Desperately seeking our own Obama

on Friday, November 14, 2008

With the White House set to receive its first black president, the temptation to seek parallels at home is alluring. There is, for one, the question of when India will get its“Obama moment”: A Dalit assuming the country’s highest political office. But there is also the broader theme of whether India will get a young leader who can communicate with the felicity Obama has displayed.
A truth about the US elections is that Obama is a change not only from GOP poli- cies and leaders, but also from senior Democrats who seem just as jaded. Yet, it is remarkable that Obama came from nowhere in a matter of two years or so.
Placing charisma, change and new leadership in the Indian context can be a case of overreach. There are, however, strands common to most democracies and India is no stranger to charismatic leaders. The Gandhis have provided their share, with Rajiv’s stupendous win in 1984 standing out. His youth and ‘Mr Clean’ image took the nation by storm.
A few years later, Congress outcaste V P Singh mesmerised the middle classes and the Hindi belt as he swept Rajiv out of office. Around the same time, L K Advani, in a very different manner, held audiences spellbound by his advocacy of the Ram temple. In 1998, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the “man India awaits” as his charisma delivered a winning edge to the BJP.
In all cases, charisma did not obliterate caste calculations, but provided the X factor. It is equally true that charisma is not
permanent and even though leaders have embodied change, their spell does wear off. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton are a case in point. As general elections approach, possibly as early as February, the principal combatants are in their late 70s and early 80s. Most major political figures are battle-hardened and youth is at a premium. Does a fresh face and ideas require the prop of dynasty or does the system offer a break to one less blessed?
There are MPs, some from political families as well as others, who do reflect a certain dedication to their chosen profession. BJP’s Kiran Maheshwari, a first-time MP from Udaipur has demonstrated both perseverance and grit, while her colleague Kharabela Swain, a third-term MP from Balasore, has shown he has the smarts when taking on leading figures in the government such as finance minister P Chidambaram.
Shiv Sena’s Suresh Prabhu is not in his party’s core group, but despite his four terms, he is refreshingly uncynical in his approach to politics. He is not clueless when it comes to issues such as climate change, finance and security. Among other MPs who stand out are Asauddin Owaissi, who commands a one-seat party but can draw on his oratorial gifts and a foreign education.
Though she has a limited ouevre, PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti is both articulate and brimming with confidence — although being a woman politician from Kashmir can itself be a daunting task. Her rival, NC’s Omar Abdullah, has drawn both praise and flak for his speech during the July 22 trust vote. Though he must keep an eye on regional imperatives, he seems to have the leadership gene.
In the Congress, Rahul Gandhi has the obvious advantage of dynasty. But that’s not the only thing on his CV. He manfully withstood jeering and ribbing over his
“Kalavati” speech. Sachin Pilot hails from a political family, but doesn’t take this advantage for granted. He does his homework and gives thought to issues before taking a stand. Similarly, Selja, who is on her second stint as a junior minister, combines both the urban and rural experience like Pilot.
Though there is talent in the current Lok Sabha, the question whether it will fulfil its promise is not easy to answer. The structure of India’s political system and the nature of parties — dynasty often rules in both national and regional outfits — makes progress to the top unpredictable. Merit often requires an accident. In parties where dynasty does not rule, such as the BJP, running the factional maze can test the hardiest of nerves.
But politics defies predictions. No one gave Obama a fig of a chance. But when the opportunity arose he grasped it with both hands. India may yet surprise the world.


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