In the beginning, anti-Americanism was played out against the great passion plays of history; it was then an ism sustained by the brotherhood of victims. And being victim was a state of mind of the spectator who could not comprehend one nation’s ability to blend domestic interest with global idealism. When decolonisation was a national struggle, and when almost every decolonised nation was tempted by the Soviet style of socialism, America had a different take on freedom. The newly liberated nation builders, invariably, looked towards Moscow for inspiration. Most of them, in the end, became Stalin clones. Hate Americana was a necessary alternative for the liberator- turned-tyrant.
Most of that variety found a place in the Non Aligned Movement, which, as the last word of the name suggests, was, and still is, more than a grouping of neutral nations. It was a movement—and among its founders perhaps Nehru was the only true democrat—marked by an inherent sense of anti-Americanism. It was hardly non- aligned when it found Soviet communism more useful a model than the ‘imperial’ democracy of America. The romantic notion of Third Worldism—the fable of national wretchedness— wanted a bogeyman, and Washington was there waiting.
Anti-Americanism became street theatre of protest when Vietnam for Washington was a freedom project, a necessary intervention. In the twenty-first century, it would be repeated elsewhere. 9/11 changed the world, but it changed America more. A Manichean moral starkness came to define the worldview of George W Bush, whose image of a gun-slinging , Bible- driven cowboy president was a made-to-order villain in the updated narrative of anti-Americanism.
That character in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist who smiled as he watched the twin towers burning on his television was not a stranger. For those fed on the mythology of America as a source of all our sorrows, it was a sight of secret pleasure—the shared perversion of anti-Americanism.
The necessary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq aggravated the ism, and Pox Americana was a common pun. The unloved America became the hated America, and for certain anti- Americanists in Delhi and elsewhere, Tora Bora, where the last troglodyte of jihad escaped the American missiles for a while, was the incantation of a freedom struggle. From the mean streets of the Middle East to the bylanes of Malabar, imperial America united the orphaned Saddamists and Osama’s fan clubs, and in a strange alliance of theology and ideology, it brought together Islamists, communists and other sundry debunkers of the so-called American moral duplicity.
In India, the ism is still alive, and most incongruously, it is kept alive by a section of our ruling and intellectual elite. For the Establishment, it is the Nehruvian legacy of creating the Indian version of the socialist New Man, which itself was a failed project in history. As any other non-aligned nation, India too was pro-Soviet, and successive regimes nurtured the inherent anti-Americanism of the Establishment for which the Soviet Union was a natural ally. And for the intellectual in search of a context to play out his text of dissent, there was nothing more beguiling than the violations of American imperialism. It was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who finally put an end to the practice of anti-Americanism as a state religion, and still, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it took India a decade to catch up with a world emerging from the wreckage of ideology.
Which does not mean that anti- Americanism is dead. Not here, though the Marxists, who were once its most virulent apostles in politics, are too steeped in their own irrelevance to keep it as a campaign. That said, civil society has made anti-Americanism redundant in a world where Americanism is what we experience most, knowingly or not, in our political, economic and cultural life.
No other country has invaded the world with ideas of freedom as America did: the exceptionalism of America is what we call globalisation, like it or not. Anti-Americanism is kept alive by those who think the impulses and instincts of democracy, the autonomy of markets, movies and music, fast food and hi-tech, and moral vigilantism are bad for the world. We are all American today, Le Monde said after 9/11. We still are—in our most casual ways of freedom.
Narendra Modi’s American journey should be the beginning of a historical correction. After all, the one who could be India’s Reagan should remain untouched by another ism abandoned by history.