In the week when 46-year-old Barack Obama was being anointed the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in the US, Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi was being felicitated on his 85th birthday. While Obama made a stirring speech in front of hundreds of cheering young Americans, the DMK patriarch mumbled a few words on stage in the company of his two sons, M.K. Stalin and M.K. Azhagiri.
The contrast could not have been more stark. In America, Obama represents ‘change’ and ‘equal opportunity’; a charismatic Afro-American Harvard-educated lawyer who has risen up the political ladder through merit and hard work. In India, Karunanidhi & Sons are symbols of a static order, where a political party is a family business. Obama is the man from nowhere, throwing open the doors of the Washington establishment, renewing the stale political processes, with a completely new energy.
Can the Indian political system throw up an Obama-like figure who exemplifies in his own person, the ‘change we can believe in’ tagline? Unlikely. Leave aside the two cadre-based parties, the Left and the BJP — and every political formation in this country is an extension of a presiding family with strict rules of entry and upward mobility. In tightly knit regional parties, this phenomenon gets accentuated. Parties like Lalu Prasad’s RJD don’t even have elections for office-bearers. The decision on who to appoint is the sole prerogative of an individual. Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party may claim to be encouraging ‘young’ talent, but can the Baramati boss say with any conviction that his successor will be someone other than his nephew or daughter? The National Conference in Kashmir, the Akalis in Punjab, the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa, the TDP in Andhra Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party and the Shiv Sena — most political parties in this country are dynastic in structure, run like feudal oligarchies.
Could the Congress throw up a leader outside the Nehru-Gandhi family? Very doubtful. That a section of the Congress still chooses to push for Priyanka Gandhi, even though she has made it clear that she doesn’t want to join politics, is proof of how the party is unable to look beyond a family for leadership. Even the BJP, which can legitimately claim to have stayed away from actively encouraging dynastical politics, is hardly a meritocratic organisation. The assembly elections in Karnataka provided a glaring example of how party tickets in several constituencies were distributed on the basis of money power alone, and not on ideological commitment or organisational ability. That, in over four decades, the BJP has thrown up just two ‘national’ leaders — A.B. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, both now octogenarians — is evidence of a rigidly controlled party structure that is unwilling to open itself up to change.
A geriatric leadership has been the burden of the Left too. At 64, a Prakash Karat may be a representative of the next generation of Left leadership, but his ascent is also the culmination of more than 40 years within the party apparatus and he cannot be seen as someone who has carved a dramatically different path for the Left or has infused it with original, distinctive ideas.
In structural terms, Indian politics seems to have lesser and lesser space for fresh, independent minds; individuals who will question the prevailing orthodoxy, challenge entrenched mindsets and build new constituencies. Instead, the focus remains on those who are either part of the ‘family’ system or are rewarded for flattery and for practising status-quoist politics. India’s generation next politicians may dress and talk smart, but how many of them can claim to be truly empowered?
Contrast the passion and excitement that Obama has ignited within the younger Americans with the cynicism and apathy that our netas seem to generate. A Rahul Gandhi, for example, may have chosen a Twenty20 cricket tournament to encourage youth in Amethi, but can that ever be a substitute for a concrete programme of action for the young to enter public life? When is the last time any Indian politician matter made a serious effort at reaching out to young India, or redefining the rules of political power? In the end, the Obama phenomenon is not just about him being the first African-American to have won a major party nomination for the US presidency. Obama won because he was able to symbolise a generational change, an America fatigued by the Washington consensus and itching to break away from the Clinton-Bush duopoly over power.
Ironically, the one Indian politician who comes closest to embracing the Obama principle is Mayawati. There are many aspects of Maya Raj that are undesirable. But at least she offers her supporters the hope of a new political order, however flawed. She may have alienated middle-class India with her corrupt, autocratic ways, but for the next generation Bahujan Samaj, Mayawati is the only representative of real change. If Mayawati had been fortunate enough to go to Harvard, perhaps she too could have created an entire new menu for Indian political and social life, a new discourse, a new counter-culture that is truly Indian (unlike the Left) and truly revolutionary (unlike the Congress). For the moment, India awaits her Barack Obama.