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OP-ED: My dear America

  • Published at 12:35 am November 10th, 2020
statue of liberty america usa

The torment of a disillusioned fan

My dear America, shame on you.  All democracy-loving people all over the world look up to you for guidance in democracy.  You have dashed their faith to the ground, and that too beyond redemption.  With a $22 trillion economy, $65,000 per capita income, 99% literacy, and, over and above, a huge intellectual base that includes as many as 336 Nobel Laureates, nearly thrice the number of the next in line (UK), you could not even conduct an election with dignity!  

One would have pardoned you had it been unforeseen. But it was not unforeseen.  Everyone across the world, including you yourself, had anticipated that it would end up in violence soon after the results were out. One of your own presidential hopefuls in the early days of the Primaries, Bernie Sanders, had predicted what could be expected of President Donald Trump if he had an inkling of impending defeat. He would not wait, Sanders foretold, until the final count and would instead announce victory midway and incite his fans to go on a rampage.

Why this embarrassing charade? Do Trump and his fanatic admirers consider the White House their fiefdom which cannot be occupied by anyone else? Even the hysterical enthusiasts of victorious presidential candidate Andrew Jackson 200 years ago knew that he was not entitled to rule perpetually. Why then does this same America, which has proudly conducted peaceful presidential elections and smooth transfers of power from as early as 1789, suddenly finds itself in this cesspool?

I am personally disappointed, and I have my reasons. I was one of the first batch of Indian students to be exposed to American history at the University of Bhagalpur in Bihar in the early 1960s. Later, when I conducted research on America for my doctorate at Jawaharlal Nehru University, I realized it was part of American Cold War propaganda.

Whether or not it was part of CIA activity in India, the course exposed me to America and its history, which in turn informed my understanding of world politics during my future career. The tragic assassination of President John F Kennedy in 1963 left a deep imprint on me as he appeared to me a young dynamic leader. About Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination I had only read in books. It was during the same time that the American Embassy started publishing a monthly newspaper called The American Reporter, which was distributed free of cost (though each copy did carry a price sticker). 

The magazine carried a regular feature space called: “Inquiring Reporter.” Readers were invited to contribute answers to the question: Which American, living or dead, do you admire the most? My choice was foreordained. My indisputable hero during those days was Thomas Jefferson. He is known today not so much as the third president of the United States but much more so as the one who drafted America’s Declaration of Independence. 

But what impressed my impressionable mind the most was his commitment to freedom of thought. He wanted these words to be inscribed as his epitaph, inter alia: “I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against any kind of tyranny over the mind of man.” It was only later that I came to know that Jefferson was, true to his white gentry class, a significant slave owner. Not only that, he also fathered several children with his slave companion Sally Hemming, without emancipating any of them.

There was yet another aspect to my interest in America. From early childhood, the story of Columbus’s accidental discovery of America had fascinated me. I dreamt that someday I would go and meet these “Indians” (in India, the moniker “Red Indians” remains common) to see whether there was any similarity between us. 

That dream, however, remained a dream until I visited America for the first time in 1975 to conduct research at the Library of Congress. While in Washington DC, I got in touch with the Bureau of Education in the US State Department to help me fulfil my dream of visiting an Indian Pueblo. I remain ever grateful to the lady officer who helped organize my stay for two nights with Louis and Angi in the Yakima Valley Reservation in the state of Washington. 

The most memorable event during that visit was my participation in a Yakima Indian get-together. Contrary to my childhood imagination about Indians with colourful costumes and headgears, the people I met were dressed in the most trendy and expensive fashion and extravagantly decked out with jewelry. But what I recall most is the way my farmer host, Mr Louis, dragged me to the podium and loudly declared: “Here is the real Indian Columbus was looking for.” 

The assembled crowd greeted the announcement with deafening cheers. My day was made; my childhood dream culminated in this dramatic finale. After my return to India I consulted the American Library in Delhi to know more about American Indians and their tragic history. In due course, I wrote an article on them, which the leading weekly Sunday (Calcutta) carried in its April 16, 1978 issue under the title: “The Other Indians.”

During the final month of my research trip to the United States, I decided to explore the country. In those days there used to be so-called “hospitality centres” in almost every town where Americans could voluntarily register themselves as hosts to young foreigners. 

The latter were picked up from the local bus or rail station, or airport, taken for a free tour of the town and its neighbourhood, concluding with a lunch or dinner at the host’s home. I cannot remember how many American homes I visited this way during that month of crisscrossing the vast United States.

Therefore, it pains me when I see the aspects of America I love collapsing in front of my eyes. Americans need not be reminded that their country continues to exercise a massive influence on global norms of orderly life (in many ways this is separate from and does not let the US off the hook for poking its dirty nose in every nook and cranny of the world). If American democracy stumbles, that day is not far when most fledgling democracies in vast parts of the developing world will collapse like the proverbial pack of cards.

As a non-American I have no business to advise Americans but certain things defy anyone’s common sense. I am not even arguing that only popular votes should matter and that the Electoral College is anachronistic. I have enough reason to argue (see my October column) that in modified form it is perhaps the best guarantee for America’s federal model. 

And yet, I cannot believe that such an intelligent nation could be so naïve about setting its electoral house in order. The first task on the agenda of Congress should be to elect a bipartisan committee to go threadbare into all that plagues the American election system, debate the report word by word, and pass the final document latest by the year end. Let that be the 2022 New Year’s gift to the nation.

Editorial note: This article was written five days ago.

Partha S Ghosh is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. Formerly, ICSSR National Fellow, and Professor of South Asian Studies at JNU. E-mail: [email protected]