Friday, June 26, 2009

Obama and India

FOR the most part, 2008 was a gloomy year. Millions across the globe were prey to the financial models of risk that no one fully understood, not even the financial institutions that deployed them.1 Food prices rose precipitously for much of the year, making countless poor people vulnerable to deeper hunger. And terror struck brutally, showing signs of meticulous planning and a fiendish commitment to mass murder. The US is now officially in recession, the deepest in recent decades. Much of Europe is on the verge of recession, if not already there. The economic rise of India and China has lost some of its lustre. And substantial parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan have slipped out of state control. World security and economics are undoubtedly in a dreadful shape. India is integrated with a world system that after years of delivering benefits to the country will now extract a price.
Luckily, the year was not one of unrelieved gloom, and it is the most joyful event of the year which is the focus of this essay. The USA witnessed a transformative election of historic proportions, one that proudly redeemed – to a substantial extent – a pledge America’s founding fathers had made over two centuries back. By late November, the Mumbai carnage had wiped out the joy with which millions all over the world greeted the victory of Barack Obama on November 4. But the Obama moment has just begun. It is pulsating with new political possibilities. There is reason for hope.
Why was Barack Obama’s election so historic? And what implications can we draw for India? For the first question, I will draw heavily from Obama’s two extraordinary books, Dreams From My Father (Dreams hereafter), which he has called ‘a story of race and inheritance’, and The Audacity of Hope (Audacity hereafter). Neither book, it should be noted, was ghost-written. Intellectuals, politicians and, in fact, all students of identity politics should read these books. And as far as the second question is concerned, I will focus not on Obama’s likely India/South Asia policy, which remains unclear, but on whether India’s democracy can easily generate an Obama from within.

Though Obama has admitted his debt to Mahatma Gandhi, as leaders of America’s civil rights movement in the 1960s also did, he is more a Nehru-like figure – a gifted writer, a mighty intellect and a brilliant speaker, who draws enormous strength from the affection of the masses, just as Nehru often said he used to. Like Nehru, Obama’s attempt to marry a larger vision with clear policy designs is also unmistakable.2 The great difference, of course, is that Nehru came from the uppermost reaches of Indian society; Obama has risen from below. Nehru’s education at Harrow and Cambridge owed entirely to his privileged birth; Obama’s arrival at Columbia and Harvard was a sign of his outstanding abilities. If Obama does not rebuild American democracy and make it a more inclusive nation, the comparison I am making will ring hollow in the years to come, but the beginnings are manifestly reassuring.
Obama’s phenomenal rise has two sides. On the one hand, it speaks to the role race has played in America’s nation-building; on the other, it is a tale of breathtaking personal determination against all odds. Race has been talked about a lot; the personal side not as much. I start with the latter.
Obama grew up outside the US mainstream: in Hawaii and Indonesia. Hawaii is far away from the US mainland and is also the newest member of the American Union. And Indonesia is not a country most Americans would be able to identify on the map. Obama was six years old when he arrived in Jakarta, along with his mother and Indonesian stepfather.
‘We lived in a modest house on the outskirts of town, without airconditioning, refrigeration, or flush toilets. We had no car – my stepfather rode a motorcycle, while my mother took the local jitney service every morning to the US embassy, where she worked as an English teacher. Without the money to go to the international school that most expatriate children attended, I went to local Indonesian schools and ran the streets with the children of farmers, servants, tailors and clerks.’3

It is at the age of twenty that Obama, finally, stepped into an elite institution of the US: Columbia University.4 But it should be noted that the first night he spent in New York was on a pavement. He knew only two people in the city, one of whom had offered to put him up. As it turned out, that friend was not present at home to receive him. ‘It was well past midnight… I found a dry spot, propped my luggage beneath me and fell asleep… In the morning, I woke up to find a white hen pecking at the garbage near my feet. Across the street, a homeless man was washing himself at an open hydrant and didn’t object when I joined him.’5
Add to these vignettes two great facts of Obama’s life – the absence of a father and his skin color – and it will be clear how he spent much of his life fighting odds. Obama grew up without a father to provide strength to him as a child. And though raised by White grandparents, Obama knew he looked African American and had to discover for himself what it meant to be African American in a society where race and class are joined in an ‘almost mathematical precision’.6

In search of a graduate degree from Harvard after topping his undergraduate class at the University of Hawaii, Obama’s Kenyan father decided to leave him and his mother. He was two years old then. After that initial departure, he saw his father only once. When Obama was eleven years old, his father came from Kenya to spend a Christmas with the son. Obama was raised mostly by his mother’s parents. He recalls the love of his grandparents as a blessing, but ‘there was one problem: my father was missing… nothing that my mother or grandparents told me could obviate that single, unassailable fact.’7 The absence of a father created an undecipherable void in his life.
While at Columbia, he heard that his father was killed in a car accident in Nairobi. ‘He felt no pain, only the vague sense of an opportunity lost.’8 A year after his father’s death, a profound experience altered him. He met his father in a dream, but the dream also had his father in a jail cell. It was a cathartic moment, worth recounting in his words.
‘I stood before the cell, opened the padlock, and set it carefully on a window ledge. My father was before me, with only a cloth wrapped around his waist; he was very thin, with his large head and slender frame… He looked pale. "Barack" (he said), "I always wanted to tell you how much I love you." (But) an implacable sadness spread across his face. I tried to joke with him; I told him that if I was thin, it was only because I took after him. But he couldn’t be budged, and when I whispered to him that we might leave (the jail) together, he shook his head and told me it would be best if I left.
I awoke… weeping, my first real tears for him. I turned on the light and dug out his old letters. I remembered his only visit… And I realized, perhaps for the first time, how even in his absence his strong image had given me some bulwark on which to grow up, an image to live up to… I needed to search for him, I thought to myself, and talk with him again.’9

After Obama’s rise to presidency, it is almost certain that psychologists will dissect this dream at great length. It is one of the most moving passages of a book where real life often meets with virtually fictional settings and is narrated with the craft of a story teller.
Despite a father’s utter neglect, a son finally made peace with him, and pledged that he would go to Nairobi to discover the Kenyan side of his heritage, learn from it, and be whole again. He did that twice in his life, once before he entered Harvard Law School and a second time after he got married to Michelle. Both went to Kenya to make a discovery about their American identities, as it were.

If an absent father was the first experience of marginality, race was the second. When he entered politics in the 1990s, Obama was ‘without organizational backing or personal wealth, a black man with a funny name.’10 He was elected first to the state Senate of Illinois, but he went on to become ‘the sole African American – and only the third since Reconstruction – to serve in the US Senate.’11
Scholars of nationalism agree that the US was founded upon an ideology, not ethnicity or race.12 The ideology, contained in the Declaration of Independence, was signed on 4 July 1776, by the founding fathers of the US. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’, said the Declaration, ‘that all men are created equal’. Europe, the Old World, was horribly tied up in feudal hierarchies. The New World would have political and social equality at its core. As a corollary, rising from below became the so-called American dream.
In reality, however, the US has not fully lived up to this ideal. The creed of political equality came entwined with a founding ambiguity. The founders did not abolish slavery, an institution diametrically opposed to equality. As personal property of their owners, African Americans were bought and sold as slaves, had no freedom of their own, and were denied human dignity. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), a towering figure of the founding period of US history, was also a slave owner.
This original ambiguity has haunted the US for over two centuries. The election of Barack Obama, an African American, as president substantially liberates America from its basic contradiction. What impact it will have on the fortunes of African Americans in general is still to be seen, but it is undoubtedly a shining moment in the historical journey of American nationhood and a landmark for world history. Few societies have elected someone from their deeper subaltern trenches to the highest office of the nation.

Obama, of course, is not an American slave’s descendant. His father was an intellectual from Kenya. And his mother was white. But, says Obama, ‘I ceased to advertise my mother’s race at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites.’13 In his teens, thus, Obama realized that his skin colour and hair made him an African American, and his mother’s race did not alter that basic reality. In school, ‘a redheaded girl asked to touch my hair and seemed hurt when I refused. A ruddy-faced boy asked me if my father ate people... my sense that I didn’t belong continued to grow.’14 Identifying as an African American, Obama also married Michelle, whose ancestors were slaves.
As we know, slavery ended in the US in the 1860s, but racial segregation and humiliation did not. Roughly a decade after the end of the US civil war (1861-65), America’s South witnessed the rise of what are called Jim Crow laws (1876-1965), segregating Blacks for housing, education, religious and social life, not allowing them access to public spaces, disenfranchising them over time, and punishing them through lynch mobs if they crossed a politically and socially determined line. Inter-racial marriages were outlawed; inter-racial sex was criminalized. In the 1880s, a decade and a half after the end of the American civil war and the abolition of slavery, lynching of African Americans became quite common in American South. Available studies suggest an annual average of a little over 100 lynchings during 1882-1930 or roughly one lynching every third day during those forty nine years.15

Obama, of course, is very aware of this bloody and racist side of American history. ‘In 1960’, he writes, ‘the year that my parents were married, miscegenation still described a felony in over half of the states in the Union. In many parts of the South, my father could have been strung up from a tree for merely looking at my mother the wrong way; in the most sophisticated of northern cities, the hostile stares, the whispers, might have driven a woman in my mother’s predicament into a back-alley abortion – or at the very least to a distant convent that could arrange for adoption.’16
That an African American will be America’s president on January 20, 2009 is indeed a much awaited tryst with destiny. As famously defined by Nehru, a national tryst with destiny is ‘a moment… when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.’ The younger generations of Americans, Black or White, have mostly found this racist aspect of their nation’s history repellent and incomprehensible. Available research makes it plain that younger Americans are less racist than their parents and grandparents. Many also find Thomas Jefferson hugely troubling. In supporting Obama by a huge margin, the younger people feel they have reclaimed a nation from the ambiguities of its founding fathers. This should explain why there were so many celebratory lumps in throat on November 4, and why tears of joy so uncontrollably emerged. Obama’s rise is nothing short of a democratic political revolution.

Over ‘the meaning of Obama’, the debate in India has been vigorous. Can Mayawati become India’s Obama? Can a Muslim be elected India’s prime minister? The idea of a Muslim prime minister would, indeed, be a landmark for Indian secularism, but that is an inexact comparison. No community of India has suffered more than the nation’s Dalits. Muslims have historically had a dualistic structure: a ruling class and an aristocracy on one side and a vast mass of poor on the other side. In significant ways, that dualism continues to this day: the Azim Premjis, Shah Rukh Khans and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudis on the one hand, and the teeming millions on the other.
A Muslim prime minister, were it to happen, would at best be a Kennedy moment of Indian history, not an Obama moment. John Kennedy was the first Catholic to be elected president in a primarily Protestant US in 1960. Originally, the Kennedys were from an underprivileged Irish background, but they rose to become what Europeans often incorrectly call America’s royalty. The Kennedys mainstreamed American Catholics in a way that was more effective than the Catholic rise in the local politics or business of many American cities. A Muslim prime minister in India will play a roughly similar role.
In contrast, no film and sports stars, or business leaders, have come from the Dalit community. Though not enslaved, at least in modern times, Dalits, much like the African Americans, have been segregated, stamped upon, and treated badly. Finally, India also has a founding ambiguity. Our Constitution abolished untouchability, but it is still widely practiced in rural and small-town India. A Dalit prime minister would constitute a true parallel to the election of Obama.

Can India produce an Obama? Three great differences between India and the US make it unlikely. First, party establishments cannot easily be challenged until there are open intra-party elections for the leadership of political parties. American elections start with the primaries, allowing anyone in a political party to stake a claim to leadership. Lacking internal elections, India’s political parties today are on the whole family properties. Even parties that were opposed to parivarvaad, such as the various Lohia-style Janata parties and DMK, have developed their own versions of family dynasties. The partial exceptions are the BJP and CPM. But the BJP cannot easily have a leader not approved by the RSS. And the CPM is ruled by a basically unelected politburo. The Congress party was historically based on internal elections, but with the exception of a feeble attempt in the 1990s, internal elections, suspended by Indira Gandhi in 1973, have not been restored.
The institutional decay of India’s political parties essentially means that ‘outsiders’ like Mayawati tend to create new political parties. However, it is well known that it is much harder to create a new nationwide political organization than use an existing one. The competition between political parties in India is remarkably vigorous, but competition inside is its exact opposite.
Second, the US has a presidential system, India a parliamentary one. Since a US president is directly elected by the electorate, a presidential system tends to create a national political arena. Every presidential candidate has to think of how to lead the nation. There is no other choice.
In a parliamentary system, the electorate votes for an MP, but there is no direct election for the prime minister. Typically, it is when a parliamentary system has two (or three) nation-wide parties, as in the UK, that the political parties seriously compete for national vote. India does not have a two-party system. Our political theater is regionally or locally fragmented.

This, of course, does not mean that India should go for a presidential system. Available research makes it clear that presidential systems do badly in the developing world. Presidents and legislatures, fighting one another, are known to have brought polities to a stalemate and governance to a standstill, often leading to suspension of democracy. Latin America exemplifies how presidentialism often leads to authoritarianism. In developing countries, presidential systems might regularly generate national-level political leaders, but they often undermine democracy, imposing their personal authority on the system. Presidential systems work better in economically advanced settings, where the judiciary and civil society are strong, opportunities beyond politics exist plentifully, and politics is not a do-or-die affair.
Third, to mobilize citizens to vote, one has to speak in a language that the citizens can understand. Political campaigns take place in a linguistic register. Until India becomes more or less fully literate and also bilingual, India’s primary political arenas will be linguistically diverse provincial units. As a result, state-level Obamas will emerge, but national-level Obamas will be extremely hard to come by. Mayawati is basically a provincial Obama at this point. In order to be a national Obama, she will have, among other things, to prove that she is capable of rising above retributive politics, putting together large social coalitions, and presenting well thought out policy designs consistent with her vision of social liberation.

Movement politics, aimed at putting the various communities together, can in principle tear down the institutional constraints of Indian polity. The freedom movement was the last great movement that built unity in India. It produced impressive national level political leaders. The JP movement in the 1970s presented an alternative version of national unity, but it could not really take off. The Advani-led rath yatra was also one of the biggest movements of 20th century India. But it did not unite; it only divided.
Until such time as India’s political parties become more internally democratic, a national-level two-party system emerges, or strong movements of national unity come to the scene, India’s national-level leaders will continue to come from party establishments, not from the subaltern groups of Indian society. It will be hard for an Indian Obama to emerge, and be successful.

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