Will the Congress learn from Obama’s victory?

Will the Congress learn from Obama’s victory?
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First Published: Wed, Nov 05 2008. 06 18 PM IST

Updated: Wed, Nov 05 2008. 06 18 PM IST
As Barack Obama savours a historic victory, it’s time to ask the question: What has India been doing to promote relations with the US president-elect?
Equally, what lessons can political parties at home, facing their own elections in the weeks and months to come, learn from the Obama landslide?
The general impression in Delhi has been that since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “deeply loves” outgoing President George W. Bush, the enormity of the emotion has somewhat constrained the foreign office from making any significant overtures to the Democrat president-elect.
Moreover, it has been argued, the Democratic Party’s traditional non-proliferation credentials and Obama’s particular interest in self-correcting America’s aggressive nationalism in the rest of the world (read Iraq) will persuade the Obama administration to play a much more active role in a resolution of the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan.
The contrary view is that the Indian establishment had quietly been making inroads into the Obama campaign for some time, but hadn’t wanted to talk about it.
More’s the pity. Not wanting to discuss your connections with the most powerful man in the world is either a sign of extreme confusion or extreme shyness.
Of course, even as the US president-elect and his team were savouring the moment on Wednesday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent a message of congratulations to Obama. The message was said to be “among the first” to land on Obama’s desk. President Pratibha Patil sent a message, too, and so did Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi.
Truth is, the Prime Minister had very much wanted to meet Obama when he travelled to the US in September to participate in the UN General Assembly session and meet Bush. A message was sent to the Obama camp. But he was out of New York, preparing for the first of his foreign policy debates with Republican candidate John McCain.
Instead, Obama sent a letter to the Prime Minister, later released by the Rediff.com website on 3 October (begging the question why Delhi didn’t find it fit to share it with the media). An extremely warm missive, it condemned the terrorist attacks in New Delhi and on the Indian embassy in Kabul, and suggested, very significantly, that “as a starting point, our common strategic interests call for redoubling US-Indian military, intelligence, and law enforcement cooperation.”
Obama expressed his “great admiration for the courage you showed in shepherding the civil nuclear cooperation agreement” through Parliament, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, adding, “I was pleased to vote by proxy for the agreement in (Senate Foreign Relations) Committee today…” (that is, on 23 September.)
For a man who had voted in favour of a killer amendment to the nuclear deal-related Hyde Act in December 2006, along with Hillary Clinton and others, Obama had come a long way in changing his mind.
Even more significant, the Prime Minister wrote back to Obama, thanking him for his letter and stressing his deep appreciation and intent in continuing the strategic partnership between India and the US.
Surprisingly, this letter, too, was never released to the media. Worse, few people were even told the Prime Minister had even written such a letter.
Still, as Obama hysteria settles and the world returns to being a more normal place, it is hoped that Delhi will deal with the changing world order with pragmatic caution as well as a certain degree of enthusiasm. The first emotion is well and truly in place; it’s the absence of the second that is disturbing.
Truth is, Obama’s dramatic victory will have far-reaching implications not only for the US, but also across the world, including India. Considering Mahatma Gandhi led the freedom struggle on the theme of inclusiveness (even with the retreating British), and modern India was founded on Jawaharlal Nehru’s belief that minorities, irrespective of caste, creed and religion, must find a special place in the new country, Indians at large have an instinctive understanding and compassion not only for the underdog, but also for values such as egalitarianism and fraternity.
The empowering of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party is, in many ways, of course the classic comparison between the less-privileged Dalit and African-American communities, but the similarity doesn’t end there. It is the Congress party, which has always been in the vanguard of the idea of India, that is the true counterpart of Obama’s version of Democrat-ness.
Question is, as the Congress prepares to fight the coming elections in the states and nationally, can it take a leaf out of Obama’s campaign? That would require a thorough understanding of the manner in which the Obama machinery painstakingly created a massive organization across the US (over 700 offices, compared with about 300 on McCain’s side), through which Obama supporters registered and enrolled the disinterested and the disenchanted, thereby significantly enlarging the voter base.
If the Congress wants to remain relevant in a fast-changing India, it needs to change itself. Studying the Obama phenomenon would be a good start.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes every week on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics.
Comments are welcome at betweenthelines@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Nov 05 2008. 06 18 PM IST