When US President Barack Obama comes calling on India early next month, he’ll be visiting a country even more conscious of skin colour than his own. The frequency with which fair skin is mentioned in Indian newspapers’ matrimonial adverts is widely noted, as is the expanding market for (often toxic) skin bleaching face creams.
Sadly, it’s hard to imagine that Congress President Sonia Gandhi wouldn’t have had a harder time exercising her almost dictatorial powers over her party had she been the native of an African rather than a European country, or that Rahul Gandhi would have been as much of a voter favourite if his skin wasn’t so fair.
So India should be willing to learn something from the transformational nature of its guest of honour’s election in 2008. The fact that millions of white US voters opted for Obama rather than John McCain went a considerable distance towards affirming a truth about the United States—that this huge melting pot of a country has given the world not just a vibrant people, but a truly composite culture.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Yet there’s more for India to learn from the United States (and fellow Anglophone country the United Kingdom) than the power of a president who transcends race—given that India is still a work in progress, closer association with the Anglosphere would likely help nudge the country's ruling elites towards the legal and institutional reforms needed to deepen our democracy.
An obvious candidate for change in India would be the structure of political parties, each of which is dominated by either a single family or a self-perpetuating clique of individuals. Until the Election Commission is given the power to enforce transparent and free elections for party posts in India, there are zero prospects for anything like an Ed Milliband taking over from a Gordon Brown or a Julia Gillard from a Kevin Rudd. In the meantime, the political system here will continue to be skewed in favour of family rather than societal interests.
A related issue is the need to dramatically increase transparency in political expenditure. Given the absurdly low levels of legally permitted spending in Indian elections, the overwhelming bulk of the money spent by candidates comes from undeclared sources. These sources are often, it’s reasonable to infer, far less savoury than those who are forced to declare their cash, and by refusing to implement electoral reform the political class in India is simply strengthening the nefarious influence of such interests.