heads’ was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.”  Caricatures of a religion never go down too well with its adherents; moreover, there is a lasting memory, especially in New Jersey, of a previous chapter of racial history when the “dot busters” went around assaulting Indians and even killing a couple of them.

Indian Americans, on the other hand, give every appearance of being a trifle too sensitive.   They have accepted the designation of ‘model minority’ with gratitude, scarcely realizing that the term was less a recognition of their achievements and more an admonition to African Americans and Hispanic Americans to shape up; consequently, they feel all the more slighted by Joel’s apparent characterization of them as undesirable.  If an ‘over-achieving’ community could be so easily slighted, what hope is there for immigrant communities or ethnic groups that are less affluent or less characterized by high educational achievements?  This is a reasonable enough claim, except that Indian Americans have never been keen on expressing their solidarity with less affluent or otherwise stigmatized communities.  Moreover, much of the anxiety stemming from Joel Stein’s unimaginative attempt at humour owes its origins to the widespread perception that Indian Americans are an ‘invisible minority’, whose decency and relative distance from the mainstream of American politics has rendered them susceptible to onslaughts and humiliations that would never otherwise be imposed on a community otherwise distinguished by its affluence, attainments, and general reputation.  All this, I would submit, is germane to an understanding of why Joel Stein’s column, ‘My Own Private India’, has been so unsettling for Indian Americans.

*A Responsible World Leader? The American Discourse on China

At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where I have been on the faculty since 1993, and can therefore be said to be invested in the issues under discussion in this present post for personal reasons besides my interest in global politics, a conference (which I did not attend) was recently held on whether or not China is prepared to become a responsible world leaderIn the words of the online magazine, UCLA Today, one of the organs by which the university makes known its work to the outside world, “the fundamental question of whether China is on the path to becoming a responsible stakeholder in world affairs or acting as a revisionist superpower was put to a prestigious group of China scholars from universities and think tanks across the country.”

Organizers of the conference might reasonably argue that the conference itself is a gracious acknowledgment of the fact that China is no longer merely another rising power.  It is true, of course, that if certain countries begin to exercise a prominent role in world politics or the global economy, other countries have every right to expect that such countries will exercise some degree of “responsibility” in their relations with other nations and in their assumption of “leadership”.  For well over a decade China has been outpacing every other nation – for the moment, we might exclude Equatorial Guinea which in 2009 had a growth rate of over 15 percent – and China has now become the world’s second largest economy.   Projections that it will become the world’s largest economy by 2025 if not sooner are widespread and seemingly beyond dispute.  The finer points, such as the fact that per capita income in China is still a fraction of what it is in the US, Switzerland, Japan or a host of other countries, are rather immaterial in a consideration of China’s global role.  When, the conference organizers and participants have asked, will China step forward in the international political arena and play a part commensurate with its economic might?

The model here is not unlike what one encounters in families, where it is assumed that parents should exercise responsibility not only for their own actions but also for the actions of their wards.  However, just as children are resistant, sometimes ferociously so, to parental authority, so countries are often intractable.  Among the countries over which China is assumed to exercise considerable influence is North Korea, though any characterization of North Korea, which seems to be driven by its own compulsions and inner demons, as a ward of China is rather improbable.  However, as the very first sentence of the UCLA Today article amply suggests, the desire to see China as a “responsible world leader” may stem much less from any sense of relief much less magnanimity that other nations exist to share the role of policing the world that the United States arrogated to itself and more from the hope that some way might be found to contain a so-called ‘rogue state’.  “With tensions rising between North Korea and South Korea over the torpedoing of a South Korean ship,” the UCLA Today article states, “the U.S. is urging China to condemn North Korea’s actions. Will China act as it did last year when it took a stand and criticized North Korea for testing a nuclear weapon? Or will it do nothing?”

“Responsible”, “world”, “leader”:  each of these three words is pregnant with meaning and equally fraught with ambiguity, and there is no better way to unravel the phrase, “responsible world leader”, than to ask if there is any such thing.  Not less significantly, how is it that American experts get to ask if China is going to be a “responsible world leader”, and why is it that such a question is not posed apropos of the United States itself?  Is it not the cardinal principle of ethics that one should not make demands of others that one has not first made of oneself?  Has there ever been a time when the US exercised its responsibilities as a world leader, or has it always confused responsibilities with prerogative, right, and might?   What does responsibility entail, and to whom is this responsibility owed?  Was the US exercising responsibility when it waged war against Iraq, and should the history of American adventurism in central America and southeast Asia, two parts of the world where the debris of American militarism littered the landscape for decades, be construed as a textbook lesson of “responsibility”?  We can be certain that many will come forward with one of two arguments in defense of the proposition that the United States has acted with great responsibility:  first, had it not been for the US, the world would most likely have been in a far more wretched state than it is at present; and, secondly, the realm of politics is inherently corrosive and corruptive.

