Seeing an India beyond elephants

Behind the tourist stops, Clinton's visit this week seeks to pave the way to better understanding.

Fresh from a photo shoot with President Clinton and daughter Chelsea in front of the luminous Taj Mahal, the White House press corps arrived in Jaipur, home of old India's maharajahs, to find an exotic scene: elephants in a torch-lit parking lot. Rajasthani dancers, with bronze flame pots on their heads, undulated to the contrapuntal tones of drumming tabla players.

"Oh no," an Indian diplomat blinked ruefully. "It's elephants again. That's the picture of India we keep sending out."

As Mr. Clinton voyages from New Delhi to the heartland of India, through high-tech Hyderabad and on to the financial capital, Bombay, he is engaging in a theater of perceptions where people are very sensitive about being left off the priority lists of the West.

Clinton, apologizing for that "neglect," wants to showcase a "new India," as he said in a carefully crafted speech to the Indian Parliament Wednesday. "I want people all over the world to see India in a more complete way," he told young women council leaders in a village near Jaipur yesterday.

Beneath the surface, Clinton's trip furthers a complex relationship that is swiftly expanding between India and the US. For the most part, it is still largely one way. The "globalization" of images and symbols, of film and sports stars, of fashion and lifestyles - is imported from New York and Los Angeles. In just the past five years, a diet of US pop culture has been fixed in the habits and aspirations of the Indian middle class - from new fitness centers in urban areas, to beauty and fashion contests, to American habits like orange juice for breakfast.

Increasing exchanges

To an extraordinary degree, Indians have a relationship with America in their minds - even while most Americans know little about India or South Asia apart from stereotypes of the Orient. But the vigorous White House trip, the first in 22 years (nearly half the life of the Indian republic) may well increase the intensity and volume of Indo-US exchanges.

At the core of these relations, diplomats say, is a dynamic based on an Indian desire for respect. Indians feel acutely a mixture of post-colonial frustration and ambivalence about the US. The White House has tried to figure on this dynamic in its visit - a dynamic not well understood by Americans, observers say.

Clinton's address before the Indian Parliament, for example, was widely praised by Delhi, despite the president's firm resolve that India should reverse its recent development of nuclear weapons.

"He did not talk down to us, but he gave the American position," says Indian foreign ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna. "Indians are very sensitive about being dictated to."

The distinct Indo-US psychology is captured in a much discussed essay, "Yankee Go Home, But Take Me With You," by Delhi social scientist Jairam Ramesh. Indians say privately that Americans are impatient, overbearing, and insensitive. "But at the same time we crave American interest, attention, and affection," writes Dr. Ramesh. "We want the US to be out but we want to be in with it. We want to have a special relationship with you, on our terms."

The average Indian has a complex and deeply ambivalent relationship with America "marked by a mixture of attraction and fear," argues Kanti Bajpai of Jahwaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. "Any middle [class] Indian who has spent a day on the streets of America turns into a footloose, swaggering native ... [and] thanks to American films ... [and] books, Indians can be American without even setting foot in America."

Indian newspapers run daily front page photos and columns on American stars and political figures, often in very familiar and even intimate terms. Marquee idols like Arnold Schwarzenegger and tennis player Andre Agassi are common fare, but Indians know volumes about emerging names like Gywneth Paltrow and singer Jewel, reading discussions and analyses of their lives. References to the West sell. The Sunday before Clinton arrived, for example, The Times of India carried a large front page photo and story of actress Ashley Judd, with a headline "Hey Judd," a play on the Beatles song "Hey Jude."

Playing off this theme, Clinton meets today in a cyber caf in Bombay with young Indians, leaders of "generation next," as the White House has described them.

Yet in a less glamorous cyber caf in Delhi, located between two grubby tire and auto-rickshaw repair shops, reporters this week found four computers whose Web site entry logs offered their own story about the emerging Indo-US relationship and its aspirations. Most of the sites visited were online American employment and rsum services. "This is a 'USA jobsites dotcom' caf," says one smiling local.

Accent on the positive

In its long-delayed India visit, the White House has focused on going places and doing things that emphasize a positive and engaging US handshake. Indeed, Indian officials seem impressed and even a bit dazed by Clinton's energy; he has appeared to be relaxed and enjoying himself.

In his speech to the Parliament, Clinton pointed out that "A poet once said the world's inhabitants can be divided into 'those that have seen the Taj Mahal and those that have not.' In a few hours I will have a chance to cross over to the happier side."

In his trips to the Taj, to Nayla village where women have fought for equal pay and education, and to a tiger park, the president announced US initiatives and aid grants for clean air, women's rights, and endangered animals. In Nayla, Clinton danced while being showered with flower petals. The women sang a native song about their work. "Awaken, women of my land. It's time we empowered ourselves. My day begins at 4 a.m. I begin by grinding wheat. I grind and I grind until my knees ache. Yet there is no dignity for my work."

What the White House is attempting, some former US officials say, is to try to inaugurate a relationship where Indo-US relations are imparted more by symbol and indirection - rather than preaching.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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