Can Mayawati do an Obama?


The question stares one in the face as the world takes in the implications of the victory of Barack Obama as president of the United States of America. Where the world's most powerful and richest democracy has gone, will the world's largest and arguably the most vibrant and plural, possibly be far behind?

It is significant that in her message on the US verdict, Mayawati has referred to the triumph after centuries of racial exclusion and discrimination. In a sense, Obama is much more than an African American who has become president. His mission was to heal and bind over, not to divide and rule.

There are two major contrasts between India and America that come to mind on this score. One is that in a parliamentary system, the road to the top will include much more bridge building, all the more so in an era when no one party dominates the scene. The other is a sobering fact, that Indians, especially the poor and the under classes, vote far more often and enthusiastically than their counterparts in the US. The latter found the hill harder to climb due to numerous hurdles in the way, especially the need to register. This is a non issue in India.

The other contrast is of their respective careers. Obama ranks among America's educational and professional elite and literati and it is these groups who formed the core of his campaign. His work as senator also gave him insight into the corridors of power in the federal capital. Mayawati has her Bachelor's in Arts and LLB from the University of Delhi but has relied on her party's own Dalit and Mandal class intelligentsia. She is yet to make that transition to a national platform though is well on her way there. Conversely, she administers a vast state with more people than Pakistan, while Obama lacks direct administrative experience.

Yet, Mayawati too did lead her party to a win no less historic. She too, like Obama a year later, could not possibly have got to where she is without winning over adversarial groups. The ability of democracy to give chance to groups excluded from the magic circle of power to mobilise for their rights and then reach out to those who once dominated them is a remarkable process. It is also one that bodes well for creating a common future, for the ballot will then prove better than the bullet.

Not that the resistance to change has vanished. One only has to look at the map of the US to see where John McCain has prevailed. The entire ‘Deep South' save for Florida and Virginia, all the places where the civil rights marchers fought the hardest and the meanest, have gone the Republican way. So has much of the west, except for Colorado and New Mexico. In an uncanny prediction at the time he signed civil rights into law, Lyndon Johnson foresaw the rise of a ‘Republican Right' in the areas that till then were a Democratic stronghold.

But the fact is the Dalits of India have achieved more on this score. The victory in the Hindi heartland last summer was only possible due to a substantial chunk of upper caste (savarnas) and upper class sections warming towards Mayawati. It is quite an achievement that her party rules the state with the largest concentration of savarnas in the country. She reached out with her plank of law and order to groups historically antagonistic to her and her social bloc.

There is little doubt that she is in the race for the top. Yet, if there was a leaf from the Obama book that matters, it is what George Bush Sr. called "the vision thing". Change matters because there is a large section of India looking for something more appealing than the Big Two parties.

Mayawati has to show she can reach the heart as much as the mind. She may need to spell out a vision even more than a Barack Obama did. He had a national party that is one of only two. She heads a party that is one of many and is a new entrant into the league of large parties.

The road may be a tough one but the prize is well worth the taking. Can she move from leader to stateswoman? That will decide how far she can go.