Friday, November 07, 2008

Is the US still behind the curve?

The most common refrain about the Obama victory seems to be the message that it sends out about the post-racial American society. A country that was among the last to grant its ethnic minorities civil rights has now elected one of them its president. As Jonathan Zimmerman observed in the Washington Post, the US lagged other nations -- both European powers and newly-independent nations in the Americas -- in abolishing the slave trade, abolishing slavery, granting voting rights and civil rights to its minorities. It was the only significant supporter of the apartheid South Africa regime, only imposing sanctions in 1987. Yet it has now become the first white-majority country to elect a coloured leader. It is a remarkable achievement by any measure.

Yet P. Sainath seeks to downplay its significance by comparing with the Indian subcontinent, and with India in particular:

India today has an upper-caste Hindu woman as President. A dalit (former Untouchable) as chief justice of its Supreme Court. A Muslim for Vice-President. A Sikh for Prime Minister. And the leader of its biggest - and ruling - political party, the Congress, is Sonia Gandhi, a Catholic from Italy. The Speaker of Parliament is a godless Communist.

India's most famous war hero (and the only one to make Field Marshal rank) who died this year was a Parsi (of Zoroastrian faith). Sikhs (Prime Minister Manmohan Singh) account for less than two per cent of the population. Muslims (Veep Hamid Ansari) 13.4 per cent. Dalits (Chief Justice Balakrishnan) 16.2 per cent and Parsis are the tiniest of minorities - less than 100,000 in a population of one billion plus.Roman Catholics from Italy -- we have just one and she is the most powerful politician in the country.

Incidentally, the last President of India was a dalit. No, this does not prove anything positive about the status of those communities. It does mean, though, that the US, far from being unique, is an awful latecomer to representation of minorities...

Now, I admire all the above things about India, but -- even leaving aside the howler about the "last President" -- I find the argument extremely sloppy. First, none of the above figures were directly elected by the people of the entire country -- we do not have such a system. We do have direct election of parliamentarians, but only to the lower house (I strongly feel that we should adopt a US senate-style direct-election system for the Rajya Sabha too); only Sonia Gandhi and Somnath Chatterjee, of the names listed above, won Lok Sabha elections. Our head of government, in particular, did not stand for election to the Lok Sabha and was not advertised before the election as the probable prime minister. Our head of state, the President, is not directly elected. So this comparison is pretty meaningless. If we are talking about people other than the heads of state or government, the US has had minorities and women in position for quite a while: even the Bush regime included Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

Second, our privileged communities -- the Brahmins and other upper castes -- are in fact numerical minorities, and the oppressed communities are rather large in number. So it is not very surprising that, with free and fair elections, some members of those communities get elected. It is more similar to post-apartheid South Africa than to the US; the surprise (and cause for concern) is the continuing dominance of the upper castes, not the representation of the others. And some of the minorities he mentions -- Parsis, Sikhs -- have not been particularly oppressed historically, though the Sikhs endured much savagery after 1984.

Back to Obama: I have been, and still am, skeptical about his near-messianic appeal and do not expect huge differences in US policy, whether at home or abroad. I do expect better diplomacy, and it will be disappointing indeed if he does not use the goodwill earned by his middle name to rebuild bridges with the Muslim world in particular. But from all that I have been reading lately, he is one of those rare figures in politics who is genuinely well-read, intelligent, knowledgable, inquisitive, and exhibits the same personality in private as in public. He is easily one of the more talented world leaders in recent memory, and I hope he will be able to use his talents to rise above Washington's "business as usual". Sainath says, correctly, that his list of prominent Indian minority figures says nothing about the status of India's minorities; but I'd say Obama's election does say something about the status of blacks in America. More importantly, the fact of his election will almost certainly be positive for the future of race relations in America. Change in caste prejudices in India seems much slower in coming.


gaddeswarup said...

He is the son of a wonderful mother. If he shows half her courage, he will be a great leader.

Tabula Rasa said...

i may have underestimated the symbolism in his victory. there's a palpable change in the body language of the black students in my classes (undergrad and mba). i might be wrong but they seem to be holding their heads higher and speaking more confidently than before. i hope this lasts.

km said...

Gaddeswarup's comment totally warmed my heart :) (as did TR's)

Oh, and have you guys seen Terrific idea. Now to see the execution.

gaddeswarup said...

