Friday, November 7, 2008

INDIA'S OBAMA: MAYAWATI OR MODI?

Barack Obama's election as the US President has generated unprecedented attention and discussion in India. From unadulterated admiration to cynicism to the lament that India does not have any politician in the Obama mould, Indians have shown a keen interest in this US election almost as if the exercise was being done to elect the next leader of India!

A number of commentators and analysts have grasped the dimensions of the extraordinary significance of Obama's election and what he and his rise represents. But, there are the usual fish that can't even mentally swim out of their privileged ponds to those from which a fish named Obama has emerged.

So, we have some luminaries drawing a parallel between Obama, Tiger Woods and Lewis Hamilton! How can any intelligent person compare apples and oranges, just because they are wrapped in a paper of the same colour? Forgotten when Jesse Owens was born? Then there are those who think Obama is like Nehru, forgetting that the latter, 'born into privilege' and virtually a 'white man in khadi', was almost the exact opposite of what Obama represents. Since the original Gandhi does not have his own dynasty going, they don't want to even whisper that Obama has a portrait of the Mahatma in his office and that he has internalized his call to 'be the change you want to see'.

Of course, the top honours for getting to the 'bottom' of it all go to Rahul Gandhi. He actually believes that he can create thousands of Obamas running around the country!

Obama's victory on November 04, 2008, has fired the imagination of a lot of Indians. Many believe that India too needs an Obama to shake things up like they never have been, and are scouring the political landscape to see if they can locate a desi version.

There are clearly no 'Obamas' in India. The one who comes nearest to him is perhaps Mayawati, a dalit who has powered her way to be a little more than 'a breath away' from becoming India's Prime Minister. Then there is the much hated and admired Narendra Modi, who also comes from the very backward 'ganchi' caste, and who has demonstrated an unmatched ability to govern and deliver as Chief Minister of Gujarat.

In January this year, much before Obama had entered Indian minds like he now has, I had written a post about the explosive rise of Mayawati and Modi, and the huge impact that both these single, alpha individuals on a mission were going to make in the future.

Read the post that I may have unknowingly written a bit too early, below. And see if you can spot an Obama in either Mayawati or Modi.

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He is from a Most Backward Caste, she from a Scheduled Caste. Both are driven by a mission defined by their vision of an India based primarily on religion and caste. Both are charismatic leaders who can inspire millions like no other leader in India today can. Both are non-English speaking. Both have ambitions which make many very uncomfortable indeed. Both are detested by comfortably cocooned armchair analysts and other luminaries whose arrogance and vacuous sense of superiority does not allow them to understand those who live in the India outside their English speaking world.

He leads a Spartan life and has a squeaky clean image as a Chief Minister who neither takes money nor allows others to do so. She, once a poor school teacher, now boasts of a ‘palace’ in Delhi and has declared assets of over Rs 50 crores. These, she says, were acquired through small ‘donations’ made by lakhs of party workers and members of her caste group, a sort of collective statement symbolizing a breaking free of the shackles of centuries of deprivation that untouchables have suffered in India.

He has not married; neither has she.

These two (ge)Ms, Mayawati and Modi, have burst upon the political landscape of India with a force and promise that has overturned the staid and almost predictable political paradigm dramatically. Their explosive rise has almost totally eclipsed all other pretenders to the throne of Delhi and quite emphatically demonstrated that the real Indian knows what and whom he wants in as well as out.

2007 was the year of these two (ge)Ms. It also was perhaps the most significant year in the political landscape of India since 1947.

For the first ever time, real Indians surprised our increasingly disconnected leaders and analysts by decisively voting to power these two ge(M)s in the two politically crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. The mandate was so unambiguous and unexpected that the usual hypocritical and superficial response which marks all political verdicts is once again likely to completely miss the unprecedented significance of what the people of India have said through the power of their vote.

