Relationships are weird. Perceptions count far more than reality in making relationships succeed. This is just as true of societies as it of individual relationships. What is intended as good can often be perceived as horrific. For example, it is very common in India for an older man to call a younger man as “beta” or in Panjabi as “kake”. It is a sign of affection and not an insult. How would this go over in America? It depends whether “kake” is translated as “son” or “boy”. Calling a younger man as “son” is still common in America and rarely an insult.
But imagine an Indian diplomat coming to Washington DC and calling a young man, especially an African-American young man, as “boy”! However well meant, however delivered in affectionate tones, such a use of “boy” would cause outrage. It would bring to fore hidden perceptions about Indians being “racists” towards African-Americans. What would count is the message Americans heard from diplomat’s use of “boy”, not what the diplomat said in explanation.
This could become the untold story, we think, of the announcement of Richard Rahul Verma as the US Ambassador designate to India. Mr. Verma’s background is nearly perfect for his appointment. His track record is superb and he can do so much to enhance the US-India relationship. His greatest asset will be his excellent relationship with the US Congress.
Everything we read in US or Indian media was positive. But if you look underneath, you sense unease. And if you check the twitter-sphere, you see a negative spin. It is almost a mirror image of the anger you would see among Americans had a young man of color been called a “boy”.
The biggest negative in today’s US-India relationship is the appalling denial of visa to the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Horrific dictators & autocrats who have killed & cleansed minorities from their lands have been welcomed in Washington DC. Military & civilian leaders of NonPakistan who have permitted & encouraged religious cleansing of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs from their regimes have been felicitated in Washington DC as “critical allies” of America. Virtually no one in India has forgotten this uniquely anti-Hindu abuse of Shri Modi and very few will forget it for a long time. The second biggest negative in US-India relations has been the disastrous stripping & cavity-search of Hindu diplomat, Ms. Devyani Khobragade.
Add this to the preferential treatment of NonPakistan over India for the past 60 years and you have today’s perception of American Government as instinctively anti-Hindu. The continuous & persistent denigration of Hinduism in American media, especially left-of-center media that is close to the Obama-Kerry state department, has added to this near-conviction in Indian society.
The most important task for the new American Ambassador to India is to fix this perception which colors all Indian decisions. And Ambassador designate Verma would ideally be the right man to do so. Except for his friends in America who keep calling him “Richard” or “Rich”.
That has been the focus on Twitter among Indian conservatives – Is his real name Richard or Rahul? Did he formally change his name to Richard? If not, why is he called Richard or Rich? Can’t Americans tolerate Hindu names?
The last is absolutely the worst canard. Indian-Americans have achieved great success in America without anglicizing their names. Vinod Khosla, Satya Nadella, Indra Nooyi, Vikram Pandit, Vivek Ranadive have achieved their success in Silicon Valley, American Multinationals, Investment Banks & even the NBA. They didn’t have to change their names to succeed. We have lived in many regions of America – South-east, South-west, Midwest and the east coast. We have lived in and traveled to small towns through out America. No one, not even on one single occasion, has suggested we adopt an anglicized version of our name – not in Dublin, Georgia, Las Cruces, New Mexico or Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
But that is not the reality perceived by Indians in India. What they see is Piyush “Bobby” Jindal, Nimrata Nicki Haley – two Indian Americans who converted to Christianity and took “anglo” names to succeed in politics. The message sent by these two successful Indian-Americans is that Hindu names are unacceptable in American politics. And this, frankly, is one reason Indian-Americans tend to veer away from the Republican party despite their natural affinity for the conservative low-taxes free markets message.
This name “stuff” is just as true of Americans as it is of Indians. Witness the nation-wide campaign in 2008-2009 to emphasize “Hussein” as President Obama’s middle name. Remember the insistence of Governor Jindal’s opponent in calling him “Piyush” instead of Bobby. On the other hand, you have Representative Keith Ellison who has kept his given european name despite his Muslim religion.
There is nothing wrong in the son of Kamal & Savitri Verma taking the name Richard just as there is nothing wrong in Piyush Jindal taking the name Bobby. It is a matter of personal choice and a personal right in a free society. But there is a problem in extolling the selection of Ambassador designate Verma as a salute to Indian culture as some have portrayed his selection. That would seem tone deaf to a country that has a deep cultural affinity to the name Rahul and none to the name Richard.
Ambassador Verma has had a stellar career in America. He has been accepted by and he has earned the trust of the American people and the America political establishment. But he now faces a different challenge in his service to America. He has to make America successful in India, he has to enhance America’s standing in India, he has to make sure America benefits more from India’s growth. To do that, he has to make sure America gets a larger positive mind share in India.
To do that, he has to to earn the trust of the Indian people. Does he do that by calling himself as Richard Verma or Rahul Verma, assuming of course that Rahul is still one of his names? After all, it is not what he says that will count but what Indians hear.
One of the founding goals of Macro Viewpoints is to enhance the US-India relationship. And that to us is best achieved by a frank and candid discussion of problems that can arise, problems that others prefer to sweep under the proverbial rug. In our opinion, tonal issues have caused the most damage to the US-India relationship and that is why we focus on addressing those issues.
We think the selection of Ambassador designate Verma is superb. With his stellar record and his background, he has a unique opportunity to take the US-India relationship to new heights. His main risk is tonal and so we urge him to remember that it will be all about what the Indian people hear and not what he says.
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