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The Obama model of stubbornness could work for PM Modi

columns Updated: May 16, 2015 01:41 IST
Prime Minister Narendra Modi


This was a leader who surfed the wave of the sort of unadulterated adulation tweens reserve for beardless boy band members, to secure a historic mandate. Just a year after the result was announced, a major media outlet moaned that the “promise” of “shaking up the system” had gone AWOL. “That goodwill from the early days evaporated quickly,” it commented.

No, that isn’t an opinion on the first 365 days of Narendra Modi’s governance. That was CNN in January 2010, analysing a year of Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House. If Modi ran a campaign Obamaesque in nature, he’s also encountering a similar blowback: The larger the win, the louder the whine.

The path Obama traversed in his inaugural year had more potholes than you’d find in a Delhi bylane after the monsoon. A furious reaction to his agenda of health insurance reform led to the creation of the Tea Party. Days before the first anniversary, that response led to his party losing a Senate contest in Massachusetts, a state where nearly two-thirds of voters were registered Democrats, and in a seat that had been held by Ted Kennedy. Opponents gatecrashed the Obama celebration, just as the uninvited Salahis found their way into the first State Dinner of his presidency, hosted for then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

But then, Obama stuck to his big idea — health insurance reform — giving the faithful a flag to fly, even if, by any standard, it was of the half-mast variety. The Affordable Care Act has been marked with more missteps than those taken by a drunk walking downhill. Its core, the individual mandate, was originally Hillary Clinton’s idea and Obama bashed and bruised her over that during the 2008 primaries. However, once he assumed ownership, he deflected assaults upon its enactment and now, Obamacare is his signature accomplishment.

That Obama model of stubbornness could work for Modi, if he has a singular idea. To change the narrative, he needs one with immediacy of impact to overcome impatience, rather than his government appearing to turn into an ordinance factory. Reframing the Land Acquisition Bill wasn’t it, and, even so, if he backtracks on it, he’ll face a backlash for not sticking to a decision.

He doesn’t even have to be remarkably original to make a major move. Perhaps he ought to reread the BJP’s 2014 manifesto, where under the ‘Leap Forward’ section, is a pledge to introduce 33% reservation for women in Parliament and assemblies. Modi’s constant refrain recently has been about changing the mindset towards women. What could be more of a psychological boost in this regard than this long-delayed legislation? Again, Obama’s early signing of equal pay legislation for women was seen by them as fair play and they helped him bid farewell to Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, giving Obama 56% of their votes. Modi doesn’t only have to match Obama in globe-trotting, having travelled to 18 nations within the first year to the American President’s 20.

Their political positions are obviously different, but Modi and Obama have much in common in their progress to power: From humble backgrounds to inflicting humbling setbacks upon dynasties, they’ve been of a pattern. In an interview during a free-for-all over free trade this week, Obama said, “When I believe strongly in something, then I enjoy fighting for it.” Perhaps Modi should pay attention. After all, in recent years, Obama’s had to deal with a Congress that’s been Opposition-heavy.

The bad news for Modi, from the Obama experience is that it won’t get better anytime soon. Angst will set in, the sort that caused Obama’s party to lose big in the November 2010 mid-term elections, a result he described as a “shellacking.” But Obama stuck to his guns and did get re-elected two years later.

A year of policy-making is a piffling period; it takes longer for even a boy band to record another assembly-line album. But as the calendar marks these milestones, they become more like millstones, weighted with outsized expectations, where waiting is not an option.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal