Do people like us deserve politicians like them?

ALOK PRASANNA writes from Bangalore: Over the years, Indians have yearned for lots of things American. Everything from American money to American education to American movies and sitcoms and not least of all, an American lifestyle.

So it should come as no surprise that the latest fad in India seems to be, of all things, American politicians.

Rajdeep Sardesai wonders “Who will be India’s Obama?

“Captain” Vijayakanth shouts, “I will do an Obama here.

Shashi Tharoor is the latest in the line of commentators who have enviously eyed the pool of candidates running for what has to be the longest and best publicized American Presidential election, and wonders why “we” couldn’t get a Barack Obama, or even a Hillary Clinton as prime ministerial candidate.

Indeed Shashi Tharoor ends with the oft repeated lament, “Why don’t we get the politicians we deserve?” but prefers to blame middle class Indians for not taking to politics for all the good spitting into a cyclone would do.

The problem with that question (and his recommendation) is the word “we”.I say this in relation to the other term used to denote a collective in the first person “us”.

At first blush (and a quick dictionary check), the two English words seem to mean the same (with small differences), but their usage in our political discourse shows that they in fact mean almost opposite things.

For instance, the Constitution of India does not begin as “Us, the people of India”. Nor are community conflicts usually painted as “We v. Them”.

This gives a clue as to what “we” and “us” actually mean in the context of political discourse.

“We”, for instance, when used in the context of the “people of India”, seems to be used in the context of a wide inclusive definition. The people of India, as against just the citizens of India (itself a pretty inclusive definition) is broad, all encompassing and general, trying to do away with the millions of differences between the actual individuals, putting above all else, their identity as Indians.

Even the UN Charter (from which the preamble to the Constitution seems to be clearly inspired), begins “We, the peoples of the United Nations” much to the same effect.

Yet, when caste, class and race conflicts are discussed, the phrase almost inevitably invoked is “Us versus Them”. Here, the “us” is narrow, limited and confined to a set group of people with the same inflexible identity. By the very nature of the conflict, a loosely defined “us”, would mean that eventually “them” would become superfluous if there is no difference between “us” and “them”, signifying that there is in fact no conflict at all.

Pretty much all definitions of race and caste, legal or simply societal, have been exclusionary definitions to make sure people don’t forget who exactly the “us” are, and who the “them” are.

Think of all the caste prohibitions that make one lose one’s caste (marriage out of caste, eating “prohibited” foods, drinking from “prohibited”wells, travel across seas), but remember that there is only way to gain membership of one, birth.

But coming back to our earlier question, “Why don’t we get the candidates we deserve?”

The “we” here is definitely the “we” of “we, the people of India”. Yet, if voting patterns in the last 57 years of electoral politics is anything to go by, the question in election time, utmost in the voter’s mind has always seemed to be “Who is the candidate who represents us?”

The “us” here is ethnicity, tribal affiliation, caste, sub-caste, linguistic identity, religion, you-name-it-you-have-it-division in India.

This trend has in fact accentuated as even the national parties field candidates in each constituency based on caste and religious configuration. So much so that a national election in India turns out to be a combination of 500+ local elections where the whole is lesser than the sum of the parts.

So the question “Why don’t we get the candidates we deserve?” is about as relevant to electoral politics in India as say, “Do androids dream of electric sheep?”

The fundamental question still remains, “Who best represents us?”

Depressingly, that answer is the current crop of politicians, H.D. Deve Gowda included.

Photograph: courtesy sneakerobsession