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Return of the repressed

The Ugly Indian and the Ugly American have rediscovered each other.

India and the United States have gone from a strategic partnership to an almost full-scale cultural war. It is hard to remember a recent episode where the mutual accusations were defined not just by interest or specific injury, but a whole range of cultural attitudes whose utterance had long been suppressed. The American liberal establishment has suddenly rediscovered an India that is reactionary, exploitative, deceitful, feudal and incapable of the rule of law. India’s response is: tell us something we don’t know. India has discovered an America full of moral double standards, deep hypocrisy, conspiratorial duplicity, an oppressive criminal justice system and an insatiable urge to exert power just for the sake of it. The American response is: you would say that wouldn’t you. Like many cultural wars, this one is now becoming self-fulfilling — the more each side describes the other, the more each side is convinced of its own virtue. The more the facts of the case are presented, the more general sociological indictments are produced. The Ugly Indian and Ugly American have rediscovered each other.

Of course, the episode looms larger in the Indian consciousness; our self-esteem is shaped by what others think of us. It is hard to shake off the odour of entrapment in what the state department did. But equally, we cannot deny the fact that the government of India made India legally and morally vulnerable by not doing its homework. It would be easy to dismiss this as an artefact of the IFS clinging to its privilege; after all, nothing like the fury unleashed when you cross the Indian bureaucracy. But there is more to this.

As Devesh Kapur recently pointed out, a crisis in Indo-US relations has long been in the making. There is, of course, the massive shift in perceptions of India that frames the reception of events. India’s new economy used to be the darling of The New York Times, now its old society is subject to yawningly relentless indictment. India was the maturing great power, now it has become an infantile wannabe. It had a strong government, now it is flailing. But in India, the explosion of reaction goes beyond the IFS and sections of the media. The case has become a marker of our confusions over our relationship with the US.

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