Vidya Subrahmaniam

Commentators in the U.S media have slandered Hillary Clinton and questioned Barack Obama’s Muslim connection. The Indian record shines by comparison.

A black man and a white woman vying for the United States Democratic Party nomination have sent the American people and media into spasms of primordial emotions over questions of race, religion and gender.

The same press that offered lyrical praise to Barack Obama has also worried over his Muslim middle name, insinuated an extremist connection by virtue of that name, and topped this slight with shockingly coarse personal attacks on Hillary Clinton. Senator Clinton has been called unacceptable names in print, pilloried for being both masculine and teary-eyed, condemned as shrill, manipulative and ambitious and, at the same time, knocked for standing by her wayward husband.

On the campaign, a bunch of uncouth hecklers asked America’s possible first woman President to “iron my shirt.” Yet this slander might seem inoffensive judged by the raging anti-Hillary commentary in the mainstream press — much of it unfit for reproduction.

From the perspective of the Indian media, all this must appear a puzzling paradox and not only because it is the land of “freedom and opportunity” that is unceasingly exclaiming over Mr. Obama and Ms Clinton. A bigger reason is India’s own history of easy, unsung accommodation of a plurality of political identities.

For all that India abounds in horror stories of caste, community and gender oppression, it is a country that is truly comfortable with diversity in the political sphere. Gender and denominational concerns rarely influence voter preferences here, and the evidence is in the splendidly varied social composition of the political and constitutional leadership.

There is a refreshing broad-mindedness about the way the Indian polity chooses its leaders — showing itself to be consistently progressive on questions of gender and ethnicity, and innately averse to crossing the line between private and public. It is a rule that even the news media, barring the scurrilous variety, respect. Two examples would suffice. The more xenophobic the Bharatiya Janata Party got on Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin, the more the ordinary voter gravitated towards her. Her gender and her Italian antecedents did not matter to her voters just as they did not matter to a media (excluding the saffron kind) otherwise trenchantly critical of the dynasty.

The Indian media went overboard with its scrutiny of Pratibha Patil’s presidential candidature but the scrutiny was of her politics, not her personal life. Nobody commented on Ms Patil’s age or her looks, and certainly no one asked her to knit cardigans for her grandchildren.

The world’s mightiest democracy might like to look at the roll call of India’s heads of state: Three Muslims, one Sikh, one Dalit and one woman. Indira Gandhi took the oath of office as Prime Minister in 1966 — 42 years before Hillary Clinton entered the Democratic primaries to some acclaim and a lot of sexist derision. Our first Muslim President Zakir Husain was elected in 1967 — 41 years before Barack Hussein Obama, bowing to collective and persistent demand, avowed that he had no Muslim connection. Our first President of Dalit origin, K.R. Narayanan, poignantly and forthrightly spoke for the former untouchables, the closest any Indian ethnic group comes to blacks, years before the world would applaud Mr. Obama on his race relations speech.

There are aspects to the American presidential election that are deeply discomfiting, starting with the vicious sexist attacks on Ms Clinton. A recent Newsweek cover story on Ms Clinton, quoting the non-partisan Center for Media and Public Affairs, noted that between December and February 2008, 83 per cent of network coverage for Mr. Obama was positive as against only 53 per cent for Ms Clinton.

Per se, this is not objectionable. The American media openly take sides and not infrequently endorse candidates. The attractions of Mr. Obama are evident: his youthful charm, his perceived idealism and courage of conviction, the air of change around him, and the comparisons with Kennedy, all make him a hands down media favourite. The Obama kind of unsullied appeal is the greater for the ravages of the Bush years.

Conversely, there is Senator Clinton, very capable, very experienced but saddled with the Bill Clinton legacy and without the freshness of approach that gives an edge to her obviously much younger and charismatic rival.

