Thursday, October 16, 2014

Oh what a circus, oh what a show

(Published in Business Standard on October 4, 2014)

There is at least one way in which India never disappoints: just when you think it can’t get any funnier, it does.

For example: Modi bhakts continue to call non-Modi supporters (whom they assume are all Congress supporters) ‘sycophants’. With zero irony! It was particularly comic therefore, to see the non-sycophantic, cool, tempered support for Modi on display at Madison Square Garden during Prime Minister Modi’s US visit, and on all the TV studios in India that covered the visit. Watching those channels, you wouldn’t necessarily have gathered that India was suffering floods in Assam and—oh, awkward—communal riots in Vadodara. Admit it, bhakts and broadcast people, that is the very definition of awkward. 16,000 wild-eyed NRIs called their American leaders up on stage so that they could hear the crowd try to outbleat each other pledging undying love to the mothership. It was also funny that many of those leaders are known as Congressmen, and that they just stood there, not seeming to know what to do about the fact that Modi was coming.

Speaking of undying love, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was finally convicted on corruption charges and sent to jail, or, as it is better known, hospital. The man she picked to replace her did so in floods of tears, as did his cabinet—grown men took the oath of office while bawling like babies. But they obviously weren’t all that upset. The ones who really were upset set themselves on fire, because nothing says ‘I care’ like self-immolation. One guy chopped off his little finger—you have to assume he’s a bit of a fence-sitter. What the hell is wrong with you, people? Will you just chill out?

Lest you think that emotional intemperance is a preserve of the star-struck South, remember that the entire Congress party wept in Delhi when Sonia Gandhi declined to be Prime Minister in 2004.

So on the evidence of North Indians, South Indians, and NRIs, we seem to be a nation of wailing, hero-worshipping, blindly loyalist, uncritical crybabies. We’ve got a national case of hitchyourwagonitis, a condition that causes people to believe that unless they shut down their brains and self-respect and concentrate on propping up some ascendant star by smacking down dissent, they’ll never get ahead.

Of course, it’s only funny up to a point. Our patriotism problem is not new, but it’s a lot bigger now, and a lot uglier.

In New York, a crowd of Modi supporters called an Indian TV anchor a ‘traitor’ for asking critical questions. There were gigabytes of opinion on who started the brief scuffle that ensued, but perhaps not enough discussion about the insane premise that asking critical questions is unpatriotic.

In Delhi, a crowd beat up some black African men to cries of ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ at a Metro station because they had allegedly ‘misbehaved’ with a woman. Delhi Police just stood there, and the more proactive personnel left. None of it was about coming to the aid of a woman.

The internet jumped down the throat of The Economist magazine because an article about Modi’s visit referenced being “a pain in the ass”. Since the new patriotism obliterates nuance (the line was from the point of view of traffic cops about any head of state), the magazine had to clarify that it does not consider Modi to be a pain in the ass.

The real pains in the ass are those whose fevered screams of ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ reflect nothing more than the need to drown out meaning and inconvenient dissent.

It fell to The Washington Post to wonder whether Modi’s economic agenda might not get derailed by nationalism.

Good question.