COVERT (15-30TH MAY 2008)
Posted from Princeton University where he is giving a lecture on Talibanisation of Pakistan)
One suspects that Congress whizkids and a few whizuncles will rush to sell Rahul Gandhi as India’s Obama. The similarity is superficial, if there is one at all. Rahul Gandhi is an image of youth but not of change; he is yet another rung of an ageing idea called dynasty. The real parallel to Obama in India is the spectacular trajectory of Mayawati.
Old rules get old because they have legs to walk through generations. Time, then, to recall one of the oldest: When you are dead, lie down. So many politicians simply don’t get this, whether they are provincial wannabes like the erst while Congress satrap from Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Das or the woman who wanted the White House, Hillary Clinton.
I am familiar with the face of defeat – not least my own in 1991, when I failed to get re-elected in the general elec tion, during my brief departure into politics. But never have I seen a visage as utterly depressed, seething with the last twitches of a withered dream, as that of Bill Clinton standing behind Hillary on the night of 7 May. For the record, she was delivering a “victory” speech after the Indiana primaries, but her words turned instantly into ash the moment they left her mouth. Poor Bill got the blowback. He knew that this was the last dance of a dead campaign. Four more years of adulation and power had disappeared into a blank. I’ve seen long faces too, but that evening Bill’s jaw was nearer his nipple than his lip.
There are no exact parallels, least of all between democracy in the United States and India, but common questions can open fresh lines of thought.
Does Barack Obama represent the arrival of a new role model? Will this drama of startling shifts energise hope elsewhere?
Barack is young, but he is not about youth. George Bush and Tony Blair were startlingly young when they won office; they have aged decades in less than ten years. Power seems to be an aphrodisiac for the old (P.V. Narasimha Rao yesterday, John McCain today), and decomposes the young.
The Barack phenomenon is about identity, not youth, the vital first act as America attempts to exorcise the demons that have kept the enslaved and dispossessed on the margins, not totally excluded in these “liberal” times, but not fully included either. His personal history is the antidote of convention. He is a child of an absentee black, talented Muslim father and a white, bright, single mother who survived for a while on food stamps. His personality, his success and his dramatic invasion of the white political club, with -- to the shock of traditional America -- a coalition of white college kids and his black community, provokes reservations, suspicion and downright, barely-disguised hatred. The Clintons, who are brilliant at surreptitious politics and viral-marketing, positioned him as the ultimate Manchurian candidate at a time of Bush’s war against “Islamofascism”: they converted him into a “closet Muslim” without of course letting the phrase escape through their noble, if clenched, teeth. Worse, he was an uppity snob who had the temerity to wear Gucci,drink latte, and, worst of all, dress and dance better than the Clintons. The Clintons have every right to a bank balance of $109 million between them, earned in the last eight years. An upstart should remain a degree below latte. Obama prevailed among the Democrats not because he had changed but because enough of America has changed.
One suspects that Congress whizkids and a few whizuncles will rush to sell Rahul Gandhi as India’s Obama. The similarity is superficial, if there is one at all. Rahul Gandhi is an image of youth but not of change; he is yet another rung of an ageing idea called dynasty. The real parallel to Obama in India is the spectacular trajectory of Mayawati. She never studied in Harvard, and the only law she knows is that of the jungle through which her elephant has had to fight for survival. But she rose from the margins and is imploding upon the Centre by extraordinary political skills. Her coalition of Brahmin, Dalit and Muslim is if anything more impressive Obama’s. She does not wear Gucci (she thinks Rahul Gandhi does). But she does wear diamonds; the contempt/anger/hatred and pseudo-morality that her wealth induces is evident enough. She does not belong to the class that has a hereditary right to be dishonest. But the most important similarity is that she has energised her own community to an unprecedented degree. The Dalits are the blacks of India; Babasaheb Ambedkar is their Martin Luther King; Kanshi Ram is their Jesse Jackson; and Mayawati is their Obama. Being less suave than Obama, she is both the acceptable and unacceptable face of Change; she can apply the rhetoric of Obama and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr, the pastor who has made incendiary remarks against white racism and America, depending on the audience she is addressing, or dismissing.
Obama is leading a sophisticated upheaval. Maya is heaving against prejudice that has congealed over many thousands of years. In neither case has the Establishment surrendered, yet. The Republicans believe they can slice Obama up and feed him to middle America. The Congress is convinced it can undermine Maya after she has sabotaged herself. All options are possible, for the turbulence and direction of change can never be certain. Hillary Clinton refuses to lie down even when declared dead because she still hopes that the unpredictable will somehow emerge from the inconceivable. If the correctly-pigmented John Edwards had pounded her as Obama has done, she would have shaken his hand and accepted the Vice President’s nomination some time ago. But with chocolate-flavoured Obama, you never know when some circumcised skeleton will fall out from the cupboard.
The candidate may be dead. The ghosts dance on.
There is a second old rule in politics. Stick with friends, but stick closer to enemies. An Obama or a Mayawati has learnt that sentiment is a trap. Once you have fought a foe to death, you can always dance with the ghost on the way to power.