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“Now black will rule over white!” a New Delhi judge — who always tracks me down in the park where I jog and work out with my sparring buddy — made a point of telling me the morning after the results of the U.S. election were announced. It was a strange reversal. The day before, he had been pushing McCain. Then his question had been, “Do you like black? Or do you like white?” After months of putting up with him, I finally lost it.
“In America, that's not how it works. We don't just vote for somebody because of the caste he belongs to, and Obama will work for everybody, not just for black people.” Never mind that 44 is half white. Never mind that most people make their choice on just as arbitrary grounds. Like everybody else — especially every American — I was swept up by the “Yes we can” moment. From watching Indian TV (the English channels, anyway) I thought that India was just as excited. But my Mr. Magoo-looking, workout-interrupting nemesis brought me back to earth.
Just like Americans, Indians have a complex relationship with race, or color or caste, which are more relevant concepts here. While they sing Gandhi's praises for his work on behalf of the “colored” in South Africa (i.e. the Indians) they conveniently forget that he ignored the larger abuses of apartheid. If you took the newspapers as gospel, “Nigerians” would appear to be responsible for the entire local drug trade. Probably the single largest selling cosmetic product is “fairness cream” that promises to make users look white. And not long ago kids from the cultural and economic elite were actually protesting on the streets AGAINST affirmative action like it was Bizarro World 1968.
But that wasn't the reason behind my nemesis' remarks. Apart from his desire to "chabi" me (key me up), as he has made a regular habit, the judge's conception of the U.S. race stemmed from his own involvement in India's caste-based politics. As a judge who'd won his post in the category reserved for lower caste candidates, he sees democracy as a struggle for patronage, complicated by elections and payoffs and (now and then) a new law to be enacted and ignored.
Obama's election has prompted a good deal of soul searching over here: Is there an Indian Obama? Can India create an Obama? Why isn't there an Indian Obama? Which is a better analogy, a prime minister who is a Muslim or who is from an untouchable caste? And on and on. Rahul Gandhi was thrown up as young and (some say) charismatic enough to be a parallel, but as a descendant of Jawaharlal Nehru with stacks of money, he's more JFK than BHO. Mayawati got a few nods, but she's more Boss Tweed than Barack. And though I didn't see it in the papers, my sister-in-law suggested Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah, who's young, good-looking, articulate, rich and Muslim.
But I think my nemesis the judge's reaction sums up why such a figure will take some time to emerge. Indian politics, at the present moment, is about dividing people up into strongly cohesive interest groups, and then fighting desperately for as big a slice of the pie as you can get. An Obama won't emerge until the pie gets big enough for everybody to have a piece.
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