When preparations were being made in New Delhi and Washington around the middle of this year for L.K. Advani’s first trip to the United States of America, after his elevation from Union home minister to deputy prime minister, it was gently suggested to Advani that he should address the Heritage Foundation, which is a stone’s throw from the US capital. The Heritage Foundation’s location in the vicinity of the Capitol and the rest of Washington’s power centre is more than symbolic. This right-wing think-tank is one of the fountainheads of influence in Washington since conservatives gained control of the White House and Republicans tightened their grip on the house of representatives and regained their majority in the senate.
That influence was the logic behind the proposal to get Advani to go exclusively to Heritage: the idea was that at the Foundation’s plush Allison Auditorium, India’s deputy prime minister would exchange ideas with some 200 or so men and women who constitute the core of the neo-conservative influence, which guides the George W. Bush White House. It was an idea that found an echo even in the prime minister’s office during preparatory exercises for Advani’s trip. After all, that was precisely what the US vice president, Dick Cheney, did last Friday when the administration here needed to quickly rally its forces, not against the quagmire on the ground in Iraq, but against the quagmire into which Cheney’s friend and ally, Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, was getting into over Iraq at home.
Indian diplomats in Washington were more cautious and did not exactly agree with those who fancy — including some opinion-makers in the Indian media — that the sky is the limit for Indo-US relations. The Indian embassy in Washington did not favour the idea that Advani should put all his eggs in the neo-conservative basket during what was going to be his most high-profile overseas trip since becoming the deputy prime minister. These diplomats preferred, instead, a more inclusive approach by Advani in Washington, which had been tried during his earlier, highly successful visit as home minister, shortly after the December 13, 2001, attack on the Indian parliament.
So, instead of rubbing shoulders only with right-wingers at Heritage, the deputy prime minister talked over lunch with a diverse assortment of representatives from think-tanks of all hues in Washington at the decidedly non-partisan venue of the Indian ambassador’s residence. Recent events in Washington have demonstrated that it was fortuitous for Indo-US relations that Advani did not go exclusively to Heritage or opt for a shortcut to better Indo-US relations by endorsing a neo-conservative agenda.
The most talked about acronym in Washington these days is ABB. No, it is not Asea Brown Boveri, the global leader in power and automation technologies, that is the subject of this acronym. ABB in Washington — and in many states across the US — now stands for “Anyone but Bush”.
Already, ABB hooded sweatshirts are selling for as much as $ 29.99 through CafePress.com, the online shopping network co-founded by an Indian, Maheesh Jain, which was a powerful medium during the recall election of California’s governor. “Anyone But Bush” baseball jerseys, golf shirts, spaghetti tanks and baby doll T-shirts are selling for $ 21.99 and ABB sweatshirts for $ 25.99.
A year ago — why, even six months ago — the idea of any consolidation of popular opinion against the president who is the embodiment of neo-conservative influence in Washington would have been unimaginable. It was not long ago that even in the liberal north-east of the US, a man was arrested for walking into a shopping mall merely because he was wearing a T-shirt with an anti-war slogan as the US was in the final stages of preparations for overthrowing Saddam Hussein.
It is not Iraq alone which has brought about this metamorphosis. Iraq, in fact, is only a symptom: the disease is something else. And the most powerful symptom of the disease was out in the open last fortnight for all Americans to see when Rush Limbaugh, the high priest of American conservatives, had to close shop temporarily and seek help for his drug addiction.
Limbaugh is to Americans, in terms of influence, what Arun Shourie was to the Indian media from the Seventies through the Nineties — or what S. Gurumurthy was to India’s corporate world two decades ago. Five days a week, for three hours daily, Limbaugh hosted — until last week — a radio talk show. But his was no ordinary talkshow. Limbaugh has 20 million listeners across the US, many of whom hang on to every word he utters. For his labours, Limbaugh gets paid $ 30 million a year. But that is only part of the story. Such is his ability to influence public opinion, that George Herbert Walker Bush, the present president’s father, invited Limbaugh to sleep over in the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House when he was president.
Last year, Cheney acknowledged Limbaugh’s clout when he appeared on the talk-show. In 1994, when Republicans swept into Capitol Hill and imagined that they were taking over America, Newt Gingrich, the much-hated conservative speaker of the house of representatives, made Limbaugh an honourary member of the House Republican class of 1994.
Some two decades ago, when FM was becoming the norm for radio listeners and people were writing off AM radio, Limbaugh began his broadcasts on that medium. He was an instant hit in America’s conservative South, where people in remote rural communities fantasize that the final battle in America’s civil war is still not over — people who listen to the radio every day as they drive long distances with their cattle or transporting crops, seeds and manure. Limbaugh is, in fact, credited by media experts with salvaging AM radio from extinction.
America’s southern states are places where this columnist has been told by ordinary white people in all sincerity in the 21st century that slavery was good because “we looked after the slaves like they were part of our family”. These are states where the confederate flag, a shameful reminder of slavery and segregation, can still be seen fluttering from housetops, where state administrations, given a chance, would still fly that flag beside the US national flag.
For these people, Limbaugh was a man after their heart. Their adulation, in turn, made Limbaugh more racist and intolerant even as the forces which propelled George W. Bush to the White House in 2000 helped make such views mainstream in America. But last fortnight, the bottom dropped out of the conservative, self-righteous bravado. First, Limbaugh was forced to resign as a football analyst for sports channel ESPN after he made racist remarks in an attempt to polarize even sport, which most Americans enjoy without thinking of politics.
Then came the shocking revelation that for years Limbaugh has been addicted to painkillers — the same Limbaugh, who has been unsparing towards drug-users in his broadcasts for years. Limbaugh, it has now been revealed, has been using painkillers that give a high — and not just as medication. His ex-housemaid is on record as having bought for Limbaugh as many as 4,350 pills — opium derivatives which have the same effect as morphine — in a 47-day period. The story emerged during an investigation by authorities in Florida about rings which sell medicines illegally. Last week, Limbaugh suspended his broadcasts and checked into a rehabilitat- ion centre to try and get rid of his addiction.
Unfortunately for the conservatives, Limbaugh is not their only role-model to be stripped of a moral aura recently. Bill Bennett was another propagandist for conservative values, ubiquitous at television talk-shows in support of Bush, his agenda and conservative cheerleaders in general. That was until the revelation that this moral crusader had gambled away eight million dollars in the last decade and was, secretly, a gambling addict.
The president’s brother was not far behind. Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, has been a passionate advocate for sending people to jail for using drugs and procuring prescription medicines illegally. But when his own daughter was caught for these offences, the governor was requesting privacy and pleading for leniency. Even as leading conservative icons have been exposed as hypocrites, trouble has been spreading for them on the political plane as well. Rumsfeld, one of the most powerful men in the Bush administration now, has his back to the wall as Iraq descends more and more into chaos. There is even talk of his eventual resignation.
Meanwhile, the Bush White House, for which national security has been a holy cow, is embroiled in a major controversy about leaking the name of an American spy to get even with her husband, a former ambassador, who opposed the war in Iraq. It was just as well that Advani did not go to Heritage, although the proposition did appear tempting at that time. By not going, he ensured that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government was not identified with an increasingly discredited conservative agenda in the US and that India did not become a polarizing factor in America’s foreign policy.