In May 2007, Mayawati stunned the whole nation by storming to power on her own, breaking the splintered pattern of voting due to which no party had won an absolute majority on its own in the last six elections. Her victory signaled a tectonic shift in the thousands of years old balance of power in the caste based hierarchy of Hindu society.

How did her victory come about? Our founding fathers, in a sincere bid to undo the many injustices faced by low caste Hindus, had laid down 25 percent reservations in all government jobs to SC/STs for a period of 25 years, by which it was expected that their condition would improve and there would be no need to extend the reservations further. But, electoral mathematics ensured that politicians had no choice but to extend them. The extension it now seems is for an indefinite period.

Enter Prime Minister VP Singh who got that chair as a result of some petty machinations against Rajiv Gandhi in whose cabinet he was the Finance Minister. VP Singh was no mass leader and had virtually no chance of getting the post again. In a disastrous bid to ensure that he did become PM for another term, he dug out a long forgotten report by the Mandal commission and announced an additional reservation of 22.5 percent to Other Backward Classes(OBCs) identified by Mandal. He also declared a national holiday on the Prophet’s birthday.

VP Singh quickly discovered what the political class has yet to: once I get the benefit, particularly the one given for purely narrow and politically tactical reasons, why should I vote for you? At the same time I will ensure that you cannot undo what you have once done. If you try to put the genie back in the bottle, I will certainly vote against you, at the very least. Appeasement is an almost never ending and dangerous one way ticket with absolutely no long term returns. Maslowe’s Hierarchy of Needs applies everywhere.

Mayawati’s brilliant political strategy in 2007 involved touching the raw nerve of Brahmins and other upper castes that had been neglected and marginalized by politicians belonging to these very castes but looking for votes of lower castes only. When she, an untouchable, told them that they did not have to go begging to anyone to get their due anymore, they readily turned the ancient caste hierarchy upside down and voted to seek empowerment from her.

Mayawati embodies the rise of real Dalit power in India. In all other political parties, real power has always been in the hands of condescending leaders belonging to the upper castes. They have invariably displayed a patronizing attitude towards those who are lower in the caste order. Mayawati is the first Dalit leader who has managed to get real power on her own. Till Dalits rise to the position of the final authority in other political parties, there will be no really effective challenge to Mayawati, so long as votes are sought along the fault lines of caste, community etc.

In December 2007, Modi unleashed an energy which electrified the whole country and thrust him to an almost unrivalled leadership position in the BJP. Modi, under relentless pressure and the vilest possible criticism from all possible quarters, achieved the impossible in Gujarat. Never before had a serving Chief Minister stormed back to power with such a resounding victory. That too in the face of such intense opposition from the media, NGOs and puppet politicians on what turned out to be a really remote remote-control.

In 2002, after a railway coach carrying Hindu pilgrims was burnt, allegedly by Muslim fundamentalists, killing 57 people who were inside, anti Muslim riots broke out in Gujarat. After those unfortunate riots, everyone went after Modi with a venom that any lesser mortal would not have been able to survive.

In the following five years, Modi single-mindedly devoted himself to the development of Gujarat, giving its people good, clean governance. Some argued, and will continue to, that he is anti-Muslim. They remained stuck in 2002 while Modi and the people of Gujarat as a whole moved on, showing once again how disconnected these Modi baiters and haters had become from the people of Gujarat. It was almost a repeat of what happened in UP when the same lot steadfastly ignored the Hindi speaking Dalit Mayawati and kept speaking and writing about the imaginary impact that Rahul Gandhi was making in that state.

The real significance of Modi’s victory was along one long ignored dimension. Muslims, constantly being incited by Modi’s political opponents on the basis of 2002, voted communally against Modi, possibly an emotional vote rooted one dimensionally in the past. But, for the first ever time after Nehru, Hindus did not vote along any caste or community based lines. They voted as citizens of Gujarat to acknowledge the terrific work that Modi had done for the state over five years. An overwhelming and positive vote to reward the good governance it clearly was. Mayawati, who fielded her candidates for the first time in Gujarat, was expected to take away a major chunk of the SC/ST vote, like she had done in other states. To everyone’s surprise, Modi swept all the constituencies where Dalits had a large vote share. They too preferred performance over caste.

Modi’s victory represents the victory of an India led by a firm, scrupulously honest, courageous, decisive, charismatic, macho and unapologetic leader who has a vision for the country as a whole. As Chief Minister, Modi has always spoken of and worked for all five crore Gujaratis, delivering results and progress to all irrespective of their religious or caste affiliations. Tomorrow he will similarly talk of and work for all 100 crore Indians, not 15 crore Muslims, 85 crore Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains. He will not talk of castes and communities too. It is only a question of time before Muslims realize that, like all other Indians, they also stand to benefit the most from such a leader, and not from those who use them as nothing more than a vote bank.

Modi has demonstrated the possibility of winning elections on the desirable and positive basis of solid performance. That is the way it should always have been, and should be, in a real and healthy democracy. But, since most other leaders have monotonously failed to provide good governance, they have been resorting to the easier but divisive and often dangerous tactic of using the fault lines of caste, community and religion to get to power.

Modi and Mayawati are both trail blazers. However, all the striking similarities between them notwithstanding, there is are two fundamental differences which set them apart.

Mayawati has brilliantly re-invented the proven strategy of exploiting caste arithmetic to get to power. This strategy may work and put her in the PM’s chair once. But, being essentially divisive and not focused on real performance, there is a strong possibility that it might trip her at some point of time, even before she reaches that chair in South Block. Mayawati has to learn to focus on clean governance. Whether she can do so or even wants to, is debatable, given what the general impression is. Her first objective of materially enabling herself has already been accomplished swiftly with some brazenness. Being single, she really does not need to stock up for seven generations. Her real mission, if she still has the zeal for it like her mentor Kanshi Ram did, will get seriously jeopardized unless she can provide clean, effective and inclusive governance.

Modi, on the other hand, has the advantage of being a scrupulously honest and able administrator, the likes of which this country desperately needs if it wants to sprint to join the big league. He is the one who actually can get Indians to vote for him as Indians. But, his opponents will continue to haunt him with the ghost of 2002, to ensure that Muslims do not go with him even if he proves that he is the community’s best developmental bet. However, considering the strength of character and personality that he has so far displayed to impact the whole nation, he should be able to dispel the misgivings of the Muslims who also want to move rapidly ahead as India progresses rapidly to take its rightful place among the great nations of the world.The only question is whether he will sincerely want to do that. If he does, we will have one really extraordinary leader.

Mayawati and Modi. These two names are going to dominate India’s politics for a long time. They have already exposed the rapidly diminishing appeal of the Gandhi brand and the virtual non-existence of the Congress party without it. They are also the only two charismatic mass leaders who, possibly because of their backgrounds rooted in real India, know the pulse of the people and have the ability to set it racing. In future, they are going to be the tallest competitors in the race for getting India’s top job. Given their soaring ambitions and hurry to get things done, their gladiatorial fights may well turn to be messy and nasty, to the accidental advantage of political dwarfs.

I know it is not going to happen. But should they ever decide to marry or even be ‘friends’, we will have India’s first alpha couple, much like the Clintons or even Brangelina! The only way Chhappan ki Chhati (56 inch chest) Modi and the equally impressive Mayawati will get along is by taking dominating positions alternately, politically that is.

There is nothing to suggest that Modi will ever accept a ‘woman on top’ position. Mayawati, it is clear, will not have it any other way. If anyone of them ever manages to subdue the other, the result will be an unbeatable political combination. If not, the country will witness great political fireworks from their fights.

Either way, let us hope that these two single, alpha (ge)Ms on a mission give India the new political and governmental direction that its people have been desperately seeking since a really long time.