Why It Won’t Happen in India

on Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ashutosh Varshney

On January 20, when Barack Obama is formally inaugurated as president, the US will have a tryst with destiny. As famously defined by Jawaharlal Nehru, a national tryst with destiny is “a moment...when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance”.
Scholars of nationalism agree that the US was founded upon an ideology, not ethnicity or race. The ideology was contained in the Declaration of Independence of 1776. “We hold these truths to be self-evident”, it said, “that all men are created equal”. Europe, the Old World, was horribly tied up in feudal hierarchies.The New World would have political and social equality at its core. As a corollary, rising from below became the socalled American dream. In reality, however, the US has not fully lived up to this ideal. Indeed, the creed of political equality came entwined with a founding ambiguity. The founders did not abolish slavery, an institution diametrically opposed to equality.
This original ambiguity has haunted the US. The election of Obama as president liberates America from its basic contradiction. It is a shining moment in the historical journey of American nationhood and a landmark moment for world history. No society has yet elected someone from its deepest subaltern trenches to the highest office of the nation. Obama is not a slave’s descendant, but he is African-American. It should be no surprise that an international debate about whether other nations can produce an Obama has begun. The debate in India, too, has been vigorous. Can Mayawati become India’s Obama? Can a Muslim be elected India’s prime minister?
A Muslim PM would, indeed, be a celebratory landmark for Indian secularism, but that is not an exact comparison. No community of India has suffered more than the nation’s Dalits. Muslims have historically had a dualistic structure: a ruling class and an aristocracy on one side and a vast mass of poor on the other side. In significant ways, that dualism continues to this day: the Azim Premjis and Shah Rukh Khans on the one hand, and the teeming millions on the other. In contrast, no film and sports stars or business leaders have come from the Dalit community. Though not enslaved, at least in modern times, Dalits, much like the African-Americans, have been segregated, stamped upon, and treated shabbily. India also has a founding ambiguity. Our Constitution abolished untouchability, but it is still widely practised. A Dalit PM would constitute a true parallel to the election of Obama.
Can India produce an Obama? Three great differences between India and the US make it unlikely. First, party establishments cannot easily be challenged until there are open
intra-party elections for the leadership of political parties. American elections start with the primaries, allowing anyone in a political party to stake a claim to leadership. Lacking internal elections, India’s parties today are on the whole family properties. The partial exceptions are the BJP and CPM. But the BJP cannot easily have a leader not approved by the RSS. And the CPM is ruled by an unelected politburo.
The Congress was historically based on internal elections, but with the exception of a feeble attempt in the 1990s, internal elections, suspended by Indira Gandhi in 1973, have not been restored. The institutional decay of India’s political parties means that rank outsiders, like Mayawati, tend to create new political parties, but it is well known that it is much harder to create a new nationwide political organisation than use an existing one. The competition between political parties in India is remarkably vigorous, but competition inside is its exact opposite.
Second, the US has a presidential system, India a parliamentary one. Since a US president is elected by the whole nation, a presidential system creates a national political arena. Every presidential candidate has to think of how to lead the nation. In a parliamentary system, the electorate votes for an MP, but there is no national election for the PM. Only when a parliamentary system has two (or three) nationwide parties, as in the UK, do political leaders tend to compete the way American presidential candidates do. India does not have a two-party system.
Third, to mobilise citizens for vote, one has to speak in a language that the citizens can understand. Political campaigns take place in a linguistic register. Until India becomes more or less fully literate and also bilingual, India’s primary political arenas will be linguistically diverse provincial units. As a result, state-level Obamas will emerge, but national-level Obamas will be extremely hard to come by. Mayawati is at best a provincial Obama, with one major difference. Obama never ran a campaign of bitterness and anger; he subscribed to post-racial politics. In contrast, before the current Brahmin-Dalit brotherhood phase began, Mayawati conflated the politics of dignity with the politics of revenge.
Only movement politics, aimed at putting the various communities together, can tear down India’s institutional constraints. The freedom movement was the last great movement that built unity in India. It produced impressive national political leaders. The JP movement in the 1970s presented an alternative version of national unity, but it could not really take off. The Advani-led rath yatra was also one of the biggest movements of 20th century India. But it did not unite; it only divided. Until such time as India’s political parties become more internally democratic, a national level two-party system emerges, or strong movements of national unity come to the scene, India’s national leaders will continue to come from party establishments, not from the lower reaches of society.
The writer, a professor of political science, will shortly join Brown University.

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