A “leader” leads by example, and the example that the US has set for the rest of the world, so goes the argument, can be gauged by the fact that it is still the most desirable place from the standpoint of immigrants.  Whatever atrocities the US may have committed overseas, it still remains singularly attractive to people from all over the world.  Its own treatment of native Americans and African Americans, as brutal a chapter of human cruelty as any that can be found elsewhere, is generally overlooked by those happy to migrate to its shores.  Perversely, those whose countries have been heavily bombed or whose sovereignty has been otherwise violated are more likely to be able to make their way eventually to the US:  such are the ways of humanitarian relief and compassion.  They then become, a generation later, the ambassadors of the American way of life, spokespersons for political and cultural freedoms that are supposed to be uniquely ‘American’.  Settled in their ways, Americans have never fundamentally bothered with much of the “world”; indeed, it would not be saying too much to suggest that, so long as Americans have their football and baseball games, their big Macs and hotdogs, their SUVs and Home Depots, they are likely to remain impervious to the consequences of the exercise of American power around the globe.

Thus, before American experts gather to pontificate to others about the responsibilities that come with being a world leader, they may be well advised to reflect on what it does mean to become a responsible “stakeholder” in global affairs.  That such a state of affairs seems unlikely to transpire anytime soon is clear enough, judging from a recent issue (24 May 2010) of the magazine Foreign Policy.   One of the lead articles, by Joshua E. Keating, is headlined “Beijing’s Most Embarrassing Allies”, and it states boldly that China’s “mad scramble for energy resources and trading partners” over the last two decades, which has transformed it into a “major economic and military power”, has led the country “into alliances with some of the world’s most unsavory governments.”  China rightly stands condemned for its opportunistic policies.  Nevertheless, had Mr. Keating turned his attention to the United States and written an article on “Washington’s Most Embarrassing Allies”, one would have been hard pressed to find a dictatorship, monarchy, or authoritarian state which the US has not embraced, rather I should say, bedded at one time or the other.   But one of the prerogatives of being a superpower and exercising incalculable ‘soft power’ is that one can make oneself heard and seduce the world with one’s own fictions.

*BP and Union Carbide: Shifting Standards of Corporate ‘Responsibility’

In India, with its love of acronyms, BP has always meant something different from British Petroleum. BP is blood pressure, and a rather common middle-class preoccupation is the measurement of BP with home BP kits, not least of all because there are many things, from the oppressive heat to the traffic snarls caused by CPWD’s lazy habit of leaving behind large amounts of debris on every road, that tend to make an average person’s BP shoot up. [CPWD, for the uninitiated, is Central Public Works Department.] It appears that the BP of the unflappable Barack Obama, hitherto renowned (and sometimes criticized) for never exploding with anger, has likewise suddenly registered a rapid increase. The spill from the BP well in the Gulf of Mexico, which has caused anger and consternation among the residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, has created environmental havoc and there seems to be no end in sight to this crisis. In an interview with NBC News Today on June 8, where Obama was questioned about the Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill, he is reported as saying: “I don’t sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar. We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answer so I know whose ass to kick.”

Obama’s faith in experts is unexceptional, even if he is more prone to expressing his profound respect for expertise knowledge than other recent occupants of the White House. What is exceptional – not, let us be sure, in the annals of American presidential history, but only judged against Obama’s recourse to more elevated speech in comparison with some of his predecessors — is his casual reference to kicking ass, and more recent reports suggest rather unequivocally that Obama is now prepared to exercise the prerogatives of American power to secure “adequate compensation” for all those who have been adversely affected by the oil spill. The White House and BP have reached an agreement that BP will create a $20 billion fund that will be used to clean up the Gulf and award compensation to those whose lives and livelihoods have been endangered by the oil spill. It is significant that Obama himself has been involved in negotiations with BP’s senior executives and lawyers, and that the agreement, if one wishes to call it that, was struck not with the EPA or the Department of Justice, but rather with the White House. The oil spill has become a matter of state, a matter to be adjudicated by a war cabinet. Agreement seems a rather benign word, since it is all too clear that Obama in effect ordered BP’s chairman, Carl Henric Svanberg, “to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness.”

