Shashidhar Nanjundaiah: What the US elections can tell us about ourselves

29 Oct,2020

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah

 

This fortnight, I will succumb to the temptation to veer off just a little bit and hold the media-centredness in my column at the periphery of this piece. Well-known columnist and TV show host Fareed Zakaria said this week that he had predicted the US election wrongly in 2016, but he will go ahead and stick his neck out again this year. Zakaria said the maverick Donald Trump, who currently has the lowest-ever rating for a US President, is an aberration and an honest mistake wrought by a combination of demagoguery and Electoral College technicalities.

 

Zakaria’s personal reminiscence took me back a few years. Like Zakaria, I went to the US as a student, but unlike him, I returned after my education and went back temporarily later to work. My first exposure to the country was 1992 Texas, my mind filled with Indian gossip and Hollywood images about racism, mugging, constantly swearing rude people, great lifestyle and cars. Over the next few months, I found that most historical facts I had heard turned out true, while most spotlighted rumours about blatant racism turned out false. While rural Texans were still suspicious of outsiders, our twin college towns were friendly, the enforcement gentle but firm, and people in general were extremely helpful, accommodating and inclusive (as my many invited visits to crazy parties evidenced!). The media was not very differently organised from the way it is today—a combination of national television, national and local newspapers, and local and syndicated radio shows.

 

I would cringe at sporadic remarks at college parties or private conversations about Gandhi and poverty, but as I would later realise that my reactions were typical defence mechanisms of a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant. George HW Bush, after whom our university’s library was named, would soon lose to an aggressive Bill Clinton—through unethical means, some of my Texan friends would claim. It was an easy country to blend into. Indeed, my Indian friends and I would often take undue advantage of small acts of trust and generosity embedded in good business practices—such as returnable items, unknown to us at that time in India. When we returned a keyboard instrument on Monday for reasons of “Didn’t like product”, the clerk at Wal-Mart probably knew we had bought it merely to jam over the weekend. Yet she would oblige with a smile, no questions asked. Over time, we integrated better, recognising the social value of those business actions rather than treating them as loopholes, as we were compulsively wont to.

 

It was, of course, a divided society: I would be constantly surprised at the existence of radio and television stations specifically aimed at the Black community. It was way worse, of course, in rural America: one of my classmates told me she could never tell her parents she was dating a Black guy, much less take him home to meet them. But overall, it was a society making honest efforts to emerge out of its horrendous racial history and yet proudly capitalising on the vast infrastructural improvements of the 1940s and 1950s.

 

Back to take a job in the mid-2000s to a psychologically scarred nation—albeit to the vastly different society of New York—things had changed. There was some anger against outsiders, but that was for economic reasons. Outsourcing backend work to countries like India and South East Asia meant loss of jobs to locals, and some people I met made no bones of it. Others brought it up in conversations. Later, in 2016, when Trump emerged victorious, I was as taken aback as most of my ’90s friends were.

 

The Black Lives Matter movement had led to Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter—it had seemed racial tensions were back. Still, after all the seeming regression and pent-up anger gave rise to Trump and QAnon, I do not believe it will make Americans vote for Trump again. I do not believe that it was a routine election in 2016 for someone like Trump to win an election. I trust Americans to use their better judgment this time because Trump is an antithesis of their society, of their cultivated inclusiveness, of America itself. This vote will be a vote for balance and not vendetta.

 

Cut to India. We live in an India where social media platforms (rather than social media itself, which is value-agnostic technology dependent on clever human coding) have divided the society and enabled the venting of anger and the rise of ultra-right politics along with sharp rhetoric and stentorian claims. Perfunctory noises are being made to fool us into believing that Facebook and Google will somehow be reined in and everything will be all right again. Our mainstream media’s Mixed Model has long been replaced by an unknown model—one that pretends to be pro-commercial and pro-development, but in fact conveniently blames commercialism for its opportunistic self-centredness.

 

The definition of inclusiveness has changed. We are willing to embrace the LGBTIA community while practising the fractures of caste and religion. Our logic, too, has changed. National pride must be equated with hatred for Pakistan, if you believe many of our politicians and our media anchors. If some of us are dreaming that our society damaged by media and social media provocations will somehow be repaired in a hurry, it is unlikely. We live in an India where the majority has been convinced that it is the victim, and should not feel responsible for its past. So it is happy to pretend to itself that a divided society is a fair society.

 

A society is like history and a river—you can’t step into the same one twice. While we must look west to American election next week to understand how societies learn to sew themselves up, we must also recognise that in India, a change-back is a long way off because Narendra Modi was never the aberration. He is mainstream to a majority that feels empowered to decide how much to progress technologically into the future, and how much to regress socially into divisiveness. Literally all our institutions, including our media industry, have reorganised themselves to a normal where balance and fairness are not equated. The reason for that reorganisation is that there is no change visible on the horizon.

 

As founder of BeingResponsible, Shashidhar Nanjundaiah is attempting to build media awareness among school- and college-goers via Responsible Media Literacy. Prof Nanjundaiah has led media institutes to positions of repute and leadership. He can be reached at shashi.nanjundaiah@hotmail.com.

 

 

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