The Congress party might have expected a jolt in Bihar. But it probably never dreamt of a broadside from Barack Obama. In his new memoir, the former US president issues a rather damning report card on Rahul Gandhi, the man the Congress keeps pinning its hopes on. Obama writes that Rahul Gandhi has a “nervous, unformed quality about him, as if he were a student who’d done the course work and was eager to impress the teacher but deep down lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject”.
But Obama at least gave Gandhi ‘A’ for diligence, which is more than the Congress’ own Mahagatbandhan ally in Bihar, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, could muster. One of its leaders accused Gandhi of picnicking in Shimla while the elections were in full swing in Bihar. “They had fielded 70 candidates but didn’t even hold 70 public rallies,” complained RJD leader Shivanand Tiwari.
Obama’s comments have struck a raw nerve. A Congress working committee member has taught Obama a lesson by promptly unfollowing him on Twitter. Obama, with 126.3 million followers currently, has not reacted to this “prachanda jawab”. The saving grace for the Congress is that Obama is kinder to Manmohan Singh, whose “impassive integrity” and “uncommon wisdom and decency” he praises, while Sonia Gandhi comes across as a person of “shrewd and forceful intelligence”. And Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fans who are gleefully forwarding Obama’s scathing assessment of Rahul Gandhi would do well to remember that Obama also talks about “the divisive nationalism touted by the BJP” in the same breath. That leads us to the eternal dilemma—can we dismiss the brickbat as the opinion of an uninformed foreigner, as the Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut has done, but still lap up the praise?
This takes us back to an even more intransigent problem—the insecurity that makes us still place such stock in what the First World thinks of us, even if it’s just based on something as casual as one dinner engagement, as the Obama-Rahul-Sonia Gandhi interaction apparently was. We remain thin-skinned about the West’s criticisms, we bask in its praise.
We sometimes even make up the praise, such as the time a fake news item about how Unesco had awarded Narendra Modi the title of best prime minister in the world went viral in WhatsApp groups. The former BBC India correspondent Mark Tully had to issue a statement clarifying he had never written anything about Modi destroying the “termite-ridden old banyan tree” that the Congress had become. Whoever concocted that story obviously thought their critique would find greater credence with a white pundit stamp of approval, especially one with BBC pedigree. Yet, at the same time, every time the BBC or The New York Times carries something that criticises the government, its Twitter armies rage about their bias and lack of knowledge.
It’s worth remembering that decades ago, Indira Gandhi had told journalists that “times have passed when any nation sitting three or four thousand miles away could give orders to Indians on the basis of colour superiority to do as they wished”. The US president at the time, Richard Nixon, had sneered in response that Mrs Gandhi did not mind the “colour of our aid dollars”. Recently declassified documents show the extent of his revulsion towards her. He called her a “witch” and a “bitch” and said “undoubtedly” the most “unattractive women in the world are Indian women”. The racism and sexism are ugly enough, that it came spewing out of Nixon, a man who was hardly Paul Newman in the looks department, would have been almost funny if that bias had not had such terrible consequences for South Asia during the war that led to Bangladesh’s independence. Gary J. Bass, the author of The Blood Telegram, an account of the birth of Bangladesh, calls the Nixon-(Henry) Kissinger policies a “moral disaster” and a “strategic fiasco”, with their biases leading to “excessive support for Pakistan’s murderous dictatorship throughout its atrocities”.
It was not just Nixon. Even the much beloved Jackie Kennedy described Indira Gandhi as a “real prune” who always looks like “she’s been sucking a lemon”. The reason Kennedy threw this mixed fruit cocktail at Mrs Gandhi seems to be that on a state visit with Jawaharlal Nehru to the White House, Indira Gandhi appeared more interested in being with her father and listening to affairs of state than hanging out at a ladies’ lunch, writes Mukul Kesavan in The Telegraph. But while Indians can bristle in patriotic outrage, the more sobering takeaway, writes Kesavan, is that “India wasn’t important enough to be detested for its own sake”. In 1971, the US needed Pakistan to help Nixon with China (Nixon’s secretary of state, Kissinger, added insult to Indian injury by pretending to catch a Delhi belly stomach bug in India and using that excuse to secretly visit China from Pakistan). Now Donald Trump posits himself as India’s BFF because it’s useful to him as he jockeys for leverage against China. India remains the “poor relation” still scrounging through an ex-president’s memoirs to see if he has thrown any crumbs its way.
But the greatest irony is that all this is happening at this juncture of world history. If nothing else, the US election and the soap opera that has followed it should have turned the tables decisively. The US today should be more worried about what it looks like in the eyes of the world than how it looks at the world. As polls opened in the US, Kenyan cartoonist Patrick Gathara tweeted sardonically, “The authoritarian regime of Donald Trump attempts to consolidate its hold over the troubled oil-rich nuclear-armed North American nation…. African envoys have called for Americans to maintain peace during the elections and be prepared for the outcome of the vote.” The satirical Twitter thread caused much merriment but was oddly prescient as well as it urged journalists to “preach the gospel of peace and acceptance of results”.
Now that Trump is refusing to accept the results, like the tinpot dictators whose elections America once monitored, the US finds itself hoisted on its own petard. As Indian Police Service officer H.G.S. Dhaliwal tweeted, “Who would have thought that we would see a time when Bihar and the US would be voting together and there would be much more chance of election results being accepted in a peaceful manner in Bihar than in the US.” This election was a reminder, says Pakistani novelist Mohammed Hanif, that the US always elected a bully who was expected to go out into the world and “do the presidential thing: fight the evil that is the rest of us”. Trump just hammers that point in more crudely than some others, and he has brought that bullying home to America itself.
The eyeroll and glee is understandable since the US has for too long been used to thinking of itself as the gold standard of democracy. Unlike Trump and his temper tantrums, Indira Gandhi ate crow and accepted her loss after the Emergency in an election she had been convinced she would win. In a way, this ugly US election and its uglier aftermath have just proven that the emperor has no clothes. But it is also the naked truth that we still remain cringingly anxious about how we are reflected in its golden eye. That ultimately is our perennial wardrobe malfunction.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.