The paucity of hope: Pleaders can’t be leaders
By M J Akbar
While the world is entranced by hope, I find myself more impressed by audacity. Barack Hussein Obama could not have found the first without an oversized dose of the second.
Since there is no leader without a listener, Obama could not have reached the White House, built partly by black slaves bought and sold a few blocks away, unless his nation had also changed. In three decades, America has moved from Reagan’s good morning to Clinton’s saucy, sun-lit afternoon, to Bush’s eerie twilight. Appropriately, it took a dream to end a nightmare. Since success is the father of sycophancy, Obama will now be compared to every icon short of divinity. He reminds me of Paul Newman in a different skin: a Cool Hand Luke, thirsting to break out of the prison that is his destiny, scornful of the warden, and confident of eventual victory long before the script is written.
Obama rose above the comfort of victim-status. He had to transcend the traps shackling his own community before he could inspire others to rise with him, on the wings of American democracy.
To the question, then, that has been hovering around the table but cannot find the respectability to join the dinner conversation: when will a ‘Hussein’ become prime minister of the world’s largest democracy? Indian democracy has the space; Mayawati has proved this. Why can’t Indian Muslims produce their own Obama?
The demographics are similar, roughly 15%. But the narratives are different. No black was invited to the White House before Theodore Roosevelt broke the taboo in 1901; India is dotted with the palaces of Muslims. Blacks were never empowered, and they did not partition the country to create their own enclave. The trust quotient, so necessary for social cohesion and political mobility, disappeared in India in 1947.
But Muslims are not the only Indian minority to have faced distrust. In 1984 there was carnage against Sikhs across the country. In 2004, a Sikh became Prime Minister. How long will Muslims have to wait?
The unvarnished truth is that neither India nor the Indian Muslim is ready. 1947 was not a solution; it became the source of a running sore that has not healed. Terrorism, and communalism, threaten to turn that sore septic. But if the Obama phenomenon proves anything, it is that alchemy needs an inspirational scientist. The state and the electorate are passive laboratories until that magic moment when a minority leader produces the touchstone that shifts the dynamic of emotion and judgment to create history.
Obama also understood a fundamental fact: change begins at home. You cannot expect the majority to reach out while pandering to insularity among the minority. The seminal turn in his campaign came when he told his fellow black Americans that the age of alibis was over; they could not blame the white man for all their ills. Black parents would have to switch off television sets and switch on education; that was the only way to integrate into America’s success story.
Equally, he did not appease the white man by turning into an Uncle Tom. His nuanced defence of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor at his church who had used volatile language, was perhaps his finest hour; he rejected the language, but could not find it in him to reject the man, or the reasons that had drawn the pastor towards rage. White America heard the anguish, and looked inside; the pivot began to swing.
Indian Muslims do not have leaders; they have pleaders. They plead with their mentors for crumbs; and they plead with their electorate once in five years for survival. Since they do not serve constituents, they need artificial inducements to get votes, either middlemen who can be purchased, or fear, which can be provoked. They cannot challenge the ills within the community because they need to hide their own venality.
They reach their perch through a nudge from the top, rather than a struggle from the bottom. They are kept in their place, which is on the midpoint horizon. Their principal, though not exclusive, vehicle for transport has been the Congress, which has no room at the top in any case. The satraps who rule regional parties are, if anything, even more calculating.
The Congress has compromised its Muslim pleadership into a comfort zone, where corruption is the reward for compromise. A seal has been placed on tongues that dare not be broken, no matter what the provocation. This is not a new phenomenon. You could have heard this silence all over the country on the day P V Narasimha Rao wilfully slept while the Babri mosque was brought down. The reward came in exactly six weeks when Congress Muslims were promoted or inducted through a Cabinet reshuffle.
I recall speaking at a largely Muslim gathering of teachers and professionals in Bangalore. When I suggested that the community should demand facilities like banks that could be sympathetic to Muslim entrepreneurs, the hall burst into involuntary laughter. I was puzzled until someone explained that a prominent neta from the city had done just that, and then embezzled all the funds in the bank. This honourable person is till on the list of high-ranking VIPs.
There is no Obama among Indian Muslims because they have surrendered audacity to pawnbrokers.