India is struggling with COVID-19. Case loads and deaths are mounting. Testing rates are low. The pandemic’s pains have been acutely felt amidst the country’s high poverty, weak social safety nets, and an economy that was slowing even before virus struck. And the government’s economic stimulus package could have been more generous and better-designed.
Yet opinion polls reveal Indians to be among the people most satisfied with their government’s COVID-19 response. This owes much to the high approval rating Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys and his ability to convert a national crisis into a rally around the flag (and by extension, his government) moment.
That said, the Indian government would have faced more flak over its COVID-19 response if the United States wasn’t busting the charts, so to speak. But America has some of the most unflattering numbers on the planet, and one hears many Indians saying: If the world’s mightiest country, much less populous and with first world infrastructure, is finding itself overwhelmed by the pandemic, maybe our government isn’t doing too badly and needs to be cut some slack? (Interestingly, President Donald Trump believes America is doing better than other nations, including India, which he says has a “tremendous problem” on its hands.)
This isn’t the only recent instance when Indians have drawn consolation from what is happening in the United States, feeling a little reassured about discomfiting things happening here in India because similar things are happening in the U.S. too.
Trump, his contempt of political rivals, public institutions, and the media, and the extremist voices he appears to have emboldened tell many Indians that an angry, exclusivist political discourse and concerns over institutional subversion aren’t issues unique to us.
The Black Lives Matter movement, the patently unwarranted police action that precipitated it, and the long-standing, barely concealed racial issues it brought attention to tell many Indians that American society holds problematic biases too, that discrimination and violence against specific social groups is too complicated an issue for even America — with all its civil rights history, high literacy, and emphasis on rule of law — to address.
There are reasons why we Indians, like people in many other parts of the world, compare ourselves and our situations to America more than any other nation: Because America has enviable economic and military muscle and has shaped global ideas of cool for years. Because we have aspired to be as muscular and cool as America. Because we have gathered from the American example that being a democracy need not hobble our long-standing quest for global leadership.
America, then, for a long time, has stoked our aspirations for a certain kind of global heft, debatable as its value may be, offered pointers to policymakers and businesses to work toward that goal, and created popular mindspace for market-friendly economics, muscular foreign policies, consumerism and its dazzles.
Now with America losing its shine and showing an underbelly that has several blotches reminiscent of our own, it is doing something different, even opposite. America is not inspiring India. Instead it is, at least in the social and governance space, nudging us to settle down, making us more tolerant of the political overreach and social polarization around us.
Essentially Indians have begun reading our problems as part of a global malaise shaped by global currents and wondering if we could remain untouched if the greatest power of our time couldn’t, wondering if there’s a certain inevitability to our uneasy present. It makes us more forgiving of governmental lapses and lulls us to the dangers of social polarization.
The need of the moment is to alert ourselves to the changes unfolding around us and gear ourselves to respond to them in our own immediate local and country contexts — peacefully, democratically, resolutely. Of course, a wider, international examination of the forces shaping those changes, the trajectories they are taking, and the counter-mobilization happening against them will help strategize our own responses, much as our own experiences could inform those of concerned groups and individuals elsewhere.
The American situation, indeed the international situation, should not be lowering Indian expectations from governments and the political class and diminishing our will to ask questions of them. Instead it should be helping us understand present challenges, figure out ways and alliances to address them. India or America, every country has reserves of the necessary wisdom and inspiration. We just need to look harder and clearer.
Manish Dubey is an India-based governance expert, political columnist, and writer. He tweets @ManishDubey1972.