Obama comes to the New World

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 5, 2010

By Rashmee Roshan Lall

The American president flies smack into the throbbing heart of the new New World becauseMumbai is India’s financial capital and Barack Obama’s main business here is commerce. The irony is unmistakable. America was once the New World, having been ‘discovered’ in the 15th century when Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, an Italian at the Spanish court, first referred to the novi orbis that Columbus found on his voyage. Six centuries on, Barack Obama represents the old New World. Or the new Old World. The future seems to be here in India.

This New World bears an unmistakable likeness to the one it has displaced as young, enterprising and hopeful. Back in the 19th century, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville noted America’s signature characteristics. Five of these might be an accurate description ofIndia 2010. The commonalities mean more than the chance for India to brag about its double-helix DNA bond with America, the superpower. Instead, they illuminate great truths and could crucially help insure against the failures of the brash democratic experiment that was America.

In his 1835 classic, Of Democracy in America, de Tocqueville noted that Americans “combine the notions of faith and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other”. If that sounds startlingly familiar it’s because the majority of Indians – particularly its 80.5 per cent Hindus – is often heard to say that it is the live-and-let-live values of their faith that make India a tolerant and free country. Of course, this does not factor in the rise of right-wing Hindu nationalism. But nor did de Tocqueville’s frank praise for America’s “conviction and faith” predict the rise of televangelist Pat Robertson.

Few could have foreseen America’s faith in its dominant faith transpose into dangerous excess. No one could have imagined that Fox News cable television and radio host Glenn Beck, who reaches two million people every day, would be seen as the intellectual guide of the idiotically illiberal Tea Party movement even though his hobbyhorse is to warn Americans against the progressives’ cunning plot to “separate us from our history to be able to separate us from our Constitution and God”. This is how religion is helping unmake America, leaving it vulnerable to what President Kennedy once deplored as the “counsels of fear and suspicion.”

On digging “deeper into the national character of the Americans”, de Tocqueville observed “that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” Is India, the new New World, in danger of following too closely in its predecessor’s footsteps? For, despite oft-repeated claims to a civilisation with deep spiritual roots, India unbound and post-1991 has taken the worship of money and materialism to gross levels of acquisitiveness, greed and corruption.

The third shared signature characteristic is particularly significant in the light of the self-censorship demanded of Arundhati Roy and the calls for her prosecution because she spoke the truth as she saw it. It was the same in the old New World with de Tocqueville describing how “the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them”.

He diagnosed two further problems, which caused America then – and perhaps India today and tomorrow – to “perish miserably amongst the shoals of democracy”. The political leader, he lamented, had a “desire to be re-elected…(the president’s) personal interest takes the place of his interest in the public good…(this) tends to degrade the political morality of the people and to substitute management and intrigue for patriotism”. He found the US House of Representatives, much like today’s Lok Sabha, to be “remarkable for its vulgar demeanour and its poverty of talent”.

Most telling of all was his observation of the country’s statesmen “50 years after America was struggling in the high cause of independence to throw off the yoke of another country and when it was about to usher a new nation into the world”. They are “vastly inferior today”, he said, using words that might appear in any commentary in any Indian newspaper 63 years after independence and the passing of Nehru, Patel and other freedom fighters.

The parallels are clear. It is hard to imagine a greater twinning of mindsets – and reality – between two countries separated by half the world, as well as a century and a half.

This matters only if India recognises that its commonalities give it a unique chance to avoid the mistakes of yesterday’s New World. When de Tocqueville tried to compute democratic America’s extraordinary insistence on equality, he studied income levels and his data is thought consistent with the early stages of a developing country’s growth. At the time, it was reliant on agriculture – another parallel with India – but America’s egalitarianism of economic and political opportunity gave its people room to build and grow. However, unlikeEurope, the old Old World, it never thought to provide community support in a disinterested way – for instance, quality free education for all and universal healthcare. Today, it is no longer the thrusting New World and is left with islands of poverty and ignorance unbecoming of one of the wealthiest countries of the world. This is one parallel India cannot allow to become true as it lives – and re-fashions – the American Dream.

Rashmee Roshan Lall /  World Report