The election of Barack Obama as the next president of the US, however much it owed to the candidate’s vision, character and charisma, was ultimately propelled by the near-financial collapse in that country, and the very real economic pain that followed. Generic offerings of hope and promises of change became focused on specifics of government aid for the economy, its firms and its people. But the symbolism and significance of Obama’s election is enormous—whatever happens going forward—for people in the US as well as for the rest of us in the shadow of the world’s only superpower.
What does Obama mean for India? Not in the practical foreign policy arena, where not too much should be read into his initial remarks on Kashmir, but in the space of ideas, of social conceptions. A decade ago, Sunil Khilnani wrote about the “idea of India”. He offered three perspectives: that of India as a modern state, that of an experiment in democracy and that of a stratified society confronting “the imperatives of modern commercial society”. His conclusion was ultimately to argue for acceptance of diversity over the exclusiveness of Hindutva. Recalling the innuendos of John McCain, and especially Sarah Palin, on the campaign trail, one can see how the majority of Americans rejected the attempt to paint Obama as the Other, as un-American. There are parallels between narrowing visions of America as white and of India as Hindu, and India should also learn to reject such narrowness.
There is also a lesson in Obama’s socioeconomic background. He is a highly-educated lawyer, who speaks beautifully. Again, the Republicans tried to make him seem elitist (and occasionally his comments, such as those on people bitterly clinging to guns and religion, gave them ammunition), but ultimately, the majority of Americans were comfortable with someone educated, eloquent and unafraid to reveal his intelligence and judgement. These qualities were apparent in the televised debates, all of which Obama was judged by viewers to have won. Obama came from an educated background, but his family had to struggle economically at times. He went to private schools for his undergraduate college education, presumably with financial aid. American higher education has been one of the country’s major strengths, spanning public, taxpayer-funded colleges and private institutions that use donations from wealthy alumni to make top-quality education accessible to diverse groups.
Contrast this with the capacity-constrained Indian higher education system, where thinking about equity and diversity rarely gets beyond ever-widening quotas that do nothing to increase overall supply or access. Pioneering Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar had to come to America for higher education, and the rich in India always have that option, but how many Obamas is India preventing from rising to the top through its misguided straitjackets on higher education? It’s unfair to criticize a Lalu Prasad or a Mayawati for lack of an educated manner when the education system is designed to shut them out. India needs to create an education system that will allow its Barack Obamas to realize their potential.
In 2006, the new President-elect had written a book called The Audacity of Hope. This was a remarkable combination of personal observations, reflections on society and sophisticated analysis of economics and politics. If one is to judge by his writings and his subsequent speeches, Obama takes a middle road in his approach to economic policy, rejecting market fundamentalism as well as government paternalism. He uses advisers from the University of Chicago as well as Wall Street. He decries the sometimes painful effects of global capitalism, but he does not reject the capitalist system. Recent financial failures require effective regulation, not banning markets.
This is a lesson for India. Many intellectuals in India seem to think that markets are evil, or that democracy and markets are somehow an unstable mix. In truth, allowing markets to flourish in India has created hope for millions by fuelling economic growth. It is the government that needs to catch up in fulfilling its part of the social contract.
But not government as mai-baap sarkar. Obama also speaks of the need for individual sacrifice along with the promise of government help. His vision embraces community organization as well as a new social contract for a nation exhausted by partisan battles and cynical manipulation by a ruling elite. This is the largest lesson from Obama’s election for India. Hope and vision in a leader can inspire, and can triumph over fear and divisiveness.
A balanced and honest approach to the nation’s problems was appreciated by the electorate in America, and India’s voters are likely to respond more to such honesty than traditional politicians give them credit for. Gandhi and Nehru inspired India, each in his own way, but each was limited by his experiences and his time. No Indian leader has come close since then. India now deserves its own Obama.
Nirvikar Singh is professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com