Is there anything left to say about Barack Obama’s victory after so many days of saturation media coverage? And even if there is, wouldn’t you rather hear it from Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman and all the other top American columnists whose pieces are so widely reproduced in Indian papers these days? Do you really want the perspective of an Indian outsider? (One who told you many months ago that he thought John McCain would win!)
Of course, you don’t.
So I’m not going to give you the benefit of my two bits on why Obama won, what his victory means for Black America or what he should do now.
But yes, there is something that we don’t talk about often enough. And that’s about how they conduct elections in America and how it shows up our own political system for the tawdry, ideologically bankrupt, family business that it really is.
Let’s start with the biggest mistake that all of us are making: projecting an Indian matrix on the US election. “Isn’t Obama’s victory great?” we say. “Do you think Mayawati could ever become Prime Minister?” Or, “This shows the growing power of the black community in the US.”
It’s understandable that we should see things this way. Over the last ten years, politics in India have become increasingly about identity. People ask us to vote for them not because of what they’ve achieved or even what they’ll do but because of the families they were born into.
At its simplest level, this is about dynasty. Vote for me, they say, because I am the daughter or the son of so-and-so. At a more complex level, it is about caste, ethnicity and religion: vote for me because like you, I am a Dalit/a Reddy/a Jat/a Yadav/ a Hindu etc.
Dalits are expected to vote for Mayawati, not because she is a great politician, but because they are Dalits and they should vote for a Dalit leader. The backwards will vote for Mulayam Singh Yadav because he is one of them. And so on. <b1>
Issues are selected because of the appeal they will have to castes and communities. For instance, the BJP will focus on terrorism not necessarily because it is a serious problem but because the party hopes to capitalise on Hindu fears of violence from Muslims. Similarly Muslim leaders will go on about police brutality not necessarily because it is a genuine problem but because they want to make Muslims feel vulnerable and exposed.
The interesting thing about the Obama victory was that it was not predicated on identity. First of all, Obama is not a Black American by birth or upbringing. His father (who left when he was very young) was Kenyan, his mother was a white American and he was brought up by white grandparents. Whatever experience he has of the Black American identity came in later life and especially after his marriage to Michelle (who is a Black American). So, he was not campaigning on an accident of birth, in the way that say, Mayawati, Mulayam or Bal Thackeray do.
Secondly, his victory also ended another kind of birth-dominated politics. Ever since the first George Bush was elected in 1998, two families — the Bushes and the Clintons — have dominated American politics. After the second George Bush, we thought it would be the turn of Hillary Clinton.
Part of the significance of the Obama victory is that it marks the triumph of democracy over dynasty. Hillary Clinton believed she had the Democratic nomination in her handbag. Nobody thought that a half-Black, first-term Senator from Illinois had any chance of winning the nomination, let alone the Presidency.
It wouldn’t happen here. And it couldn’t happen here. Indian politics is now largely a family affair. Nearly everybody who matters (including Mayawati, incidentally) is in politics because of a parent, a husband, a boy friend, or whatever. Such is the hold of dynasty that non-dynasts hardly get room to breathe, let alone grow.
This is not to say that dynastic politicians are necessarily bad (nobody thinks Hillary was stupid; nor are many of our political sons and daughters) but only that they are dynastic politicians.
This was brought home to me when I read two excellent opinion pieces on the Obama victory in the Indian Express by two of India’s brightest young politicians, one from the Congress and one from the BJP. Both men were very perceptive. But they were also sons of former ministers who had joined politics because it was the family tradition.
An Obama in India? Don’t see how: where’s the room?
It’s also important to recognise that Obama did not fight this election as the candidate of the Black community: he fought it as an American.
That rarely happens in India. Any minority candidate in India stands as the representative of the minority. His (or her) appeal is nearly always framed in terms of righting the injustices done to his (or her) community or, at the very least, of delivering future benefits to the community.
Can you imagine Mayawati standing for election and not promising to usher in a new era for Dalits? Where would the Thackerays be if they did not promise to advance the interests of Maharashtrians? Would there be any Muslim politics in India if leaders could not claim that Islam was in danger or that the Prophet had been insulted (by a Danish cartoonist, by Salman Rushdie or anybody else)?
In fact, some Black American leaders attacked Obama for not focusing enough on race. But he refused to change the tenor of his campaign, made no attempt to capitalise on victimhood and promised nothing special to his community.
Only once in his campaign did race become an issue that he was forced to confront and that was when TV channels focused on inflammatory speeches made by the pastor of his church. Even then, Obama did not play the Black victim of white racism. Instead, he made a brilliant and complex speech (possibly his finest of the campaign) in which he called for greater understanding between races, recalling that his white grandmother was often frightened when she saw Black people.
Can you see any Indian politician rising to that level? Any Indian politician refusing to capitalise on his minority status? Hell, we live in a country where even the so-called party of the majority community likes to pretend that all Hindus are victims (of jehad, of ‘pseudo-secularism’ and God alone knows what else) so that it can win their votes.
We underestimate the strengths of American democracy at our peril. Over the last few years, with a moron in the Oval Office, it had become easy to sneer at America. And certainly, American politics has its dark side and its share of clowns (the appalling Sarah Palin for instance, who only learnt during the campaign that Africa was a continent, not a country).
The Obama victory shows us that we may be the world’s largest democracy, but America is the world’s greatest democracy. It’s not just the obvious fact of a Black man getting to the White House. It’s also the way in which he did it, by taking on the powers-that-be in his party and by refusing to run as the caricature ‘Black candidate’. Which other country has an electoral system that is so truly representative that a man can come from virtually nowhere and end up in the White House?
We are a long way from that point. Over the last two decades, Indian politics has got worse rather than better: obsessed with caste, predicated on identity, favouring regional perspective over national interest and filling its ranks with the sons and daughters of the powerful.
When Obama stood up in Chicago and declared, “If there is anybody out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible…. today is your answer”, we had to agree.
And I, for one, wondered when such a day would come in India.