The media cliché of the season is inspired by a man who seems all set to become the first Black President of the United States. An Obama for India is a liberal lament that we have now heard more times than we can count. But what is India really looking to emulate?
Moving past his slogans for change, his innate charisma and his buttery charm, Barack Obama’s biggest achievement may already be the fact that instead of using his Race as a perennial calling-card, he appears to have transcended it. The political debate has long since moved from whether White America is ready for Obama to ask instead whether all of Black America will stand by him. No wonder then that Obama — who was born in Hawaii to a Kenyan diplomat and a White woman from Kansas — has been subjected to merciless scrutiny on whether he is “Black enough”. The American media has drawn parallels between him and Tiger Woods. Woods, who is now glorified as an iconic, breaking-the barriers, Black Hero, was often derided in his early years for being more at home in the chi-chi and predominantly White world of professional golf than in Black society.
So the question now is whether inner-city Black America — the more radical and resentful voters — will see him as one of their own or a sell-out to the enemy. It’s a risk that the Presidential candidate has been willing to take. Race has hardly been the centerpiece of Obama’s campaign; he has made just one definitive speech on the racial divide through the entire election year. And when he disowned his own pastor’s incendiary remarks (among them a church sermon that declared 9/11 to be just punishment for America’s “terrorism”) and acknowledged that resentment in White America had its own legitimacy, Obama knew that he was risking a backlash among his own followers. Jesse Jackson — once America’s best-known Black politician, who also made a failed bid for President — was famously caught on an open mike saying he wanted to “cut Obama’s nuts off”.
But in the end, the gamble appears to have paid off and it has redefined American politics as well. A deeply racist society is now focusing on which Presidential candidate will deliver them from the economic meltdown and the administration’s foreign policy suicide missions, rather than on whether White is better than Black. This is Obama’s historic contribution: he has refused to keep his people locked into the role of victims.
And it is precisely this that India can and must learn from: find us a politician who will terminate the politics of victimhood. Our public debates on religion and caste continue to be polarised by rehearsed and predictable dogmas. Anything to do with religious minorities ends up being discussed only in banal, over-simplified, for- and-against frameworks.
We only have to look at the how our political parties responded to two recent controversies: the attacks on Christians in Orissa and the Jamia Nagar encounter in Delhi. At a meeting of the National Integration Council — the BJP audaciously and unapologetically declared the Bajrang Dal to be a “nationalist organisation”. But the statements from some of the Congress and Left politicians were just as provocative. If a judicial probe was not ordered into the Delhi encounter, warned one leader, India’s Muslims were in danger of being alienated from the mainstream. Who can defend the hooliganism and the organised, targeted and communal violence of the Bajrang Dal? Equally, should one contentious police encounter — in which the truth is hazy and neither innocence nor guilt can be pronounced till the courts decide the case — be used to define the so-called mood of India’s Muslims? If the debate around banning the Bajrang Dal is motivated by party politics, so is the controversy around the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (Simi). Right-wing lunacy is a disservice to the Idea of India.
But Left-wing fundamentalism does it no favour either. The secular debate is sadly mired in stale rhetoric. One side makes India’s minorities feel like outsiders in their own country; the other side keeps them trapped in a siege mentality that is just as destructive.
If caste is to India, what race is to America — well then — we have more reason to worry about our inability to reinvent our political agendas. No matter what you think of her, Mayawati’s meteoric rise is indisputably the stuff that history is made of. The BSP alliance with Brahmins in the last assembly elections could have been a dramatic opportunity for breaking down traditional divides, had it ever gone beyond cynical arithmetic. Now Mayawati is reaching out to so-called upper caste voters again by promising economic reservations. But, why should someone who could well be India’s next Prime Minister need to react at all when Rahul Gandhi spends time with Dalit villagers? The patently untrue suggestion that the Congress leader would “cleanse” himself every time he met a Dalit, is clearly designed to play into age-old insecurities. The subtext is clear: only a Dalit politician can ever be free of caste bias. And once again, the political strategy is the same: victimhood makes for an excellent vote-bank.
Perhaps the reason that Indian politics remains trapped in complicated caste mathematics instead of ever expanding to become genuinely issue-based is the risk-averse attitude of our netas. Neither caste nor religion can ever be irrelevant in a society as diverse and unequal as ours. But, perhaps one day, India will find a politician willing to gamble on the possibility of transcending both caste and religion while still giving them their place.
This is why India loves Obama.
(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV)