The first thing that struck me was how the claps kept coming at regular intervals in exactly the same strength, as if exactly the same number of hands were clapping at the same intensity to the ministering of an invisible conductor. The sound came from the hall’s upper section hall in the US Senate, where an occasional wide-angle positioned camera threw us a glance of pliant Indians in raptures as their leader spoke.
The claps kept coming as Modi rolled out a speech with trademark Indianisms, which is a polite way of saying, it was replete with stock phrases and homilies that brought on one round of applause after another.
“Standing here, seven Junes ago…” said Modi with a dramatic flourish, “…the hesitations of history were behind us.” Whatever that’s supposed to mean, you or I may ask, not the professional clappers.
Encouraged to say more, by the sounds from above, Modi kept the gems flowing. “Through the long and winding road we have travelled, we have met the test of friendship.” You could almost hear the heaving Indians ushered into the top benches of the senate saying sixer, maar diya!
Then, an extraordinary thing happened. Modi quoted from the Hindu scriptures in Sanskrit, as he is given to do.
“Ekam Satta, Vipra Bahudha Vadannti.”
This was followed by the same ecstatic applause before Modi read the translation in English. Amazing that an entire section of the US Senate could now understand Sanskrit.
The translation was read while the claps were in progress.
“The truth is one but the wise express it in different ways,” Modi explained.
Could I be imagining this? Was I a hyperactive viewer? But it happened again.
“Our vision is, sabka saath, sabka vikaas, sabka vishwaas, sabka prayaas,”
This time, our multilingual senate understood Hindi before Modi could follow through with the English version.
There were other observations I made, less about the semantics, more about the troubling substance of Modi’s speech. There was the spinning of the usual Hindu nationalist yarn that India has overthrown a thousand years of slavery, implying that India was unfree under Mughal and pre-Mughal medieval rulers.
There was the blatant and cruel joke of the prime minister talking of cooperative federalism when at home, Manipur burned because of the lack of precisely that and the Delhi government was protesting the centre’s constant attempts to take away autonomy from an opposition-ruled government.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the US Congress. Photo: Twitter/@SpeakerMcCarthy
This made me ask bigger questions about the farcical performance at hand. Where is the word democracy in this show if a senate in search of money and an Indian market has to kowtow to a visiting dignitary in this way? The upper stalls were replete with war-cry-like gasping chants of ‘Modi, Modi’ peppered with whistles.
If the US calls itself the world’s oldest democracy, where does it hide after such a display? On the one hand, it is replete with government-funded think tanks acting as self-appointed arbiters of democracy creating indices telling the world where we stand on the democracy index.
On the other hand, Americans are well aware of how capital can twist and distort democracy into an ugly mobocracy that can literally rip the insides of their White House to shreds. They are barely back from precisely such a precipice so they know what a megalomaniac who likes to preen in public can do. They’ve seen it. The Senate that clapped and allowed clapping has seen it.
But all of us glued to our screens watching the speech could also see US Vice President Kamala Harris keep a steely stoicism as she sat directly behind the Hindu dictator, her Indian roots called into play as part of the programme.
We ought to know how to read the signs. The same tropes play out whether it’s the pre- or post-Trump regime. Biden, Obama, and Trump can all be conflated into one big business ball prepared to pay the price, any price, any act to run their local markets and keep local voters happy.
While this show runs to a full house, let’s now call into play the last such choreographed act from the times of Obama. Circa 2016, Modi’s rockstar-type show at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Cameras hovering over the audience rows showed people in skullcaps all sitting together. That must have taken some doing. It was another level of absurdist theatre where you would need to imagine what would have had to play out if indeed all Muslims entered Madison Square at the same time and booked seats next to one another.
Google the video. Then let’s imagine what we are supposed to.
Says one Muslim to another in this imaginarium: “Hey, do you know Modi is coming to town? Let’s book tickets together and oh, don’t forget your skull cap. And listen, let’s get all our friends to come watch, we love Modi and let’s show him we care by entering the hall together sitting in one place.”
“Yes, let’s all do that, what a good idea.”
If world politics is about which leaders are shunned and who is feted, if the US sits in judgement on who is democratic and who should be in a G8 group or the UN security council, then it has a lot to answer for. And we, the enraptured viewers, have even more to think about as we sit with eyeballs and ears peeled to this display.
Should we stop looking in official places for holding up the image of liberty, equality, and fraternity? Where should we turn instead, to understand the true value of freedom and dissent? If the 99% matter, if Black Lives and Dalit Lives matter, then can we stop using vacuous references to the demos like the world’s largest and world’s oldest? Also, should we turn our gaze elsewhere for a freedom index?
Can we look at how Taiwan is fighting the monolith that is China? Can we look at the Aboriginal movements in Australia and New Zealand? Can we ask the LGBTQ+ community in Brazil how they bent the votes against Bolsanaro? Can we look at post-apartheid South Africa? And the next time when someone says the world’s biggest, the world’s oldest, greatest, fastest, fattest, can we collectively agree that these are salesman-politicians in teflon democracies and look away?
Revati Laul is a journalist and author of The Anatomy of Hate. She lives and works in Shamli, Uttar Pradesh where she set up an NGO called The Sarfaroshi Foundation – sarfaroshi.net