Column : Obama and India

Written by Nirvikar Singh | Updated: Jan 30 2013, 07:50am hrs
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 Indias 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 todays 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.

Obamas 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 presidents 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, of course, has emphasised inclusion in its message and some of its policies, but there seems to be a gap in practice between words and deeds. Its reactions are often those of privilege and preservation of power, rather than of promoting equality and inclusion. This was very clear in the responses to the Delhi gang-rape. Some senior ruling party members were more interested in defending the police, and the police more interested in defending themselves and the elite, rather than in acknowledging the gross violation of human values that had occurred, and the role of the powerful in allowing such a situation to develop.

There is a disconnect, therefore, between the professed ideology of the Congress, and its practical preservation of inequalities of power. There are, no doubt, many historical reasons for the differences between the main political parties in the US and in India. The point I want to make, though, is simply that these differences exist, and they pose a challenge for an agenda of equality of opportunity in India.

Are there any lessons for India, despite the large differences in history and society Recall that Obama began his political career many years ago as a community organiser, something for which he was even derided by his opponents in 2008. This experience grew into his campaigns fabled ground game, which delivered victory in 2012. The mobilising of voters at the local level was not done by local party bosses controlling vote banks, as would have happened in Americas past and still happens in India. It was done by volunteers and party workers who adhered to key components of Obamas vision for the countrywith equality of opportunity as a central tenet.

What would Indias version of Obamas coalition look like It will have to cut across caste and class to some extent, and it will have to be united by some vision of social justice, without being mired in any utopian ideology of universal harmony. It may be that the crowds that protested the Delhi gang-rape are the beginning of such a coalition. Whether their composition was broad enough remains to be seen, as well as whether leaders can emerge to build on their disgust with the current state of affairs. The stitching together of grass-roots efforts into a national movement will also be harder in India, because it will have to occur outside the two main political parties, and in a country much more heterogeneous than the US. Nevertheless, Barack Obamas political journey and his vision hold important lessons for Indias people, as they struggle for better governance.

The author is professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz