It’s November. A rockstar leader, his historic mandate now in the rear-view mirror, is bruised and abused in a mid-term campaign and as the results stream in, a battering rams through his record of electoral triumph. An atmosphere of hyper-partisan hysteria hovers over him, as the Opposition, till recently limp, appears to have limbered up. And just as criticism over the domestic defeat is deafening, he jets off abroad.
That was United States President Barack Obama in November 2010, after a self-described “shellacking” during which his Democratic Party lost seats in the Senate and gubernatorial mansions in states he had carried easily in the presidential elections, like Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio. Republicans gained 63 seats in the House of Representatives and with it the majority they had ceded during former President George W Bush’s tenure, a casualty of the Iraq war. The Democrats even lost the Senate seat in Illinois, which, till November 2008, was occupied by Obama. He left the Washington mob for New Delhi and a far more receptive crowd.
That, curiously enough, is yet another parallel of the similar political trajectories defined by Obama and his ‘friend’, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Sure, they inhabit different realms of the political spectrum, but both got an early taste of how the charm of change can turn to chagrin. Just as Modi’s image was transmitted onto the British Parliament this week, Obama’s probably the only other global leader to have had a similar experience of such juvenile activism: In the summer of 2014, a German artist and the anarchist Anonymous group collaborated to project his image on to the US Embassy in Berlin, with the legend, ‘NSA in da house’. That came a year after a similar escapade, when the words read, United Stasi of America (Stasi referring to the vicious East German state police). That fixation with fascism has been transmitted to Modi now.
In the months following that November, Obama rarely regained momentum. The US economy remained sluggish, jobs weren’t being generated, and the faithful were fretful. That mood changed in May 2011, with the extra-territorial execution of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. It was a turning point, and, no surprise, a refrain during his 2012 re-election campaign. Obama had gone quickly from comatose to commander-in-chief. That doesn’t mean a prescription for Modi’s maladies is taking out, say, Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafeez Saeed or even Dawood Ibrahim. Given the softness of India’s security sensitivities, that’s about as probable as Pakistan taking action against them.
But there are other lessons looming. In the wake of the November drubbing, Obama reacted: “The message of the election is I need to do a better job. I need to take direct responsibility for slow progress.” In a crisis, like the South Carolina church shootings, Obama was quick to communicate his concern. Modi is equally gifted in gabbing, but has struggled for words when they can offer a swift salve. More significantly, Bihar may have humbled his party but there is little humility forthcoming in a high command culture. An honest appraisal of shortcomings could be more beneficial than being cocooned in an echo chamber.
If Obama still had his healthcare platform to rally the troops around, Modi has no signature policy initiative of such appeal. And, no, the Make in India icon on Twitter is no substitute for a substantial position. This is less about that amorphous Idea of India, and more about the lack of an ambitious idea from the government.
Obama had a rocky road to November 2012, but once he personally figured on the ticket, he prevailed. Even if that Hope from the 2008 campaign only stayed on faded, fraying Shepard Fairey posters, at least Modi can take solace from Obama’s rebound. Over the years ahead, he will, obviously, need a sound record rather than sounding like a stuck record. Upon that will rest the job security of India’s incumbent PM when his contract with the Indian voter comes up for renewal in 2019. Taking responsibility, with its multiple layers of meaning, may be a place to start.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed are personal