Column : Obama and India

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SummaryObama’s political journey and his vision hold important lessons for India’s people, as they struggle for better governance.

Four years ago, when Barack Obama was first inaugurated as president of the United States, I was struck by how much the vision he expressed in his inaugural address was apposite for India. Indeed, there were parallels and connections with ideals that had been expressed by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947. This should not surprise us, perhaps, in the case of universal human values. And when an Obama focuses on health and education and infrastructure, as he did in 2009, and again just the other day, the parallels with India’s own needs are apparent, albeit starting from very different initial levels.

Even more strongly than in his first inaugural speech, Obama again emphasised equality of opportunity as a social goal. For his broader constituency, he also had to acknowledge the importance of individual responsibility and hard work, along with his calls for collective action. But in the end, he could not avoid being lambasted by members of the opposition for his “far-left-of-centre” views. The role of government as a means for collective action is one of the debates raging in today’s America. In the case of India, initial positions and biases are quite different than they are in the US. But there is a deeper issue in the US that has resonance for India in its current situation.

Obama’s speech to begin his second term made a very clear statement about equality in the context of diversity. Whether the source of diversity is gender, race, sexual orientation or citizenship, the ideal of equality being held forth in the US president’s vision is an inclusive, all-embracing one. It is my firm belief that much of the small government rhetoric of the right-wing in the US, along with other aspects of their positions, is actually driven by their fear of this inclusive, diversity-embracing vision of equality. Attacks against the presumed “socialism” of the Democratic Party leadership are stoked by this fear of the “Other”. Of course, this lines up quite well with the protection of economic privilege.

The Indian situation is somewhat more complex. The closest in character to the right-wing opposition in the US may be the BJP and its fellow travellers, with their own narrative of the Other, and a relatively pro-business stance, though with less of a commitment to a world of globalised capital. But the rest of the Indian political spectrum seems less defined by any clear vision of equality. The Congress,

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