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August 25, 1998


E-Mail this story to a friend Dilip D'Souza

Say Hello, Or Click Here, To Support The Motherland

I heard it, yes. Not on my phone, I don't know why, but I picked up the phone at my in-law's home and heard it loud and clear: a metallic voice, may have been female once upon a year, saying a hurried, nasal "Vande Mataram."

Then the phone went dead.

OK, so it didn't. But that's not really so far-fetched a thought. In The Times of India on August 12, a hapless VP Unnikrishnan Nair of Mankhurd writes to say that "ever since I got the [phone] connection in June 1997, the phone has stopped working on a number of occasions." Below him, poor Blaise Miranda writes from Vasai that she "applied for a new telephone connection in February 1988" -- over ten years ago -- but "till date I have not received my telephone."

I noticed the letters from these two only because it was on just the previous day -- August 11 -- that I read a report titled "Telephones go patriotic to ring in Independence Day." That report first told me about what was called our "BJP-led coalition government's way of promoting patriotism": the metallic "Vande Mataram" on the phone.

Now you might think that if our BJP-led government wanted a "way of promoting patriotism," at least as far as phones go, that way might be to give us working phones. Or even just phones, working or not. Or even just that one phone Blaise Miranda applied for ten years ago, the one that remains a mirage, she says, because of the "corruption that has besieged the telephone department."

Instead, we get plastic patriotism. Leave aside the politics of it -- but have no doubt, making our phones sing out "Vande Mataram" was a decidely political move -- and think, if you will, about the strain of patriotism that was promoted through the phones. I tried. I was reminded, oddly enough, of the great Time poll of some months ago.

You remember it, surely. Across the wires of the Internet in the days following India's nuclear tests, a curious phenomenon spread its wings. It flitted from one Indian email account to dozens and hundreds of others, chain letter style. Also chain letter style, it might have been ignored and deleted -- except for one thing. "Stand Up For India!", it said, or words to that effect: words guaranteed to make you sit up, take a second look.

When you did, you found it was an appeal to visit Time magazine's Web site and vote in a poll Time conducts on the Internet every week. On May 12, the day after India's first three nuclear blasts, the question Time asked was: "Observers say that the testing of atomic devices by India was calculated to help India achieve power parity with China in Asia. If tensions between the two countries should seriously escalate, which course do you think the US should take?"

The options were "Support India", "Support China" or "Promote a standoff between the two."

Apparently, in the hours after the poll began, "Support China" opened up a massive lead in the voting. That severely distressed Indians. When I got the message, I read these worried words: "[U]nfortunately China is leading at 69% of the votes to a low 28% in India's favour." This gap was the reason for the frenzied flood of forwarded email. "PLEASE take a minute, REGISTER your vote," the message went on. "[T]his is about winning the poll on US supporting India instead of China. Your single vote WILL make a DIFFERENCE. ... ENCOURAGE ALL your friends to VOTE NOW (SURELY TODAY). Friends, the public opinion battles rage on."

If that wasn't enough to spur me into mouse-clicking patriotism, another bit of email urged: "Support the motherland!"

As a result of these widely circulated appeals, the gap closed rapidly. By May 21, when I visited the site, "Support India" had charged ahead of "Support China", 52% to 45%.

Just what happened here?

There are several curious aspects to this whole episode. To begin with, the sentiment most evident after the bombs exploded was an overwhelming joy. That was particularly true of Indians with access to the Internet. One reason for that joy: we have thumbed our noses at the USA, we stood up to the bullies of the West! ("For once India showed a backbone. I am elated!" an Indian wrote from Arizona). In fact, we don't really care what the USA says or thinks!

Brave words, I'm sure. But why, then, the mad rush to influence public opinion in the USA? If we were thumbing our noses at that country, why were we so anxious to vote in a poll conducted by the largest newsmagazine there? We are desperate to "win" the "public opinion battles", but we also profess not to care what Americans think: what's the truth, really?

Besides, what kind of "victory" did India "win" anyway, if massive voting by net-savvy Indians did the job? What opinion did Time measure except that of a large number of Indians? All the poll proved was that in those frantic days, more Indians than Chinese clicked their mouse buttons at Time's site. Exactly what public opinion battle was won?

There's an Alice-in-Wonderland quality to all this. None of these voters, none of those who so feverishly forwarded the email message around the world, stopped to think: in what way does my vote here support India? What has India gained by this "victory"? After all, if India and China do come to nuclear blows tomorrow, it is hard to imagine Bill Clinton flipping through the electronic back-issues of Time, looking for a poll whose result will tell him what course he should follow.

Even if he did, what was all that again about paying no attention to what the USA thinks and does?

Not that the Chinese were any less frenzied. When I first visited the site, it carried a stern warning from Time that "robot voting" would be detected and disregarded. It explained that right after the poll went on air, there was large-scale "robot voting" that fattened the lead "Support China" established over "Support India". All those spurious votes had been discarded, but even so, genuine votes for China continued to pour in. "Somebody is holding up that side," Josh Quittner, the editor of Time Daily, told the Wall Street Journal.

So in the end, about 140,000 people -- presumably largely Chinese -- said the USA should "support China"; about 160,000 -- likely largely Indian -- opted for "support India." A miserable 10,000 miserable fence-sitters chose "promote a standoff between the two." "[I]t may turn out," wrote Jonathan Karp in the Wall Street Journal, "that all [the poll] has gauged is the networking skills of the global Indian and Chinese communities."

The entire incident baffles. I'm fascinated by the vision of Indians voting solemnly in this poll -- "supporting the motherland", of course -- and then urging all their friends to vote in turn. Does the Indian diaspora, largely the source of the votes, feel the need every now and then to proclaim its "support for the motherland"? Is this patriotism, as awoken by the bomb?

If so, it also raises some more intriguing questions. Is Indian patriotism pumped up solely by such shouts of "support" for India? Is India improved solely by gestures -- like rushing to vote in a Time poll, like signing off email with "Jai Hind" or "Mera Bharat Mahaan"? Like, come to think of it, listening to "Vande Mataram" on our telephones?

Can patriotism go beyond those things? Are we interested in a patriotism that goes beyond such gestures? Do we have one? Do you want one?

Or is patriotism today best left to lifting a phone? To clicking a mouse and letting Time crunch some numbers?

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