Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the US marks one of the most remarkable political developments of the modern world. In some ways, it is the realization of an ideal that was described by Abraham Lincoln, the president whose oratory most inspires Obama: “...a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. Time and again in his inaugural address, Obama harked back to his country’s history and ideals in framing a vision of response to the challenges not only the US, but the whole world, faces.
At India’s independence, Jawaharlal Nehru described the ideals of his new nation, and its grave challenges. India has come a long way, but still remains distant from the goals of bringing “freedom and opportunity to the common man” in “a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation”.
What if Obama had given his inaugural address as an Indian? What might he have said?
Like Nehru, Obama might note India’s glorious past, but also that some of the clinging past has held India back. Nehru said, “All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India, with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.” Obama would be just the person to remind us how far we have fallen short of this ideal in practice.
If an Indian Obama were giving an inaugural address, he would certainly also refer to Nehru’s call to service. “It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and its people and to the still larger cause of humanity.” But he would note how far we are from that pledge of dedication, so that civic engagement has not fully taken root in India, politics is too often about power and private gain, and is subject to “petty grievances and false promises…recriminations and worn- out dogmas”. An Indian Obama might inspire India’s youth to involve themselves in changing this situation, to believing that not only can they compete with the world’s best in private endeavour, but also be citizens of the world, serving the “larger cause of humanity”.
An Indian Obama, unlike his American counterpart, might not need to remind his audience that the market can spin out of control—that particular fear seems to be ingrained in the Indian psyche. Instead, he might remind us even more forcefully that the market’s “power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched”, for that is a lesson that India still has to absorb more fully. He might observe that India’s attempts to do more than just keep a watchful eye on the market have reduced prosperity, and ultimately failed to bring equality of opportunity, or lay a complete foundation for growth.
An Indian Obama could make the case for “the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together”, but he would also have to point out that to do this, India’s government needs to shift from running factories and hotels and shops that can be managed more efficiently by the private sector, as long as a level playing field is created. An Indian Obama would note that Indians have gone to all corners of the earth, and thrived through risk-taking and hard work, built and fought for their adopted countries, but always sent back wealth and knowledge to their “much-loved motherland”.
Most of all, an Indian Obama would emphasize the need for transforming “our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age”. He would point out forcefully how limited the reach of India’s educational system is, how those limits hold back so many, and how “those…who manage” as well as those who receive “the public’s dollars will be held to account”.
An Indian Obama would appeal to the people and governments of the nations that border India, seeking “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect”. He would offer ways to share and spread India’s fledgling prosperity with those neighbours: clean and adequate water, food for the hungry and education for the young of all those countries.
An Indian Obama would remind the nation’s citizens of the values of hard work and honesty, tolerance and fair play, and the price of citizenship: duties that are not grudgingly accepted but seized gladly, reminding us that “there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task”.
Nehru told the people of India: “There is no resting for any one of us till we redeem our pledge in full, till we make all the people of India what destiny intended them to be.” An Indian Obama would remind its people of this pledge.
Nirvikar Singh is professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org