Obama’s case in the U.S. suggests caution – not hype – is needed on India’s one-man show
It’s a rare moment in global politics when the political dynamics of India, the world’s largest democracy, mimic those of the United States.
But here we are: Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister, is hailed, as he takes office today, with the same sense of excitement and boundless expectation as Barack Obama when he was elected the 44th President of the United States in the 2008 elections.
Both elections were labeled historic. In the U.S. case, it was the arrival of the first black man in the nation’s highest office. In India’s case, it is about having somebody from truly humble roots as prime minister.
But whenever one deals with bouts of hype, caution is well advised. In the United States, it was Oprah Winfrey, the talk show host, who first referred to Obama as “the one.”
The fact that by now all but the most ardent supporters of Mr. Obama are quite disappointed — and certainly no longer believe in his “chosenness” — contains an important message for today’s India. The odds are that the “dream” is not going to come to pass.
Reasons for hope
No doubt that a can-do politician like Modi is sorely needed. India is stuck with an outdated infrastructure, a stagnating manufacturing sector, insufficient job creation for the young, heavy doses of crony capitalism and a host of environmental issues, such as a dearth of water. (Transferred to a different level of development, this list of ills isn’t so Indian after all; the U.S. faces many of the same challenges.)
No doubt that Indian businesses are excited. Their “animal spirits” are ready to roll. They have pumped vast amounts of money into the Modi campaign, hoping that he will bring deliverance on the many trouble-laden issues described above. (Of course, overwhelming business support across all sectors of industry is the one big difference between Modi and Obama.)
All of that aside, in either country’s case, vast hopes of the people — truly in this case: the masses — were/are invested in both politicians.
Reasons for caution
However, despite an impressive electoral mandate, Obama failed to deliver. This was due, in part, to a mix of his own inexperience, unfortunate timing (remember the global financial crisis?), opposition even inside his own political camp and outright blockade tactics by the other political camp with all levers they could possibly lay their hands on.
The betting in much of the world now is that Modi will have it much easier. He is, after all, a far more experienced administrator and political wheeler/dealer than Obama ever was and will be. And he certainly won an impressive absolute majority in India’s national parliament.
It is however unlikely that the other political forces are simply going to roll over for him. For Modi, the obstacles don’t just include the upper house, in which he lacks the votes for the implementation of key legislative measures — and the consent of which is needed for passage.
There are also the manifold regional interests all across India. They will be driven by one simple insight: Modi may have received a 51% majority in the lower house, but he only received a total of 31% of the votes cast.
Getting stalled in the trenches
The one key stumbling block in India is the same as in the United States. Both countries have fiendishly complex political systems, with vested interests that are deeply entrenched, if at all movable.
In addition, individual states can — and will — easily assert their will, which can quickly stop any thoughts of a national agenda in its tracks.
The other big stumbling block is the prevalence of incredible expectations. Come to think of it, whether in India, the United States or elsewhere, the outlandish belief in the near-magical powers of a single man (or woman) are first and foremost a direct reflection of the underlying complexity of the political system as such.
The only way out of such a profound, homemade morass seems to be the belief that a savior is nigh. Immature as that belief may be, that thinking is certainly comprehensible — it offers concrete, personified hope to escape from the present conundrum.
A man vs. a monumental task
However, as the Obama case proved, converting hope into an effective political strategy is practically impossible. A people that is ultimately set in its tracks on being “disunited” is hard to manage in any efficient and integrated way.
Which leaves us with one final thought: It may well be that all of us currently put too much importance onto the centrifugal forces in smaller and/or lesser nations. A yearning for separatism and full-blown autonomy does not just concern the Scotlands, Catalonias, Nigerias or Iraqs of this world. As things stand, it is a livewire issue in both India and the United States as well.
It would be a miracle indeed if Mr. Modi managed to transcend that profound challenge and unite his country via his person. One can certainly hope for that, but might be better off not to expect it.