by Gautam Pemmaraju
On a recent television panel discussion show, the BJP leader and senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani, in response to how the nation should respond to periodic terrorist attacks, said, unsurprisingly: “why can't we be like America?”. He also said that India should “stop comparing ourselves to Pakistan” in terms of terror attacks, for Pakistan, “is a failed state”. Again, this too is unsurprising. His comments followed those of film actor/activist and former Rajya Sabha MP Shabana Azmi, who, pointing to the fact that ‘not a single’ terror attack has taken place on American soil since 9-11, said “America dikha diya ke nahin?” or “hasn’t America shown the way?” Writer/Journalist Naresh Fernandes, also on the panel, in response to Mahesh Jethmalani, was quick to point out the obvious – America was “deeply embedded in two wars”, had perpetrated countless violations of civil rights, infringed/abridged speech unlawfully, tortured innocents, espoused dangerously divisive rhetoric, flagrantly contravened international law, amongst many other profoundly problematic transgressions in their response to 9-11.
While it is clear that both Azmi and Jethmalani were referring to securing India’s safety and escalating vigilance, the pointed invocation of America presents an opportunity to discursively examine how the desire to ‘be like America’ is imagined and expressed. It is mostly a desire for parity, which is increasingly evident in many aspects of public life and discourse, and runs alongside a disregard of regional aspirations of neighbouring nations, particularly Pakistan’s. Beleaguered as Pakistan may be in several ways, competitive nationalism comes into play, on both sides, and India to many, has the upper hand presently. While we have ‘arrived’ and are ‘poised’ for greater things, they, the popular narrative runs, have ‘failed’. The disregard is not exclusively reserved for our neighbours, but is also generously cast inward upon our own laws, the common people at large, and in specific on minorities, the poor, the disenfranchised, and the marginal. Consumerist desires aside, what seem further entrenched are disturbing predatory practices in many aspects of socio-economic activity, particularly in areas where government regulation is critical. Be it rural/tribal land acquisition, health, education, food production, housing, water resources, we see today not just highly questionable activities, but downright criminal ones as well.
So what does it mean for India to ‘be like America’ – semiotically charged as the phrase is? Should we ‘be like America’? Are there positive lessons to be learnt, portents and cautions that need be judiciously considered, institutions, ideas and processes that may be adopted? Or is it to be an unfalteringly foot-stomping ahead on to being a ‘superpower’?