Politics, by definition, is risk averse. Perhaps that’s why America was so awestruck when Barack Obama ended the Black vs White debate by painting his political canvas in shades of grey. In a campaign speech that has drawn comparisons to Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, Obama — the son of a Black father from Kenya and White mother from Kansas — spoke with hair-raising honesty about anger and hurt on both sides of the colour line. Transcripts of the speech zipped around the globe, making it a political chartbuster. USA Today, for example, said that an analysis piece on the speech drew more comments from readers in a single day than any other article ever.
So, what was all the fuss about?
Well, for starters, a man being hard-sold as the country’s first African-American President admitted that his White grandmother — a woman, he said, he “loves dearly” — gets nervous when an unknown Black man approaches her on the street. These, he said, were the fears of a “typical white person”. In the same breath, he deplored the shrill, right-wing rhetoric of his former pastor but maintained that the Reverend, with all his imperfections, “was like family” to him. The priest who baptised him had controversially blamed the greed of “White America” for the 9/11 attacks. Obama condemned the statement but spoke about the need for understanding the bitterness of an older generation.
Gambling dangerously with the contradictions that come with being truthful, Obama embraced the issue of race head on, declaring that the “anger was real… and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding.”
Listening to his passionate acknowledgement of the paradox of living in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society, I couldn’t help but wonder: when, if ever, would India get its own Obama? What race is to America, religion and caste are to India. But political discourse in our country has always been pushed into polarities. Here, you are communal or secular, liberal or conservative, capitalist or communist, casteist or egalitarian. Lost in these lazy labels is the fine and complex texture of truth. Our responses to political debates around caste and religion are either too pat and politically correct or appallingly biased and bigoted.
Take this week’s controversy for example. There’s no question that Mahendra Singh Tikait, a feudal politician who pretends to be an ordinary farmer, had no business calling Mayawati a “chamar” at a public platform, or even in private, for that matter. But now that the political drama has played out to a predictable script of outrage and apology, let’s think further. Will any politician in this country ever talk openly about the unspoken marks of caste that continue to smear our daily lives? For instance, will anyone ever admit to the separate glass that has been kept aside for years for the sweeper to have his tea in?
In his landmark speech on race, Obama spoke from the gut about the entrenched bias against people of colour; but he also validated the resentment that many White Americans feel against the ghettoisation and culture of dependency among Black people. After she successfully courted a Dalit-Brahmin romance, Mayawati was best placed to build a bridge across the caste divide. But can you imagine the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister ever making a speech that understands the simmering resentment of (upper-caste) medical students protesting against quotas in colleges, while simultaneously attacking centuries of discrimination against her own people? When India debates the issue of caste-based reservations, for example, you have to either support or protest the quotas, and what position you take, apparently measures your equality quotient. But what if you want to question the siege mentality among certain caste groups? Or what if the efficacy of affirmative action has never convinced you? Should that automatically condemn you as an elitist bigot? Where is the Dalit or Muslim leader who can share the pain of prejudice while also understanding the dangers of keeping communities infinitely conscripted by categories of caste and religion?
Much of India’s Hindu-Muslim divisions can also be located in the context of history, fomented further by the politics of divide and rule. But how many politicians will ever wonder aloud, as Obama did, about how Partition has scarred and embittered an entire generation? Each one of us has someone like Obama’s grandmother in our families, who stun us into shame and embarrassment with a sudden statement of bias, tossed about casually at the dining table. But would we ever admit to it in public? And would any of our political leaders ever try and locate religious prejudice in their own personal stories and journeys?
Perhaps that’s exactly the problem: Indian politicians aren’t willing to allow us to know them as people. Our relationships with them remain distant and impersonal, defined through the prism of events and ideology, rather than intimate knowledge. Our political leaders are also scared of saying those simple three words: “I am sorry.” The fear of admitting a mistake, the reluctance to reveal ambivalence, the hesitation to go public with a personal dilemma — turns most of them into cardboard characters, instead of human beings we can love or hate (and sometimes both.)
On the rare occasion that a political leader has openly expressed self-doubt — for instance when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh apologised for the 1984 carnage in Parliament or when LK Advani described the demolition of the Babri Masjid as the “saddest day” of his life — ordinary people have responded to the admission of frailty with empathy. Their explanations may not convince us entirely, but are a great deal better than silence or rehearsed party positions.
If Sonia Gandhi, for example, were to ever share with us the personal journey of how an Italian-born made India her home and country, I am convinced the BJP would have to delete the phrase ‘foreign-origin’ from its manifesto forever. And if Advani were to talk about how his views on ‘minorityism’ were possibly shaped by his experience of migrating from Karachi to India, we would possibly react with less fear, and more understanding.
The fact is that we are all the sum of our contradictions but also malleable and open to change. Now what’s needed is a leader who can mould us into something that’s better than us, by first holding up a mirror to both our pride and prejudice.
Barkha Dutt is managing editor, NDTV 24x7.