Last week, hours after he signed into law a bill cobbled together to end the 16-day US government shutdown and a close brush with a debt default, US President Barack Obama said that due to the events in the past two weeks, “The American people are completely fed up with Washington”.
Barely a day after the American President made that comment, thousands of miles away, prime ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi echoed similar sentiments in Chennai. He said that the people of India were fed up with New Delhi.
There are interesting similarities in the frustration that people have with the insulation of governments. While Obama heads the American government, Modi is hoping to head the Indian one. Yet both seem to be befuddled with the way the systems work.
Both claim to be ‘outsiders’, both are from non-political back-grounds who were never expected to rise to the levels they have, considering that they have no political godfathers or backers.
Obama’s obduracy in pushing forward with the Health Bill (Obamacare) is driven by the belief that when it comes to what is good for America, or what he thinks is good for America, there should be bipartisan support for it. In every speech, he betrays his frustration in trying to work within a system so mired in politics that it will not give way to revolutionary ideas because they seem to appear mildly socialist.
Obama is annoyed with the way Washington works, the politicians, the pundits and the media. He said, “All of us need to stop focusing on the lobbyists and the bloggers and the talking heads on radio and the professional activists who profit from conflict and focus on what the majority of Americans sent us here to do.”
That is precisely what Narendra Modi was talking about in Chennai or Rahul Gandhi in his famed outburst in the press conference. Delhi seems to be sequestered from reality. We saw it during the Delhi gang rape incident, when the whole country was outraged but the government simply didn’t get it till quite late.
We saw it again during the slugfest over the controversial ordinance on convicted MPs and MLAs where all sides of the political spectrum were involved. No winners there. Take the case of the BJP leadership battle. The Delhi- based leadership was acting like an ostrich to the demand of its own cadres. It took so long for them to smell the coffee.
What is it about Delhi and Washington that makes people live in bubbles of their own? Probably the rarified air of elitism. Or maybe the puffiness that comes with power.
Can any prime minister of India or president of America remain an outsider despite becoming part of the system? Obama would like to believe or, at least, give the impression that he abhors the way things happen in Washington DC, but he has taken to it like a duck to water. He still has the immigration reform and a farm bill to push through and he is going for it whole hog, working the system, negotiating with rivals and doing back room politicking. These are the legacy years and he wants to leave his impact in this town.
One saw Dr Manmohan Singh do that with the India-US nuclear deal in the first term. AB Vajpayee did it with the nuclear tests in Pokhran. However, the two faltered in the later part of their years in Delhi. Both thought they could make long-term peace with Pakistan as their legacy. Somewhat like what many American presidents thought they could do with the Middle East. Their leverage was minimal despite their power. With Pakistan too, India’s position is merely as a bystander. It is Pakistan that drives the India-Pakistan process because it uses jehadi terror as an instrument of state policy.
Manmohan Singh, Atal Behari Vajpayee and IK Gujral and dare I say, even Jawaharlal Nehru were mistaken to believe that mere intentions are good enough in international relations, especially with regards to Pakistan or for that matter, China.
Delhi’s disconnect with the rest of the country is quite apparent. While all surveys show that people want Delhi to get the economy on track and dramatically increase employment, the speeches and debates that Delhi-centric politicians indulge in are bereft of that. The frustration that people have with governments that are not responsive seems global.
The only difference is that in some cases leaders who have to go back to the electorate make course corrections because doors will be slammed on them if they don’t. He may be no Obama but even Rahul Gandhi figured it out when he said it was time to tear the bill.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on Twitter @smitaprakash