"Will India of the 21st century produce a Barack Obama?" So asks the title of a debate program on a leading Indian television channel. Ever since the Wednesday morning that shook the world, popular Indian list serves have kept popping questions like "When will India have its own Obama?"
The poser illustrates the most significant impact of the Obama victory on India, as perhaps on many other countries across continents. In popular discourse, the question takes precedence over the subject that pundits of the region prefer to discuss: the strategic and economic implications of the event for India and its relations with Pakistan.
The dominant response to the victory of the Democratic candidate with a vital difference deals a heavy blow to India's far right, flatteringly described as "the Hindu right" (as reportedly also to Western Europe's anti-immigrant warriors). It is all badly timed for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political front of the "parivar" (the far-right "family"), preparing for a series of state-level elections as a run-up to the parliamentary polls early next year.
The party has made majoritarianism its main plank in the campaign for these elections. With its hoodlum hordes helping it on, it has unleashed major offensives against religious minorities - Muslims and Christians - across the country, especially in Kashmir and states where the BJP either wields or shares power. So far as the party is concerned, the American people have only set a bad precedent by letting majority-minority considerations make no difference to their mandate and to their democracy.
Little wonder, the BJP stands out in its lukewarm response to the Obama victory that has given oppressed minorities in the US and elsewhere a new sense of liberation. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has cherished his special ties with George W. Bush as dearly as India's "strategic partnership" with the US, has evinced greater enthusiasm. Singh has spoken of Obama's "extraordinary journey" as "inspiring for people around the world." Sections of the left, the staunchest opponent in India of the "strategic partnership," have hailed the change in Washington as "historic."
A leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI), an important component of the left, says: "It [the result] shows the change in the mindset of people in a white-dominated country like America. Indians should learn lessons from the greatness of Americans." Officially, the left leadership awaits the announcement of the Obama administration's policies before coming out with its formal assessment of the event. The larger significance of it all, however, is not lost on the left.
But there is no mistaking the misgivings in the far-right family and the Manmohan camp about the endangered bequest of the Bush era for India. The BJP, which once hoped that the Iraq war would give India the right of "pre-emptive attack" against Pakistan, can barely nurse or articulate such an ambition any more. The prime minister, for his part, finds it politic to give a pause to panegyrics on the US-India nuclear deal as his proudest achievement. The bipartisan establishment and its experts, however, are voicing their disquiet by demurring, if only discreetly, about a statement from Obama on the sensitive issue of Kashmir.
The same establishment and experts responded very differently to Obama's earlier series of statements on Afghanistan. Their elation at what they saw as the emergence of a US-India-Afghanistan axis, directed against Pakistan, was evident. Scowls replaced smiles with Obama's talk of the need to "facilitate" a solution of the Kashmir dispute so that Pakistan could "focus" on fighting militants on its frontiers with Afghanistan.
Prominent security analyst C. Raja Mohan says that, while rejoicing over Obama's waving of the stick at Pakistan, India omitted to note "the carrot" dangled in the shape of a third-party intervention in the Kashmir dispute. Several others of the same school of thought, to whom the Bush period offered the best of opportunities for India in the world arena, have followed suit. They have all urged New Delhi to take up the matter with Obama's foreign policy team and to ensure that the idea of "facilitation" is abandoned so that no further damage is done to the sacred cause of the "strategic partnership."
The issue is engaging the attention of experts in Pakistan as well, though the common man takes a far less constricted view of Obama's victory here as well. Well-known media person and peace activist Beena Sarwar writes from Karachi: "The most watched polls ever in the world had their share of attention in Pakistan, complete with news updates, TV talk shows, call-ins from Pakistanis living in the United States.... Chatter in tea-stalls and living-rooms continues to be dominated by the US presidential elections."
The dominant theme at the street level is about the dramatic victory of a dark-skinned leader, from which ordinary Pakistanis draw much hope despite the concern over Obama's dire warnings of a fight-to-the-finish in Afghanistan. "Many Pakistanis," adds Beena, "hope Obama's Muslim heritage will make him more understanding of their culture, even though the president-elect has consciously distanced himself from this heritage, even dropping the use of his middle name Hussein."
She quotes Islamabad-based political analyst Nasim Zehra as saying, "Pakistanis grudgingly share the global excitement of Mr. Obama's victory. Grudgingly, because many have not forgotten his campaign rhetoric of possibly attacking Pakistani territory to combat terrorism."
Leading newspaper Dawn says: "Even if he had failed in his bid for the presidency, Barack Obama would have succeeded in transforming the face of US politics, and possibly changing forever the way Americans think. In the event he pulled off a feat that was not only historic but revolutionary, and perhaps even miraculous."
The paper, however, also notes: "Here in Pakistan, Mr. Obama's earlier take on the issue of militancy was sometimes seen as somewhat short-sighted and belligerent. The US certainly cannot go it alone without the support of Pakistan." Another leading newspaper, the Daily Times, cautions Pakistanis against being "overjoyed" at Obama's Kashmir statement and urges recognition that Pakistan's "security is threatened from within rather than from India."
Both the papers, along with much of the rest of Pakistan's media, expect Obama to listen better to the elected government in Islamabad and give it greater importance and assistance than to the military. The view, clearly, echoes the vox populi. Despite his statements, the presidency of Obama is seen as more a product of democracy than the Bush dispensation, and that makes a considerable difference.