Sorry that I did not really try to answer the questions that you raised. Much more thoughtful people than me made a lifetime study of these questions and as far as I can see there are no clear answers. Moreover comparing countries like USA and India is difficult. Here are brief impressions from my experiences. I have been visiting USA since 69. At that time the bright African- American students that I noticed mostly came from West Indies or Africa, possibly from privileged communities in Africa. That seems to changed now. Also at that time most of indians abroad I noticed came from dominant castes but now I notice many from less dominant castes areas and more muslims. However social contacts among Indians abroad still seem to be along group lines (as soon as there are a szeable number).
When I go back home, I find that most of the people I meet in my area *which is rural)are still from my caste. In cities or outside A.P. it is different and sometimes I do not know their castes. Many of the connections are through relatives, marriage etc. Here or USA I do not know many outside the Indian community except through profession. But as soon as I go to A.P. I immediately get links and news of people of my caste feom villages to cities, from film producers to wriers, to those in USA, UK, and Europe. These caste networks still seem to be strong. When I was growing up, I did not feel much presence of Hinduism discussions. They seem much more now.
There is story about Gandhi's march during salt satyagraha. Apparently along the route many from the nearby villages came to particpate and when some of them went back, they took ritual baths. It is not clear to me how much his influence lasted or what his influence was during his time. Vinay Lal recomments 'Gandhi as Mahatma'by Shahid Amin to guage Gandhi effect in different groups during his time.
Around 1995, I went to visit my sick father and stayed in a hotel in Guntur near the hospital for a month. When I was coming back, the workers in the hotel came to my room and said it was such a pleasure to see somebody teating them well and that they were subject to daily abuse from patrons. Adiga highlights some of this in his 'The White tiger'. I do not know whether this status thing is so important that people show their status by treating others badly.
There are too many strands and networks in India and it is difficult to generalize from the bits one has seen. Often changes that come from the top (like gandhi's influence) are complex and even temporary and some changes seem to come without anybody seeing them. In all this what surprise me is some women. we see them as week and needing protection but I have seen many of them courageous, persevering and making difficult choices.

These are fairly random and incherent thoughts. May be they will start of the discussion that you desired.

Anonymous said...

TR, that's an interesting observation. I've come across the opposite, in a way. There are white Americans who are very apprehensive because of the pro-African/black religious beliefs espoused by Obama's church. I'm not sure what kind of policy decisions they're expecting from him, that would be influenced by his church.

Considering the 'ugliness' that came out during the McCain/Palin rallies and the kind of fear that some seem to express, it's indeed remarkable that Obama was able to win such a big mandate.

I also agree on the part that there is not going to be a dramatic policy difference. However, some of the staunch republicans are acting as if Marx has taken a re-birth around here.

- rt

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Sorry for delayed reply. TR, that's encouraging. I'm sure the increased political representation of backward classes/castes in India has led to some increased self-respect for those communities; also, people care less about that in the cities and caste differences aren't so visually obvious. The fact that Obama won states that banned interracial marriages until 40 years ago (and only because the SCOTUS struck it down) is remarkable.

Gaddeswarup - what you say about how we treat the "less privileged" is spot-on. I remember reading a guide to Tamil speaking that gave details on how you address your superiors, your family members, your equals, your friends, and finally your servants. If I am behind one of the cleaning staff entering a door and they notice, they step back for me. If it's a spring-door and I hold it open for them, they look extremely uncomfortable and refuse to enter. The idea that you can treat your economic "inferiors" with respect is completely alien to this place.

As for women, the labour-class women are not physically weak -- they cannot afford to be -- and they need to be mentally strong to cope with alcoholic husbands, feeding the family, and working to earn enough to get by. So in a way I'm not surprised that they are going into politics at all levels.

Anyway that's a long digression and I did not actually desire a discussion, I was just letting off steam at Sainath (whose writings I sometimes like).

rt - I suppose it depends on whom you talk to. Universities are notoriously liberal places. But what I found striking was Obama beating McCain 66% to 33% (or something like that) for the under-30 vote. That suggests the Republicans have a lot to worry about.

Tabula Rasa said...

i agree - the interior midwest can be very racist. after all, we say that obama won a huge mandate, and indeed he did, but let's not forget that 50 million people voted against him.