Sunday, June 22, 2008


Barrack Hussein Obama’s vertical rise from nowhere to within striking distance of the White House has mesmerised the whole world and changed many unfavourable opinions about the US almost overnight across the globe.

It was a little more than three years back that Obama became only the third African American in a hundred years to get into the US Senate, and the only one at that time. Even then, this unknown man from nowhere was being spoken about as a possible candidate to run for President in 2012 or 2016. But here we are in 2008, awaiting his ascendancy to the most powerful office in the world already! His vision of an America not “pockmarked by racism and fear or led by politicians born into privilege and coached into automaton”, and his embodiment of the “authenticity” in politics that he believes people are “hungry for”, have most unexpectedly got him where, in the beginning of the campaign, no one gave him even an outside chance of getting. Not against Hillary Clinton.

Obama’s dream run has predictably got the imaginations of Indians going in all directions.

Rajdeep Sardesai, in an excellent post in his blog at has correctly analysed as to why the Indian political system is not amenable to even the idea of an Obama suddenly emerging from some dark, even lit, corner of the country to claim the top job. The oldest and biggest political party, Congress, as he has rightly observed, has become the property of one family which alone is entitled to that slot. The other major national party, the BJP has thrown up only two big leaders in Vajpayee and Advani. That, I believe, has a lot to do with the almost ‘family-like’ stranglehold that the RSS has over the party.

Regional parties have been throwing up Obamas at the state level every once in a while. But, in most cases, all such political outfits have morphed into family owned enterprises like the Congress. I must hasten to add that the term ‘Obama’ is being used only in the context of the speed of rise of these individuals from obscurity. The beliefs and the level of integrity that Obama epitomises are not even in the frame.

Shashi Tharoor, who writes in the Sunday edition of the Times of India, has a totally different take on the rise of Obama. In his column of June 22, 2008, Tharoor takes great pains to emphasise the ‘continuity’ element in Obama’s rise by stressing the fact that out of 12 nominees for President of both the Republicans and Democrats in the last 20 years, 10 have graduated from either Harvard or Yale. Obama has graduated from Harvard Law School.

Tharoor skilfully cites these outstanding educational attainments of US Presidents to support his unstated belief that these have a direct co-relation with the equally outstanding leadership skills required for leading the nation. Then he laments that we in India are “saddled with politicians of, to put it mildly, considerably lower educational attainment”, and that products from India’s better colleges and universities do not go into politics. Of Indian colleges, he can recall only the one to which he went, St Stephen’s, and the two career diplomats and one lawyer from that college who are now politicians. He then goes on to say that India needs more politicians from such institutions “as India seeks to carve out a place for itself in the 21st century world.”

A Delhiite who was even earlier disconnected from real India, Tharoor is apparently mentally still living in the US where he spent long years. That is why he sounds like an American who wants to summarily transplant the American experience in India, arrogantly believing that he knows all there is to know about India.

Harvard, Yale, Stanford and the other Ivy League institutions of excellence do not disconnect Americans from America. They are American institutions built from a scratch by Americans for America. Their alumni talk in the language of ordinary Americans and can therefore connect with them seamlessly. But that still does not guarantee excellence of leadership and clarity of vision. President Bush has degrees from both Harvard and Yale. Look at the double barrelled mess he has made in eight years of Presidency!

India’s elite colleges and schools are exactly the opposite. They are meant for English speaking Indians living in their own almost-in-the-US islands in the metros, far removed from real ordinary Indians who make up more than 90 percent of the population. Most of those who graduate from these colleges cannot speak local languages properly and cannot relate to or understand the fears, motivations and complex societal dynamics of ordinary Indians.

The few who do join politics at some stage, hesitate to get their hands dirty in the heat and dust of real India, except as political gimmicks which even the dumb can see through. Since they can neither understand ordinary people properly, nor do they arrogantly care to, they do not like to enter politics except at a comfortable hierarchical level far removed from the grind of real grass root politics, the kind that real leaders revel in. And to get that magical entry, some will descend to the lowest depths of sycophancy and grovel more unashamedly than even an illiterate native ever will. They are not real leaders at all, nor can they ever be. This is something they understand pretty well even if they don’t admit it.

