The American dichotomy

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The ‘Ugly American’ was a sneering way to describe citizens from the US in the sixties and the seventies. Cartoonists showed them holding dollars in one hand and weapons in the other. This was the time when Washington was the biggest aid giver as well as the supporter of dictatorial regimes. Convulsions in Egypt and the unrest in most other Arab countries show that Uncle Sam has not learnt that democracy is not a half-way house.

You cannot foster the ideology when you overlook the basic requirement of free, fair and regular polls. I have found Americans generous, law abiding and democratic. But as a country they are arrogant, self-interested and domineering. They want to be masters, not friends. They lack the sensitivity to appreciate aspirations of other countries which want to stay distant and different. Some of them are democratic but want to retain their identity. The convergence of interests does not mean the American way of living or thinking.

There are different strands of culture. Yet, in their habit of back slapping Americans fail to appreciate that what they consider right is wrong in the eyes of others. Indians were shocked when they saw on TV screens the students of their country wearing radio tags, sort of a foot-cuff, which an American Public Relations officer described as a trinket which is considered hip. Instead of offering an unqualified apology, the US State Department said that such were the laws of their land. I dare the American government to treat their students or those from Europe in the same way.

People in India are not anti-America and admire the country in many ways. Yet what has been done to the students is shameful. Those detained subsequently have described the hell they went through detention. The whole incident will rankle in Indian minds for a long time.

America repeats the same mistake in a different way in Pakistan. An American “contractor” kills two persons in Lahore and asks for diplomatic immunity for him, post-facto, when the case is before the court. And then adds fuel to the fire when it threatens to cut off aid.

What do strategic relations with India or, for that matter, Pakistan mean to the common man when he finds that his countrymen are humiliated or shot dead point blank? Such inhuman acts must have washed away the millions of dollars America may have spent on improving its image in the area.

The real India or Pakistan is distant from the cocktail circles. But America does not know any other way except to impress a country with the almighty dollar. President Obama went down well when he visited New Delhi because he behaved like a person next door.

I believe that there is going to be a flurry of American dignitaries visiting India in the next few weeks. US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke is already in town. But his eyes are fixed on economic reforms from the Western viewpoint. We have our own pace and we do not want to be pushed. Development to us means inclusive development. Already the pressure of America and the World Bank has made us take steps where the growth has primarily gone to the rich. Wealth has come to be concentrated in few top individuals, companies or regions.

Why has the US practically lost the entire Arab world? Its contact has never been with the people. It has been fraternizing with the rulers who evoke authority, not popularity. If the US wants deep relationship with India or Pakistan, it has to foster people-to-people contact and show respect to their culture and traditions. This was lacking in the treatment meted out to the students and the angry crowd in Pakistan. An apology by the State Department even at this time is not too late.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist.