The Efficacy of Modern Democracies at and beyond Home
by Rahul K. Gairola
On 8 November, 2016, two remarkable events simultaneously unfolded halfway around the world from each other: one, in the world’s most powerful democracy, the other in its largest and youngest. In the former, Donald J. Trump became the President-elect of the United States, while in the latter, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the shocking announcement that the Government of India was demonetizing all 500 and 1,000 rupee notes. As I witnessed both events unfold at the same time in my chilly room in Roorkee, India, it became painfully obvious to me just how misguided any democracy can become when so deeply shaped—unto the extremes of life and death—by money. While this seems deceptively simple, at no other time during my life has it become so abundantly clear. Indeed, the objectives of transnational capitalism’s life-shifting machinations, beneath the umbrella of “democracy,” are arguably most evident today in the post-colonial policies in India and industrialized modernity in the U.S.
Modi has claimed to be targeting black money that facilitates corruption while Trump claimed that he wanted to “drain the swamp”—that is, to minimize bureaucratic red tape in the U.S. Federal Government. Both analogies, couched in Manichean and tropicalist language, sound impressive but dangerously abstract material human misery. The reality in both countries after 8 November, 2016, is that the most vulnerable members of society have become the conservative governments’ most visible targets. As reports of dire hardships, even deaths, were reported by middle- and lower-class citizens in the aftermath of demonetisation of the rupee notes in India, rampant instances of racist and xenophobic violence erupted throughout the United States.
More recently, a violent shooting of an Indian has taken place and President Trump has been relatively silent, ostensibly condoning the violence by not speaking out against it. Prime Minister Modi has not condemned the Kansas murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, which is deeply disturbing considering the many South Asians in general, and IITians in particular, who dream of studying and working in the U.S. Many have read this conspicuous silence on the shooting of another Indian in America as a signal that Modi’s administration feels uncertainty with the petulant new leader of the so-called free world.
Many of us are left asking why the most vulnerable souls of these two great democracies—the homeless poor, Muslims, the LGBTQI community, immigrants of color—are suffering the most. How could this have come to be, and at the same moment in history? How could our white brothers and sisters claim to be “colorblind” yet vehemently disavow racism while they watch it unfold each day and look the other way down streets soaked in blood?
Perhaps most disturbing at this painful historical moment is how particularly entrenched neoliberal capitalism’s grotesque mutation has become in our post-millennial societies. I am increasingly shell-shocked by how visceral materialism and monetary abstractions of humanity define our planet today. Democracy and its “elections,” increasingly so, seem consigned to shady, backroom deals rather than bringing into the light the voices and agency of disenfranchised and historically exploited peoples. Many have expressed shock over Trump’s jolting ascendency to the most powerful position on Earth and dismay over Hilary Clinton’s fall from hegemonic grace. At the same time, many have praised Modi for thwarting black money and are shocked when his critics point out the pitfalls of demonetization and its catastrophic impact on disadvantaged Indians and the national economy.
But is it shock that we should be feeling? Rather, in retrospect, we should have anticipated the signs of an impending upset and braced for it years ago. To a U.S. citizen and registered voter who lives and works in northern India, it appears that both these synchronized and tectonic shifts—the rise of Trumpism in the U.S. and Modi’s nationalist populism in India—inaugurate a key development in the relationship between contemporary democracy and neoliberalism today in which it seems patriotic to hate, rather than love, thy neighbor, especially when it’s profitable.
This shift arguably is intensifying, with greater magnitude, around the concept of “home.” While domestic configurations of “home” orbit around the self-justifying rhetoric of exclusion, its international scope obsesses with a nativist fantasy of a “homeland” in relation to other nations. This nativist fantasy, compounded by woefully arrogant notions of “Manifest Destiny,” have driven and justified American white supremacy by allowing them to pay lip-service to diversity and multiculturalism, all the while advocating policies and laws that decimate communities of color.
This fantasy curiously expunges indigenous peoples of the United States from the annals of history, even as it violently seizes their lands while building walls to protect America from the indigenous Mexicans whose lands were forcefully appropriated by the U.S. It allows the best intentioned white Americans not to think twice about the police murders of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and the hundreds of other black men and women who have been killed in the U.S. during routine police procedures. It allows many in India to condemn Indophobic bigotry while we avert our gazes from the terrifying, anti-black mob violence that Africans in India face.
The institutionalized normalization of xenophobic governmentality, to use Michel Foucault’s term for “the how of government,” has indisputably cut the life expectancy of black and brown peoples in the U.S. in relation to police brutality, the prison industrial complex, social welfare, health care policies, the war on drugs, etc. Similarly, in India, the country’s obsession with white skin has materialized in reprehensible violence against African nationals in the New Delhi area and in other parts of the country. Yet, these current events are merely symptoms of larger economic policies that have swept the world as pushback after the demise of traditional colonialism and in the wake of civil rights movements.
This precedent is often cited as the transatlantic, tag-team destruction of social services promoted by Ronald Reagan in the United States and the controversial Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom from the early 1980s. Reaganomics and Thatcherism were presented as a transatlantic, “special relationship” between the two dominant empires of the Anglosphere that endures to this day.Democratic inclusion of subjects into the nation through assimilatory domesticity allows those in power to exercise control over those within and at the borders—namely, those who are different—by right of citizenship.
This intensified policing of “home” is a frightening turn in U.S. politics. Thatcher raised everyday Britons’ alarms when she apocalyptically warned that the U.K. would be “rather swamped by people of a different culture.” In a different manner of appealing to everyday voters, Trump invoked a marshland of elitism when he promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C. But blaming it all on the xenophobic arrogance of Trump is, at best, a naive simplification. Trump reflects to Americans the smug arrogance that the rest of the world recognizes.
Trump is the consolidation of “the Ugly American” at every level: he is, in mild terms, a climate-change disbelieving, pussy grabbing, Islamophobic sexual predator whose non-existent political platform whipped up frenzied xenophobia, queerphobia, ableism, and misogyny into a toxic brew that unleashed the latent resentment and hatred of millions of (mainly white) Americans. Have no illusion; he is the antithesis of democracy. Indeed, with months of reflection behind us, it is clear that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million from a staggering pool of disenfranchised voters.
Modi’s populist campaigning has captured votes throughout India: The BJP won just 31% of the vote share in India despite electoral winds across the country. But it has also unleashed what the Human Rights Watch views as a brutal assault on minorities, dissenters, and civil society groups in the world’s largest democracy. This evinces that citizens in democracies are, in fact, becoming “homeless” within the very throes of the hard-fought rights of universal suffrage in both post-colonial countries. This attack on nation-as-home in the U.S., the land of my birth, includes the weaponization of religion, the normalization of xenophobia and its conflation with patriotism (as shockingly demonstrated by Brexit and Trump’s election, which I have elsewhere dubbed as “Amerexit”), and the manipulation of voting numbers through voting obstruction.
India arguably witnessed, and is still reeling from, the blood-soaked impact of the first Brexit—Britain’s rushed exit from India, after the “Jewel in the Crown” ceased being profitable. The Partition of the subcontinent, which occurred exactly 70 years ago this month, resulted in the largest migration of human populations in world history—two new homelands “swamped,” if you will, by westward and eastward migrations mired in rivers of blood. The communal violence in India is a relatively recent historical tragedy compared to the widespread genocide of the “other Indians”—the indigenous, native tribes of North America who recently lost their bid to prevent the invasive expropriation of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Clearly, sovereignty on their homelands is secondary to corporate profit, and this goes hand-in-hand with the agenda of neoliberal capitalism in the new millennium.
This assault on nation-as-home in the United States encrypted and is deployed by Republican contrived gerrymandering, voter intimidation, open-carry gun laws, odd polling hours, red-lining, archaic and unrepresentative U.S. voting laws, the Tea Party and the Birther movement, the dominance of Super PACS, the hegemony of Citizens United, and homeland security. In short, the institutionalization of valid subjectivity, and the policing of who exactly is allowed to access the spaces of “home” and how that access is tied up with capitalist profitability rather than the contributions of the sum assets of humanity.
While many would argue it is fairly clear that Trump is the worse of two evils, we must not exonerate Clinton for her wholesale support of mass incarceration of African-Americans and of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), her coziness with Wall Street, and other alarming policies, as when she supported her husband’s 1996 signing into law of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). While America’s new emperor has no clothes, even Hillary’s pantsuits contain formidable stains. The fact that 53% of all white women voters enabled Trump’s victory challenges pedestrian assumptions of identity politics. It demonstrates how vital the traditional stewards of maternal domesticity, reproduction, and child rearing—in a word, “home”— were in mandating the outcome of the election. Even as the Indians in the U.S. who have fallen victim to “mistaken identity,” or are perceived to be threats to white America’s employment security, continue to be harassed, many of our minority neighbors, friends, and colleagues look the other way. If people of color (POCs) inform them about white privilege, it becomes the hallmark of “the good citizen,” but when we identify their complicity in it and call it out, many deny, ignore, then ultimately abandon us.
This is the social hegemony of white privilege—it need not articulate itself because its hegemonic righteousness is literally written on the skin, and the cultural capital it is afforded is a tangible result. Its operations upon the epidermis of the Indian national body are also devastating, especially where class and caste issues intersect with gender and beauty ideals. Beyond the shelves and shelves of skin-whitening products for men and women in India, the more hateful side of epidermal self-loathing rears its ugly head today in the anti-black violence in India, which unfortunately prompted Presidoe Okuguni, a member of the Association of African Students in India (AASI), to threaten a boycott of Indian academic institutions.
This is not to say that white Americans and brown Indians have not exercised responsibility or agency in the fight against racism, but vested interests determined to exclude people from idealized visions of “home” while perversely profiting from others’ miseries, seems to have become the hallmark of independent America. What is the way forward? I would assert that America does not need to be “great again,” but rather, it needs to become “home” again. The United States, like India, is already a pluralistic place with a “diversity” of peoples, cultures, topographies, languages, and potential. Its universities are among the world’s greatest, and it has been a global destination forged by the hopes and dreams of immigrants. Regrettably, more than a half of potential international students today say they would bypass the U.S. as a place to acquire higher education with Trump at the presidency.
But to recuperate the U.S.’s global reputation as a dream destination for immigrants, we must refuse to buy into the divide and rule tactics around “home” that it, and India, arguably adopted and reshaped from erstwhile British colonizers. This begins with home economics: we might show solidarity by boycotting skin-whitening products in India rather than inadvertently being complicit with African students boycotting Indian universities. We might likewise boycott all domestic products, even resorts, that are affiliated to Trump and his cronyistic pack of vultures. This is how to speak truth to power through home economics in our immediate domestic spaces of life and love.
The former colonialist strategies of the Britishers, which today punctuate India’s geo-political woes as they puncture the hearts of friends and relatives across the border, stick to both nations like a persistently dark residue of hatred. We are by no means helpless when we resist bigotry and hatred together. India must balance its overdetermined desire to be a global player of nuclear roulette with the stark realities of abject poverty, widespread corruption, toxic pollution, and crumbling, inadequate infrastructure, among other social ailments. As the world’s largest and youngest democracy and the world’s ground zero for technological innovation, India’s potential is mired in politics that do not help its youth as much as it could. Dalit student suicides and over 12,000 reported farmer suicides taint the image of Digital India, and sexual violence against women continues to plague urban centers, most notably the capital city of New Delhi.
But a dream can only become a reality when visible minorities are perceived and treated as equals. Modi’s silence, like Trump’s, on these atrocities that Indians in America must endure hangs like an ominous, dark cloud. How can Indians feel safe in America when their own leaders fail to guarantee this for them? Bigotry must be identified in all its veiled forms and excised from the institutions of all serious democracies. This is crucial for India, for how can a nation that yearns to be part of the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) join it while unleashing on its own minority and disadvantaged population the equivalent of social warfare? The new millennium, despite institutionalized state violence catalyzed by the tragedy of September 11th and the attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, holds potential for healing and reconciliation today with respect to “home.”
Much of the responsibility for this process lies on the shoulders of white Americans who have, over many years, normalized and institutionalized racism. As Indian American comedian Hasan Minhaj describes in his family’s experiences in the U.S. from the night of 12 September, 2001, onwards: “As immigrants, we always have to put out these press releases to prove our patriotism. We’re always auditioning. ‘We love this country. Please believe me.’ Nobody loves this country more than immigrants.”
Minhaj’s sharp and sassy show dishes up comedy to serve as a bandage for deep wounds that desi Americans, regardless of religion, caste, and creed, often collectively feel. I found this element of Minhaj’s show to be poignant despite erudite observations that Minhaj and other male desi comedians use white women as objects of desire in their skits or reduce “brown women to a punchline.” As a citizen living abroad in what is widely regarded as my “motherland,” I often feel more at home in contemporary India than I did during my entire life living in the United States. Even as I attempted from abroad to exercise my most supreme civic duty, voting, the obscure and arduous process makes one want to throw their hands up in surrender.
This brings me to another key point: there is no doubt that the United States must equitably revolutionize the antiquated Electoral College, and moreover, sign into law a federal statute that binds Electors to take into account the popular vote mandate versus party loyalty. The process should be clear and easy for Americans living and working abroad rather than enacting obfuscating hurdles that seem to punish us for wanting to professionally and personally expand into “other” global cultures. The multicultural and multilingual perspectives that Americans living abroad remit back into socio-political and intellectual life in the U.S. cannot be underestimated.
Voting in both global democracies should be compulsory, a required responsibility of one’s civic duty, as should be high quality education at least up to the 12th standard. Labor unions must be resurrected and they must reflect the diversity of the working class in the U.S. Midwest, as well as the coastal areas, rather than succumbing to the deceptive semantics of the “white working class” brand that Trumpism has promulgated. These prescriptions are a solid start on the road to making America home. In India, the Digital India drive has the potential to fortify the youngest and largest demography on Earth.
India and the U.S. can lead the world towards democratic revolution in terms of socialized education and healthcare. Hand-in-hand with this is the corporatization of higher education in the U.S. and the assault on academic freedom in India as identified by the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR)—two processes of marginalization which are often intertwined and masked as jingoistic nationalism in both great democracies. A global commonwealth is the ultimate dream of “home” for us all, for there is much potential learning and growth from the ashes of exploitative labor practices and transnational cashflows that drive the disenfranchisement of the Global 99 Percent.
This could best be accomplished by sharply pinching the exploitative pockets of those whose brand of home economics would pit us against one another rather than compel us to recognize and patch the cracks in the mirrors that hold together all our reflections as one. This, in my current estimation, is how to best make America and India, two countries that I love and which constitute different parts of my soul, home again.
All views herein expressed are solely those of the author when the article was composed. The author deeply thanks Wafa Hamid, Fazeela Jiwa, Sandhya Rao Mehta, and Mary Anne Mohanraj for impeccable editorial guidance and support.
Rahul K. Gairola is the author of Homelandings: Postcolonial Diasporas & Transatlantic Belonging, (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), and co-editor of Revisiting India’s Partition: New Essays on Memory, Culture, and Politics (Orient Blackswan, 2016). He is an Article Editor for Postcolonial Text, and Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee. He is working on a new book project titled Digital Homes: Identity & Agency in Postmillennial India (Routledge, 2018), as well as a co-authored book titled Migration from Garhwal: Gender and Home Economics in Rural North India (Lexington Books, 2017). He is co-editor, with Roopika Risam, of the forthcoming “Digital Humanities and South Asia” special issue of South Asian Review.