There is certainly no reason to feel sorry for BP, or indeed any other similar monstrosity, and others can mourn BP’s losses. In Britain there is said to have been concern that Obama has been playing the nationalist card, referring to BP as “British Petroleum” even though BP is a multinational and shed its earlier name some years ago; others note that the fate of millions of pensioners and investors is tied up with BP and neither Obama nor British Prime Minister David Cameron can permit BP to go down under. Some in Britain, mindful of the “special relationship” that is said to exist between the US and the UK, might perhaps take affront at Obama’s provocative admonitions to “British Petroleum”. Nevertheless, the consequences for bilateral US-Britain relationships, of which much has been said, seem trifling in comparison to other considerations. There is no gainsaying the fact that BP has not been on the level: the amount of oil it claimed to be retrieving some two to three weeks ago, around 15,000 barrels a day, is three times the amount it first claimed was leaking from the spill. Indeed, more recent estimates suggest that 60,000 barrels, or the equivalent of 2.5 million gallons of crude, are spilling out every day. BP claimed to have spent by mid-June well over $1 billion in efforts to plug the leak and clean up, and in compensation claims to workers, fishermen, and businesses along the coast.

“Corporate responsibility” has always largely been a fiction, but since Obama has been so strident in denouncing BP’s negligence and culpability and insisting that BP be held fully accountable, the question that arises is whether American corporations will be held to the same standards. But, before turning to that question, it may be instructive to dwell on America’s own culpability, about which the US media has been (true to its reputation to avoid anything that might be remotely interesting) studiously silent, in the matter of the oil spill. In April 2009, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), an arm of the Interior Department charged in part with supervising and policing offshore operations, granted a “categorical exemption” to BP from the National Environmental Policy Act. Some will claim that MMS made a wholly inadequate evaluation of the possibility of a large oil spill and thus erroneously allowed BP an exemption, but this obfuscates the wretched history of the MMS as an organization rife with corruption. In the American context, there are other factors that preclude effective regulation of corporate giants, none perhaps as prominent as the fact that senior officials at corporations, in the US administration, and in regulatory agencies are all part of what is called the revolving door. Thus, to take one example, Obama’s appointee as head of the Department of the Interior, Ken Salazar, has voted against regulation that would require vehicles to be more fuel efficient, and he similarly voted against an amendment that would have repealed tax breaks for major oil companies — and this man is supposed to be safeguarding the environment! Salazar in turn lured Sylvia B. Vaca from BP, where she spent a stint after holding a position in the Clinton administration, to be the deputy head of the Minerals Management Service. ‘Revolving Door’ may be one way to describe these scandalous migrations, but I am more inclined to think of these relationships as indicative of the place of incest in the history of the American establishment.

In these same weeks that the oil spill has enraged the US, the Indian Supreme Court handed down, after a lapse of twenty-five years, a judgment which sends a handful of former Union Carbide Corporation of India (UCIL) officials to jail for a mere two years. Over 2,000 people died in the immediate aftermath of the leak of a poisonous gas from a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal; since then, at least another 20,000 people have died as a consequence of their exposure to the lethal gas, and half a million have suffered various ailments for the same reason. UCIL was a subsidiary of Union Carbide (now absorbed into Dow Chemical), but Union Carbide, which owned a 50.9% share in UCIL, refused to accept responsibility for the catastrophe and resolved upon a strategy intended to establish that it had a distant relationship with its own subsidiary; indeed, it even suggested that a disgruntled Indian employee had sabotaged the plant. Since, it was reasoned by many in the US, and certainly by Union Carbide’s officials, life in India is cheap, why bother at all with substantive compensation? The paltry amount of $470 million was agreed upon as final compensation for the hundreds of thousands whose livelihoods, hopes, dreams, and futures were snatched from them. The complicity of the Indian government in this crime against common people cannot be denied, but neither should that admission serve as the pretext for exculpating Union Carbide’s responsibility.

The story of Bhopal’s gas leak has been told many times before, and not too long ago on this blog itself; and though it need not be rehearsed again at this juncture, the overwhelming question remains: will Obama have the daring to admit Union Carbide’s responsibility in its crimes and order Dow Chemical to pay a just compensation to the victims of the gas leak? And, yet, this is scarcely a question, since the answer has long been foretold. Obama will do no such thing. We should not be surprised that, when Obama finally leaves the White House, we find him part of the ‘revolving door’, moving from one corporate board to another, from one obscenely lucrative speaking engagement on “corporate leadership” to another.