I was invited on India’s NDTV 24/7 news channel earlier this evening to discuss “has India got a unifying politician like Obama”. I only managed to speak once in the 18 minutes we were on air so, having pestered friends for their views earlier in the afternoon, here’s a post on the subject.
The first question is whether Barack Obama is indeed a “unifying politician”. Winning a huge majority, if that happens tomorrow, does not make him unifying in the sense of the question. It surely means simply that America wants a totally different type of president to tackle its current economic and Iraq-generated crises. Obama would probably not have been able to achieve such a victory if George W. Bush hadn’t made such a hash of his eight years in power.
Obama, in my view, is a skilful politician who managed to stick to a (usually emotional preacher-like) message, rarely got drawn into details, cleverly didn’t make race an issue, and – as a totally new and black figure in American politics – radiated change and hope.
A journalist friend in London was slightly more positive: “Obama represents hope across a huge divide, not just within the US, but also globally. So he is not a fall back, but a symbol of the future……he is (however) bound to end office disappointed and many people will feel betrayed”.
But let’s move on to whether India “has any unifying politician”. Our tv discussion was diverted by a Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) television-star politician, Smriti Irani, into the divisive acts of Raj Thackeray and Maharashtra’s politics, while Sachin Pilot, one of the Congress Party’s young stars, discussed the potential of the country’s youth vote bank. Others talked about how India was so divided, and how Rahul Gandhi, the dynastic heir-apparent to the Congress leadership, said recently that he intended “to give power” to “”millions of Barack Obamas”.
But are there any Obamas now, or have there been in the past? Clearly Jawaharlal Nehru was a uniting figure in the very different early years of India’s independence. Forty years or so later, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the former BJP prime minister, had a national appeal despite his party’s divisive politics.
Both men also had powerful charisma, but there is little of that around now – except for Narendra Modi, the arch Hindu-nationalist BJP chief minister of Gujarat, whose policies are far too extreme to unite people.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has a quiet unifying dignity – not, in a way, unlike Obama’s – but he does not have the outgoing energy to turn that into leadership.
Then there is Mayawati, the Dalit (lowest caste) leader, who is chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and an exalted heroic figure for those who follow her. She skilfully managed to pull top-caste Brahmins into her electoral bag in the last UP elections, so has done some unifying but, for now at any rate, she does not have the managerial and leadership qualities to roam nationally.
Basically, there aren’t many people to choose from because most politicians are in their jobs, as I’ve often written, for their own self-serving reasons – to become rich, and more powerful, and then richer, and to share what they win with their heirs.
That does not produce good leaders – look at how many cabinet members in the current government ignore their portfolios to pursue their own regional and personal interests. The thought of having to tackle, and work with, such people day by day must surely deter many would-be politicians.
Then there is the plethora of dynasties, topped-off by the Nehru-Gandhi family, with leading politicians in all parties pushing and pulling their offspring into the game, shutting off posts for those outside the family and the immediate coterie.
Every now and again, dynasties do produce well-meaning politicians such Rahul Gandhi, Sachin Pilot, and a group of other young MPs, currently in their 30s and early 40s, who could become the leaders of tomorrow. None of them however has Obama-like unifying qualities.
The existence of these dynasties must be a great deterrent – along with the sleaze and corruption – to young people who think about entering politics. What is the point, if you know you can never get past the nearest dynasty’s glass ceiling?