WHO FITS THE BILL? - Obama-like figures in India's past and present
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- Published 22.11.08
In the days following the American presidential elections, a number of television channels ran programmes asking variants of these questions. What does the victory of Barack Obama mean for the present and future of Indian democracy? What lessons can Indians draw from his campaign for inclusiveness? Are there, can there be, Obama-like figures in Indian politics?
Journalists must necessarily focus on the present and future, but as a historian, I am allowed to look at the past. The phenomenon of Barack Obama was, to some degree, anticipated in the similar rise from disadvantage and obscurity of B.R. Ambedkar. If anything, the Indian’s story is even more compelling. As systems of social discrimination, caste and race are comparable. But if Obama is at least half-white, Ambedkar was 100 per cent Dalit. Both, intriguingly, were products of that great, metropolitan university, Columbia in New York — the American taking an undergraduate degree there, the Indian a rather more elevated PhD. Obama went on to take a law degree from Harvard; long before him, Ambedkar had already qualified for the London bar, and was to obtain a second doctoral degree from the London School of Economics, which, in purely academic terms, was something like the Harvard of those times.
Ambedkar was born in a Dalit, working-class household. His father had a small job in the army, and there was no history of education in the family. Obama’s father at least had a college degree, and his mother was white. Both Obama and Ambedkar were, in their birth and social origins, anything but men of privilege — but Ambedkar was even more underprivileged. Like his American successor, the great Indian jurist made his mark by dint of exceptional courage and a still more exceptional intelligence. Like Obama, he owed his degrees, from the best universities in the world, to his brilliance and hard work alone. Like Obama, for his persistence and his achievements, Ambedkar did, in the end and after much struggle, get his rewards. Before Independence, he was a member of the highest decision-making body in British India — the viceroy’s executive council. After Independence, he became law minister in the first cabinet of free India. If we consider that slavery existed in the United States of America for a bare 200 years, while caste has existed in India for two millennia and more, then the fact that a Dalit supervised the drafting of the Indian Constitution must be reckoned to be as significant, as boundary-breaching, as earth-shattering a historical event as that of a half-black man becoming the president of the United States of America. And let us remind ourselves that the Indian, and India, took precedence in this regard — for Ambedkar became law minister sixty years before Obama became president.
The man who chose and ran that first Union cabinet of free India also, in some degree, anticipated the later career of Obama. The parallels in this case are not those of social class or academic achievement, but rather of political style. Throughout his campaign, Obama has practised a non-sectarian politics — he reached out to whites as well as blacks, to the middle-class as well as to the poor, to gays as well as straights, to long-time Democrats as well as seriously uncommitted voters. Long before him, Jawaharlal Nehru had also reached out to Indians of different religions, genders, classes, and linguistic groups. A casual comparison (pending a more systematic one) of the speeches made by Nehru in the first Indian general elections of 1952 with the speeches made by Obama more recently would bear this out. Nehru won those elections for the Congress because he spoke as a Hindu who was trusted by Muslims, a socialist who was yet admired by the capitalist class, a man who was adored by women, a Hindi-speaker who was respected by South Indians and Oriyas and even, on occasion, by Bengalis.
The US in 2008 is in a state of crisis — caught up in two wars of its own making, in the early stages of what looks like a prolonged economic recession. To tackle these problems, the president-elect has sensibly chosen a non-partisan approach. In his acceptance speech in Chicago, he told those who had not voted for him that he heard their voices and would be their president too. It is overwhelmingly likely that important jobs in his administration shall go to those who are not members of the Democratic Party, even to Republicans. For, as Obama has recognized, desperate times call not for desperate, but for cool, considered, that it to say statesman-like, measures.
India in 1948 was in an even greater state of crisis. There were shortages of food and foreign exchange. On the right, Hindu fundamentalists, having tasted the blood of the Mahatma, were mobilizing for countrywide action; on the left, having been so ordered by their Soviet bosses, the Communist Party of India had launched an armed insurrection. The Right had to be tamed, the Left conquered — and there was more, much more, to do. Eight million refugees had to be resettled, 500 princely states to be integrated. A federal Constitution that would preserve the unity of India and yet respect the rights and aspirations of the states had to be discussed and designed. Apart from healing the wounds within, India had also to decide how best to position itself in the emerging world-order, how to cultivate friendships with the two superpowers without becoming subservient to either.
Like Obama, Nehru knew that in this task of national renewal he had to call upon people outside of his own party. Thus, some Congressmen were made to vacate their (hard-won) seats in the Constituent Assembly so that qualified jurists (Ambedkar among them, but also such non-partisan legal brains as Alladi Krishnaswamy Aiyar) could be formally associated with the drafting of the Constitution. In the Union cabinet itself, Congressmen served alongside S. P. Mookerjee, Baldev Singh and Shanmugham Chetty, men who in pre-Independence days had worked in opposition to (and often abused) them.
Enough of nostalgia, I will be told. Forget the past — who now, in present-day India, is the politician who is not wholly unremoved from the style and strategies of the remarkable Barack Obama? Here again, there is an unacknowledged precursor, if at first glance a somewhat unlikely and unprepossessing one. Nitish Kumar has no Harvard degree (perhaps no degree at all). He dresses in a crumpled kurta, not a well-pressed suit. He is an indifferent orator. Still, he too speaks of, and in some measure, practises, a politics that is non-sectarian. When the National Democratic Alliance said that it would project the “Gujarat model of development” to the whole country, Kumar asked them instead to showcase the Bihar model of development, since it was “inclusive”. (The last word, as used by the Bihar chief minister, was an euphemism for “not anti-Muslim”.)
India is a more diverse country than the US. It is run on a parliamentary rather than a presidential system. The states have more autonomy in their functioning. It may thus be that the quest for an ‘Indian Obama’ is futile, since there cannot, and need not, be one. Rather than searching for a single, brilliant, charismatic leader who can reshape the country, we would be better served by a dozen, lesser (and less glamorous) figures who are, in some degree, Obama-like. In so far as he is not sectarian, does not come from a political dynasty, appears to be honest and committed to good governance for all — not just a particular caste or religious grouping — Nitish Kumar may be considered to fit the bill. He is no Barack Obama, but he is certainly much less unlike Obama than, say, Mayavati or Rahul Gandhi or Narendra Modi. An India of 15 or 20 chief ministers in his mould would be a better, or least a less unhappy and less violent, place.