This is the 28th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 11.
Barack Obama’s visit to India has made him such a huge celebrity here that it’s a wonder he hasn’t yet been asked to appear on Bigg Boss. I can imagine the housemates being given a task: ‘The President is coming, prepare for the president’s visit.’ So they get all set to greet Obama: Veena Malik puts on her best make up and pouts in front of the mirror, Dolly Bindra personally supervises the making of special gaajar ka halwa with secret ingredients, Ashmit Patel and Hrishant Goswami trim their eyebrows again, Shweta Tiwari puts on a finely-tailored, figure-hugging anarkali churidar kurta, and choreographs a dance for herself, Manoj Tiwari composes and practises a Bhojpuri song written specially for the occasion, Mahabali Khali practises punching through walls to impress the president, Sara Khan decides that she will try and call Obama ‘Pops’ so as to cuddle up to him, and they all line up in the garden as the moment nears. The gates swing open. Pratibha Patil walks in.
Okay, this is unlikely to happen—as unlikely as our country is to ever throw up a politician quite like Obama. A few months ago I was invited for a television talk show to discuss “Who is India’s Obama?” I couldn’t participate because I was busy at the time, but I found the question ridiculous. For a political figure like Obama to rise in India would be as unusual as growing palm trees in a snowfield. India’s political system would never allow someone like Obama to rise, and would disincentivise entry in the first place.
Consider how Obama climbed the ladder in politics. He wasn’t from a privileged background or a political family: he worked as a community organiser in Chicago in the 1980s, and then graduated from Harvard Law School, where he was editor of the Harvard Law Review for a while. He worked as a professor at the University of Chicago Law School for a few years, and wrote an acclaimed memoir. Given that background, you’d have expected him to stay in academics and write more books, maybe even winning a Pulitizer along the way. (He’s a very fine writer.) But he saw a different calling for himself.
It might have been idealism that motivated him to join politics, but he also possessed the pragmatic street-smartness without which you can’t rise in that profession. He networked superbly in the local political scene and built a base for himself. (Interestingly, poker was a part of his tactical mix, as James McManus points out in this article in the New Yorker. For more on the role poker has played in American public life, I strongly recommend you read McManus’s magisterial history of poker in America, Cowboys Full.) But Obama’s rapid ascent in national politics was not a result of backroom wheeling-and-dealing, but of the power of ideas. He came on the national scene when America, tired of the Iraq war and the growing partisanship in politics, was ready for a change. Obama, a thinker of much nuance, was also a speaker of great clarity and eloquence, and galvanized a nation with his words alone. Despite being criticized for his lack of managerial experience, he also ran perhaps the greatest political campaign in American history.
Now, can you imagine a similar career graph for a politician in India today? America is the most meritocratic of all countries, and their politics is truly democratic, which is why they have an incumbent president whom pretty much no one outside his city had heard of just ten years ago. India, on the other hand, as I have written before, has a feudal political system, and none of our parties are internally democratic in the true sense of the term. All our promising young politicians are scions of political families who have been handed an inheritance. The time is past when someone like Obama could emerge on the scene from nowhere and rise to the very top in Indian politics through the force of his ideas. An Indian Obama would be a professor at a business school, a top manager in a multinational company, an acclaimed writer with a modest income—or he would simply have gone abroad, where the opportunities are far greater.
Obama’s visit hasn’t prompted any self-reflection in our political elite or our media, though. We gush over him, we get orgasms when he praises India or disses Pakistan, but we don’t think a little harder and realise that what Obama says about India not being an emerging nation any more is just sweet talk. We are still a backward, emerging nation, and this is amply reflected in the poverty of our political landscape, where Ashok Chavan and Suresh Kalmadi stand for the quintessential, typical Indian politician. Can India produce an Obama in this kind of system? No, we can’t.
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Needless to say, my admiration for Obama doesn’t necessarily translate to support for his policies. While it’s heartening to see a politician who doesn’t speak in platitudes and is capable of intellectual depth, Obama inherited an enormously difficult set of circumstances, and I find aspects of his approach to the economy somewhat dubious. (Indeed, when it comes to expanding the role of government in America, there isn’t much difference between GWB and BHO.) That said, even Lincoln and Roosevelt, it could be argued, were not confronted with two problems quite as complex as this economic crisis or as nebulous as the war on terror. But that’s a subject for another day.
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Speaking of young politicians, check out England. Their prime minister, David Cameron, is 44 years old. His deputy prime minsiter, Nick Clegg, is 43. The Chancellor of the Exchequer (their equivalent of a finance minister) is the 39-year-old George Osborne. The leader of the opposition (and of the Labour Party) is Ed Miliband, who turns 41 this December. In contrast, Indian politicians in their 50s are often described as “young and upcoming”. It’s crazy—but perhaps a dysfunctional system deserves senile or our-of-date leaders. Such it goes.