Had analysts critiqued Ms Clinton on her policy and her vision of the White House, there would have been no cause for complaint. Indeed, not a few of those who have been discomfited by the smear campaign against Ms Clinton strongly disagree with her militaristic foreign policy positions, including her support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Fransisco, and a leading critic of the U.S foreign policy, recently lamented the confusion that the attacks on Senator Clinton had caused among women voters. The slander outraged “millions of conscientious women … even those who would not be prone to support her based upon her policy positions.” Indeed, as the abuse grew, so did grow Ms Clinton’s support among women, especially enraged older generation women. Women voters rushed to save her in Ohio and Texas just as they saved her earlier in New Hampshire.

Political theorist, feminist activist and best-selling author, Robin Morgan, catalogued the insults in an article for The Women’s Media Center. Among them, Carl Bernstein’s disgust at “Hillary’s thick ankles,” political pundit Roger Stone’s “Hillary-hating 527 group,” and MSNBC talk show host Chris Matthews’ “relentless misogynistic comments.” “Let’s not forget, and I’ll be brutal,” Mr. Matthews said, “the reason she’s a U.S. Senator, the reason she’s a candidate for President, the reason she may be a front-runner, is that her husband messed around.”

Commentators have micro-analysed Ms Clinton’s physical features and dress sense, commenting on her age, her eyes, her laugh, her hairstyle, even her decolletage. Patrick Healy of The New York Times called her laugh "Clinton Cackle.” Commentator Dick Morris found it “loud, inappropriate … A scary sound that was somewhere between a cackle and a screech.” Radio host Rush Limbaugh went further. He asked his listeners: “Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?”

Easily the worst has been Maureen Dowd commenting in The New York Times. Reacting to Ms Clinton’s tears at a vulnerable moment on the campaign, she said: “She [Hillary] won her Senate seat after being embarrassed by a man [husband]. She pulled out New Hampshire and saved her presidential campaign after being embarrassed by another man [Obama].” More recently, after Ms Clinton triumphed in Ohio and Texas, Ms Dowd compared the New York Senator to The Terminator, prophesying that “unless every circuit is out,” she would “regenerate enough to claw her way out of the grave.”

Not that media darling Barack Obama has been spared the stick. A month ago, Mr. Obama went live on prime time television to counter the “charge” that he is a secret Muslim who worships the Koran. Days ago, in a speech hailed far and wide as epoch-making, Mr. Obama acknowledged his relations with his former pastor Jeremiah Wright even as he denounced the latter’s “incendiary language” with respect to the U.S.’ treatment of black Americans. The speech was a reaction to relentless media targeting of pastor Wright.

Whipping up the anti-Obama hate campaign was Fox News which as early as January 2007 accused him of attending a madrassa as a child. Asked Steve Doocy, the horrified programme host: “Why didn’t anybody ever mention that that man right there was raised as a Muslim and was educated in a madrassa?” The issue, momentarily lost in the rush of heady media affection for Mr. Obama, resurfaced after the Iowa Senator received an unsolicited endorsement from the Nation of Islam Minister, Louis Farrakhan, reaching a crescendo with the Wright episode.

The curious thing about the anti-Obama campaign is the way it has been countered by his supporters in the media. Consider the choice of words. Mr. Obama has been dogged by “smears and innuendo” that he is a Koran-reading Muslim. The senior Obama, though raised as a Muslim “lost his faith” and became a confirmed atheist. Mr. Obama’s stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, was a “non-practising” Muslim and, in any case, he did not shape the young Barack’s mind. And finally there was no question that Mr. Obama could go to a “madrassa,” learning an “extreme form of Islam.”

The point is: Why should a Muslim connection be treated as an offence? Mr. Obama’s supporters ought to have been proud of his middle name, holding that up as a symbol of American multiculturalism. Instead, they have cringed at the thought that he could be mistaken for a Muslim. Perhaps this is the truth of a country that is still grappling with race, continues to be squeamish about gender and goes ballistic at the mention of Islam.