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The TV guide to Obama

By Sumit Bhattacharya
November 09, 2010 15:11 IST
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Sumit Bhattacharya cranes his neck to catch the President of the United States on Indian television.

"Arre, remember this guy?" exclaimed a college friend about the man arguing the Left party's stand on President Obama's visit on an Indian English news channel. "He's the guy who would warn us about the SFI coming to beat us up in the days before elections in college."

The Students Federation of India, the 'student' wing of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, used to often intimidate Presidency College students. Presidency was one of the only two college unions in Calcutta -- if not West Bengal -- that had an independent college union in Marxist Bengal in the late 1990s. Presidency has since 'fallen', but for a while the SFI had to routinely rough up students, etc.

The SFI leader of the past was by then shouting words to the effect of: "Obama is coming here for 54,000 US jobs. What are we getting?" He shook off other panelists' assertions that the high technology transfer now being enabled would transform India -- with deft neck movements that made me wince, laid low as I was by cervical spondylitis, with a collar around my neck -- and generally outshouted them with the ease of years of practice.

A former Indian diplomat, a lady in her sixties with the air of a strict schoolteacher in a class filled with morons, told him: 'Please don't shout. I am not a politician, I am not batting for any party, but for my country.'

It was the only moment in the three days of Obamania on Indian television that the poor Leftist leader -- no puns please -- looked bushed. So much so, that a rightwing party leader who was also on the panel reached out and gently pressed the Leftist's hand, as a father does to a wounded child.

There were many such rare moments of pure entertainment over the Diwali weekend in India, when Mumbai recorded perceptibly fewer loud firecrackers.

There was former Indian ambassador to India Satish Chandra, declaring with an impish grin, "He'll say the K-word (Kashmir)," when asked what Obama would tell Indian Prime Minister Singh behind closed doors. There was pure contempt on economist Meghnad Desai's face when aforementioned Leftist leader tried to outshout him on statistics that said poverty in India had reduced after opening up the economy.

There was a visibly angry Indian strategic affairs expert G Parthasarathy calling Stephen P Cohen, the South Asia expert from the US, 'an obfuscator' when Cohen said, 'What does India want us (the US) to do? Invade Pakistan?'

There was Congress party old faithful Mani Shankar Aiyar, declaring that Obama's Nobel-winning speech was from an idea of nuclear disarmament germinated by former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Aiyar also articulated how India could ensure a Nobel for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by including nuclear disarmament on the Obama-Singh agenda.

In contrast, Aiyar declared, all this talk about American endorsement for India as a permanent United Nations Security Council member was like asking for an uncle's recommendation letter for a job.

There were Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta and father of Indian television journalism Prannoy Roy, discussing whether O Mere Zohra Jabeen was an apt song to be played by the Indian Navy band during Dr Singh's state dinner for Obama. That song, analysed Gupta, was for a lover of at least 50 years. The US-India relationship, he pointed out, was not that old yet. Roy let us know there were 30 camels at the dinner.

On the Hindi news channels, you could know that Michelle Obama bought stoles, cardigans, etc, for over Rs 84,000 and see anchors declare like Bollywood heroes: "Look how even the American President is saluting India. Till yesterday, they were lecturing us. Now, they want our friendship."

And there was so much talk about Pakistan, before President Obama's speech to Parliament when he finally said the P-word loud enough for the world to hear, that you would even agree with the Pakistani general who congratulated the Indian media for getting Obama to say Pakistan and terrorism in the same breath within two days.

One Indian news anchor actually looked tired from the effort at the end of the visit.

In all, a weekend of wholesome entertainment, as the doctor would say.

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