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Wanted: a song for our times

Obama has focused on blending a determined ordinariness into his unique political mix. He has broken down the barriers of formality and hierarchy that separate a people from their politicians, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Jan 24, 2009 11:40 IST

What for you was the indelible image from the week that America got itself a new President? Was it the benediction — when millions of people bowed their heads in grace and whispered amen? Was it when a firm hand placed itself on a Bible that had as much history as the moment itself? Was it when the new President called for hope over fear? Or was it the moment of private tenderness between Michelle Obama and her husband as they huddled together on the dance floor? For me, frankly, it wasn’t any of these moments — unforgettable and powerful as they were.

The image that sticks in my mind is far less flamboyant and much more simple. In fact, it’s the day before Barack Obama was sworn in. It’s the memory of him singing along to the strains of American Pie. That single sight epitomised the essence of his presidency. It wasn’t only about youth or change or ousting George Bush. It was also about being one of us — about being a “regular guy.” The cynics may dismiss it as “branding” — but whether it’s the Chili Hot dogs, the basketball dunks or the Blackberry addiction — from the very start Obama has focused on blending a determined ordinariness into his unique political mix. He has broken down the barriers of formality and hierarchy that separate a people from their politicians.

And it is precisely this, which we most miss in India.

Think about it. Can you ever imagine any of our political leaders being comfortable enough to hum along to the strains of an old Hindi film song, if they knew the cameras could catch them? The couple of them who may — Lalu Prasad maybe or Farooq Abdullah perhaps — get affectionately stereo-typed as ‘entertainers’.

You may wonder why I’m making so much of this singing business. But it’s really music as a metaphor for comfort, ease and accessibility. Even our younger politicians are so ill at ease when it comes to being themselves in public. It’s almost as if an unspoken code of stiff protocol and remote politeness def-ines the Indian neta’s public persona. Ironic, because as individuals, many of them are among the warmest people I know, happy to engage in the warmth of conversation and the spontaneity of debate. But when they don their politico hat, it’s as if they have been hardwired for primness and the most archaic interpretation of propriety.

Some of it has to do with how our political culture has evolved. Don’t you feel just a little envious when you see Nicholas Sarkozy going for his morning jog through the streets of Paris and not feel any less presidential for it? Or when ordinary Americans can shake hands with their President at street corner rallies?

In India, even when ‘at homes’ are hosted by let’s say, the President, to mark big national functions like Republic Day or Independence Day, a security cordon separates the really important guests from the less-important ones. Mingling is out of the question unless you line up in a long queue for a brief handshake or namaste.

And, while it may sound horribly politically incorrect, here’s the truth: India’s poor and India’s mega-powerful are the only two categories of people with any chance at direct contact with the political class. Influence peddlers within the business community or the media are of course lucky enough to know their politicians well. And, ironically, the men and women who remain committed voters despite the grinding poverty of their lives may be able to sometimes engage with politicians in a way that is less officious. It’s India’s middle class that remains outside the circle of contact. Perhaps they have only themselves to blame. Apolitical mindsets and a knee-jerk and unintelligent antipathy to all politicians in general means they aren’t really entitled to much in the political process. But equally, could their disengagement be turned around by someone who was identifiable; someone they could relate to; someone who was willing to sometimes be one of them?

And no, these new rules of engagement don’t have to be defined by an urbane, upper crust, English-speaking constituency. Accessibility and informality can be communicated in a million different ways that can happily vary from person to person. In the end, it’s all about politics (and politicians) being a little more enthusiastic and a lot friendlier.

That perhaps is Obama’s most charming dimension. Beyond his oratory and his freshness, it is his willingness to be human, even fallible. Through his campaign he did not hesitate in admitting to mistakes. He wasn’t shy about saying sorry either. Unlike his predecessor’s famous “I didn’t inhale” obfuscations, Obama even admitted to dabbling with marijuana in his younger years, describing it openly as the actions of a “confused kid” who hadn’t grown up. And yet, despite this searing honesty — or maybe because of it — the world embraced him.

Perhaps, it is this that at least a younger generation of politicians needs to imbibe. Gravitas is not defined by how solemn and sedate your public presence is. Integrity will be indexed by your actions. In any case, in a world where the internet is swiftly eliminating gatekeepers (for better or for worse) and pushing even India’s biggest cine stars into direct messaging with their fans, the pressure on Gen-Next politicians to be more open and transparent is only going to increase.

So, you may as well let us get to know you better. And in the meantime, if you sing us a song, we promise you a chorus.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV