Shades of Attitudes & Habits of Imperialism Linger On


By Kollengode S Venkataraman

When Narendra Modi becoming India’s next real prime minister became all but certain, but before the actual results came out, the White House issued President Obama’s prepared statement that the Indian English media gleefully reported with great relish. See http://tinyurl.com/US-Tayyar-ToIhttp://tinyurl.com/US-Tayyar-HThttp://tinyurl.com/US-Tayyar-TheHindu

President Obama’s was a boilerplate statement prepared by his staff that heads of nations routinely issue when important nation-states go through political changes — talking about looking forward to work with the new leadership, shared values and challenges confronting them, long historical relationships…   Often, in the busy schedule these heads of states have, they rely heavily on their staff in drafting the statements that go in their names.    

But one comment issued in the President’s name issued on May 12 (before election results) was worth noting. The statement by the president included this: “India has set an example for the world in holding the largest democratic election in history, a vibrant demonstration of our shared values of diversity and freedom.”

 While the anglicized Indian media were drooling this comment, I could only see shades of the imperial conceit of the Colonial Era and a patronizing tone characteristic of political missionaries. Here is why:

After all, this is not India’s first parliamentary election. This was the 16th national elections after its independence in 1947. And ever since its independence, India has always been, and will continue to be the largest, most open and most diverse democratic nation-state on earth. 

On every measure of diversity — ethnicity, race, religions and religious practices, faith and faithlessness, intellectual inquiry and philosophical traditions, social groups, arts and entertainment, music, languages, dress habits, culinary traditions, extremes of weather, landscape, geography, types of grains, fruits, vegetables harvested cooked and eaten, variety of healthcare available (and affordable) — India stands leaps and bound ahead of all others. 

So, India for the last 60-plus years, and through the last 15 nationwide parliamentary elections, has been setting an example for the world “in holding the largest democratic election in history, a vibrant demonstration of our shared values of diversity and freedom.” Nothing new here. It is now routine and blasé.

With over 500 million people voting (66% of the voters cast their ballot in the scorching heat), there was no complaints about rigging, or election officials’ bias or bowing to the pressures of the ruling party. The defeated candidates accepted the verdict, congratulated their opponents and moved on as it routinely happens in all mature democracies. 

When is the last time the US congratulated, say, Italy, or Germany, or the France, or the UK, or Japan “for inspiring example of the power of the democratic process in action… … and for the vibrancy, diversity, and resilience of their democracy” ?

So, going forward, the US, the leader of the Industrialized West, its media, political class and bureaucracy, and the opinion makers in Think Tanks may be helping themselves by refining their understanding of India’s history and complexities before issuing somewhat patronizing statements.   For starters, opinion makers in the Industrialized West need to learn to look at India comprehensively on India’s own complex terms, and NOT

  • through the habituated Western prisms colored by the out-of-date vocabulary of colonial occupation, imperialism, and missionary work; or
  • through the NGOs they are funding; or
  • through what they hear from the self-serving religious and/or ideologically driven social scientists lobbying groups, or
  • through India’s culturally and linguistically disengaged anglicized upper crust they feel comfortable relating to.
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