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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Capital Letter

December 10, 2011

American Life: Washington Journal
A Saturday afternoon at the Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington DC: I am waiting for my bag. It shows up and so do my hosts Gautam and Rita and with them the promise of a fabulous weekend plus.
Gautam is the most insightful person I know. You really have to read his book, The Intolerant Indian, to know how perspicacious this man is. Yet, I have always thought of him a rock star, never mind he’s been the editor of The Times of India and founding editor of DNA. His book, however, leads me to believe there is so much more to Gautam than his editor persona or his Elvis singsong.
So there he was with his wife Rita, wheeling my bag to the parking lot. We drove to his house in Chevy Chase, savoring the prospect of the next few days. As soon as we got in his car, Gautam was all about business. And his business was about pleasure. “We’re going here, there and everywhere,” he says, in his Beatles-besotted way as he pulls his car out of the parking lot.
He makes me sit shotgun while Rita sits in the back; she is the “chopdi (book) aunty,” as a friend christened her once in Goa, for her encyclopedic knowledge about everything. That afternoon, she was leading the charge against “these reactionary Republicans.” In his wry way, Gautam reminds her that I am the only one in the car who had shaken hands and had a picture taken with George W Bush, the hate figure for American liberals.
We make our way through this gorgeous city and I can’t help but marvel at the stuff that flies by the car window; stuff we see all the time on television: this monument, that government building, whatever. It is truly a beautiful city and whether you like it or not, it is the capital of the world.
Driving through the city, we cross into Maryland’s Chevy Chase, where Gautam and Rita reside. The place has an air of understated class; which also describes my hosts.
Through the stay, I spent time with their friends and loved every minute of it. What was remarkable was these friends were as comfortable with me as I was with them; as though I’d known them forever. More likely, it was the old “any friend of Gautam and Rita’s” syndrome. Conversations were enlightened and at times, enlivened by my minor intrusions into their liberal groupthink.
They seemed to be all McGovern liberals. I gave up that ghost a long time ago when it became clear unadulterated American liberalism is about class and privilege, on the one hand; on the other hand, it has a streak of populism: a patrician dislike of business and commerce. Bill Clinton was not about that and W was a foaming-in-the-mouth response to classic American liberalism.
In the several salon-type interactions Gautam organized, it became clear the hatred for W and the Republicans among liberals is entrenched and ultimately as divisive as the agenda of their hate object, George W Bush. Equally puzzling is their lukewarm support for Obama, who has brought to the national scene the art of compromise and negotiation that is part and parcel of state and city politics in this admirable country.
The flight of liberals from Obama’s camp is, dare I say it, an expression of disappointment. They seem to be saying: we elected you, our first black president; you were proof of our liberal credentials and you compromise with all manner of people and policy positions that are anathema to us?
Much like in India, the ruling dispensation here seems to have lost its way between the assaults from the religious right and indignant liberals. The fate of Obama and Dr Manmohan Singh in India will determine the future of democracy and liberalism in the world. The EU crisis, as always with the Europeans, is about money.
On the way back to Delhi, at Dulles, I contemplated the stentorian arbitrariness of the Homeland Security system that stalks all American airports. Struggling through the gauntlet of not-so-bright people, who may have been recruited from the American jail regime or street gangs, I thought to myself: America national security state and India anti-corruption zeal are probably the two greatest threats to liberal democracy.
At American airports and in Indian media, it appears as though the regimentation and anarchy are on the rise. At Dulles, O’Hare, Kennedy and various points of entry, agents of the emergent national security regime evoke fear and awe, largely because they have the power to whisk you away and throw you in jail and keep you there for months without framing charges. In India, prodded by anarchists and their anti- corruption protests, the judicial system can do much the same.
This article appeared in The Times of India on December 17, 2011.