In any case, when far better overseas options are available from these Ivy League feeder institutions, where is the incentive to get into politics at the entry level and confront an almost alien countryside full of ‘natives’? These days even the English media is a better bet. Better even than the Left: heady power, no responsibility to the people, plenty of money; all permanently available, no matter who is in power!

Obama is what he is not because he is from Harvard. He is the Obama we know and admire because he and his wife Michelle have lived through the traumas and difficulties of being ordinary blacks in white America, and still risen through it all with positive energy, hope and an inclusive vision that has caught the imagination of the whole of America, indeed the world. Shades of Mahatma Gandhi?

Notwithstanding Obama’s scorching rise, let us not forget that he is the first ever black nominee of a major political party for President. He is only the third black in the senate in 100 years. And he is where he is not because he is black but despite being one, mainly because of the charisma that his starkly honest people-connect generates, dissolving his colour and the Hussein in his name almost completely. Another Obama may well not happen to the US for another 100 years, Harvard/Yale notwithstanding.

India may not have yet produced any Obama at the Prime Minister’s level. But we can be justifiably proud that at state and even senior national levels, India has a far better record than the US in democratically picking up leaders from many disadvantaged sections of the society. Even women have risen to all top political posts, without facing the kind of discrimination that they possibly still do in the US, notwithstanding their Ivy League resumes.

A Prime Ministerial Obama cannot emerge in India out of established political parties, given their rigid power structures and hierarchies, as long as the present multi-party system of parliamentary democracy exists. Freak political scenarios may catapult political lightweights into the PM’s chair. Charismatic leaders elected primarily on their own steam will, however, have to move gradually up the ladder and then just hope that circumstances conspire at just the right time to give them that critical final push into the final chair. Otherwise they will have to remain content in the shadows.

Sardesai is somewhat right when he says that Mayawati is the one Indian politician who comes closest to embracing the Obama principle. But, like Tharoor, he betrays some ignorance of India’s politico-social dynamics when he says that had she been “fortunate enough” to go to Harvard, she could have created “a new counter culture that is truly Indian(unlike the Left) and truly revolutionary(unlike the Congress)." To create a truly Indian counter culture you need to go to Harvard? That is something that will surprise even that great institution!

How would Mayawati have gone to Harvard in the first place? Before anything else, she would have had to have a very good command over English. To do that she, a dalit, would have had to go to a fine English medium school, where she would have been probably in a minority of one among upper castes. And then she would have to get into a very good English medium college too, again probably in a minority of one. In all these years of education, she would have got increasingly disconnected from the real dalits who live in the villages of India, and would in all likelihood, have lost all appetite to work for her Bahujan Samaj.

In any case after Harvard, she would hardly have wanted to come back to India to re-live her dalit past among dalits. Finally, even if she did want to become the dalit leader of the unprecedented power and mass following that she already commands, the Bahujan Samaj, which would have felt completely disconnected from her acquired mannerisms and language, would not have accepted her unquestioningly as its leader, like it has done now. Net result? She would have joined the Congress, in keeping with the culture of that party, and gradually dissolved into oblivion.

No one knows yet who will be India’s Obama. It could be Mayawati. It could even be Modi who some believe will beat anyone today in a straight US type fight for India’s top job. May be it will be someone no one has yet heard about.

Whoever it may be, one thing is certain: India’s Obama will not, should not, be found in the hallowed precincts of Harvard/Yale or the like. He/she will emerge from the soil of India, quite like the IITians who are erupting from small, unheard of places and even more unheard of schools and colleges. With the experience and understanding of all the disadvantages and struggles which many of us only hear or write about. And with the brains which many of us think are to be found only in a few places. And, hopefully, with the profound wisdom of this ancient land that many of us in the cities have totally forgotten about.

Readers may also like to read the following:
1. Osama and Obama: Saul and Paul
2. Obama and Jindal: Hanuman and the Monkey