India’s Bush-baiters and pro-US courtiers

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
7 March 2006

George W Bush is a natural target of hate and ridicule for liberal secularists, Marxists and Muslim right-wingers in India. The alliance against the United States president is an uneasy one, however. The liberal secularists do not exactly love the communists, and the atheistic communists find themselves sympathising with the Muslim cause as espoused by reactionary clerics. Then there is a fourth strand: liberal Muslims, who detest the clerics but find themselves uncomfortably closeted with an uncouth crowd.

So, the protests against Bush during his visit to India in the first days of March 2006 provided some amusement to those who are not willing to take pot-shots at him. He is not a hate-filled politician, like a Bible-belt rabble-rouser, nor a pretentious defender of conservative values, like the late political philosopher Allan Bloom. It is the refusal to treat Bush as less than an ogre that makes most critiques of the American president so incredible.

Arundhati Roy, the Booker-prize-winning author is a classic example of the contradictions in the Bush-hating view of the world. She is opposed to big government, gender bias, communism and religious clericalism. But she willingly joined the anti-Bush protests alongside those with whom she is at loggerheads. She is not alone: the leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI), AB Bardhan, addressed a rally in New Delhi organised by Jamiat-ul-Ulema, an ideological clerics' group which champions religious conservatism.

Also by Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr in openDemocracy:

"The end of ideology in India? " (June 2004)

"Delhi's bombs: landscape of jihad in south Asia" (November 2005)

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Even Indian liberal secularists, who generally keep away from sticky and tricky religious controversies, heartily agreed with the sense of hurt felt by Muslims in India and in the rest of the world because of the US attack on Iraq. The Muslim liberals, who staunchly oppose the clerics, could not but express hate for Bush and the American imperialism he symbolises because they feel the west is demonising Islam. It is, indeed, a complex hate campaign spearheaded by a motley group, many of whom would not spend an evening together. Call it the popular front.

Then there is the Indian political establishment, which was pleased with Bush's India postures – the deal that grants India access to US civil nuclear technology while opening many of its facilities to inspection was considered the keystone of the pro-India policy edifice – but which had no clue about the political and personal beliefs of the president. This establishment mainly comprises a pro-US lobby, and a Bush-friendly attitude is mere fallout from the larger approach. As long as Bush takes pro-India decisions, it is satisfied. Its curiosity does not move beyond their self-imposed intellectual horizon.

It is not surprising, then, that India's pro- and anti-US lobbies praised or damned Bush without grasping the underlying politics. In fact, the president did convey something of his political beliefs in New Delhi, which – depending on one's own Bush-bias quotient – could either be described as pragmatic or opportunistic. In a speech at the Purana Qila (Old Fort) on 3 March, he praised India's age-old traditions of religious pluralism, family values and a love of freedom combined with rule of law.

It can be argued that there was nothing special in a visiting dignitary applauding the host country's virtues. But Bush believes in those values, and they touched a personal chord within him when he discovered them in Indian society and polity.

As is often forgotten, Bush's first presidential campaign, in 2000, was fought on the formulation of "compassionate conservatism". And since 11 September 2001, he has underscored the importance of separating the "noble faith of Islam" from the radical extremists who claim to speak for Islam and for Muslims. Somewhere, amidst his deeply held Christian beliefs, Bush seems to have come to terms with the need to respect other faiths. Still, he is no Abraham Lincoln, who combined his Christianity with the universal principles of the declaration of independence and the US constitution. Bush has clarified the ideas to himself at the base, not at the pinnacle, of his thought-mountain because he is aware that he would not ever want to climb that mountain.

There was, of course, the inevitable political cunning. He combined his beliefs with the imperatives of American foreign policy, of maintaining US domination in world affairs. That is what a good politician does.

But if principles are not aligned to political policies, you end up as an ineffective idealist. If there are no core beliefs that fire your politics, then you become a sort of Bill Clinton or Tony Blair. Bush is walking the sincerity line because he is not a complicated person who can keep his rhetoric and actions totally separate, playing a sophisticated game of political poker the way Winston Churchill or Franklin D Roosevelt did.

The other interesting aspect of Bush's politics is the realisation that the US economy can no longer dominate emerging economic powerhouses like India and China – a fact Bush acknowledged while answering a journalist's question after prime minister Manmohan Singh announced the nuclear deal and said that the arrangement was for America an economic necessity.

It is indeed a brave leader who can make that kind of admission on foreign soil. And in his speech at the Old Fort, Bush said that despite US job losses as a result of outsourcing to India, he was opposed to protectionism. He said he would want workers who lost their jobs to acquire other skills. So, he sees the signs of the global economy quite clearly and its implications for American economy and political power. That is why he wooed India unabashedly. And this is what India's Bush-baiters and pro-US courtiers missed altogether.

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