Posted by: John Elliott | November 3, 2008

Has India got a unifying politician like Obama?

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?


  1. Shashi Tharoor, the cosmopolitian Indian, recognized around the world for his work as a ‘world community organizer’, ariculate and with 360 degree thinking could be the ‘Obama’ of Indian and the Prime Minister one day,

  2. Sudha very perceptive analysis. I am not looking for a ‘YOUNG’ inspirational leader. I, rather the entire world is looking for inspiration. PERIOD. It might come from any person, age, denomination.

    Like Tendulkar…people like him all over the world…because of the cricket of course, but also the way he conducts himself…both on and off the field. Very few cricketers command that.

    Some people have it and some people don’t. Even Vajpayee rose to become the PM because he was seen as bi-partisan and possessing the wisdom of an ‘elder statesman’ – the very reasons Advani couldn’t.

    the best example being A.P.J. Abdul Kalam…everybody loved him. I agree it is difficult in the era of coalition politics but when the person comes…

    nobody can stop a great idea whose time has come

  3. I want to add that a significant factor in Obama’s popularity is the nature of the presidential system itself. India, or any European democracy, will never see the kind of personality and aura building that the US presidential campaign has seen around Obama, because parliamentary democracies work differently. Personalities and auras, however charismatic, tend to get diluted in the long-drawn out process of coalition building and constant negotiations. So we will never see anything like Obamamania because interest groups are formed around too many different political ideologies. Yet I think in the longer run a parliamentary democracy is a healthier system.

  4. I’d just like to say that it is unfortunate we don’t have a young politican who is as inspirational, but a lot of that has to do with the fact that we revere age as though it automatically brings wisdom. And we’re not the only country to do this.
    When Singh recently survived the trust vote, most people thereafter remembered the participation of young MPs from Hyderabad, Srinagar etc who gave very resonant speeches. We need to give them a chance to come forward.

    I am also often distressed at how easily we dismiss the system. It makes all those in it who are there only because their conscience demands that they engage in public service, feel underappreciated. This perpetuates the idea that the system is not worth it and discourages new people from entering. Perhaps we need to learn to critique but also give credit where it’s due. This way the system appears attractive again…(in many ways we have the most progressive laws in the world, but how many know this?)

    I am opposed to dynastic politics but I deeply appreciated Sonia Gandhi’s untiring efforts, and the way she turned the Congress Party around in the late nineties and during the last election. I also feel sometimes we are drawn to the Gandhis because we feel they won’t give up on the Nehruvian ideals of a secular, democratic India. In a way they belong to everyone in India, in a way many polticians don’t because their platform is a caste, religion or class.

  5. When I look at Obama’s biographies, the audacity of this man to dream to be the President is both enthralling and inspiring. He reminds me of M.K Gandhi.
    Similarities – both were lawyers with promising possible careers. Both decided they wanted to make a difference. What Obama does remains to be seen, but the story so far is starkly similar. Whether India has anyone like this?
    As a society India provided Gandhi with a platform to lead more than half a century ago. The US did so yesterday.
    Will India do it again? Will India allow a dreamer, a doer and a leader who can inspire to take the front stage?
    That depends on what we believe in. Do we believe in a future of India with caste discrimination, religious intolerance for our children? Or the population has had enough?
    The Americans clearly had enough of Bush/Clinton policies. Have the Indians had enough of Gandhi(I)/Advani/VP Singh policies yet?
    That remains to be seen, but yes there are a lot of Gandhis, a lot of Baracks out there in India who do not have the platform yet.

  6. John Elliott’s clear, frank and sane look at the harsh realities of Indian politics has hit the spot again

  7. […] Elliott at Riding the Elephant discusses whether India has a unifying politician like Obama. Posted by Rezwan  Print […]

  8. […] India got a unifying politician like Obama? John Elliot tells you, gently, why the Indian political environment isn’t right: Basically, there aren’t […]

  9. Obama indeed is a transformational and unifying figure – did he start out to become that. Probably not, but the eventual thrust of the campaign and his conduct have definitely put a halo around him. For African – Americans he will probably be their most inspirational figure for a long long time.

    I agree with you that the proliferation of dynasties discourages people to enter politics. But that is just one factor. The sleaze is probably the bigger factor.

    From the current lot, nobody has the charisma or the integrity to become a truly pan – Indian phenomena. Whoever achieves that status has to inspire the youth of the country, just like Obama.

    Similarly he or she has to make a clean and decisive break with the politics of the past – politics of caste, region, hate and envision a new future for India – that is all-inclusive and equitable.

    And lastly he or she has to inspire an entire dormant section of the population to believe in the power of the vote. Only half of India votes. The US election is seeing record turnouts as we speak.

    There will be one. But when?

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