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.
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.
Candidate Obama, in contrast, spent more than a billion dollars on his campaign for the presidency, but the details of this expenditure were available to the public. A healthy system of laws wouldn’t stop a candidate spending as much as he or she can raise, but it would ensure that each rupee spent is publicly declared. And for those found to have used undeclared money? They should be disqualified from the race they’re competing in (or unseated if they’re later found out). Money isn’t necessarily an evil in a democracy, provided it’s given (and received) transparently.
Another set of reforms that would bring India closer to the rest of the Anglosphere would be a transformation of the legal system. Although introduced by the British more than a century before they left India, the current system is arranged in a way that means the balance between the government and the people is more like the relationship between master and servant that existed during the more than two centuries of rule from London.
While distinguished liberals such as Amartya Sen and Sunil Khilnani join almost all Indian historians in crediting Jawaharlal Nehru with having force-fed democracy to a heathen populace, the reality is that independent India's first prime minister continued both colonial law and the colonial mode of administration. This is one reason why South Korea and China, two countries that were much poorer than India six decades ago, are now so far ahead of the world's biggest democracy. Indeed, Nehru cut away at freedoms for India's citizens, replacing them with a vast system of state ownership and privilege that to a large extent still exists.
Sadly, although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has often expressed his admiration for British values and traditions, and Sonia Gandhi can hardly be accused of hostility to the Anglosphere, neither has done much to ensure that average citizens are given more autonomy vis-a-vis state agencies. In fact, since 2004, the pendulum of change has been moving the wrong way with new restrictions rolling back some of the reforms introduced by another Congress government from 1992 to 1994.
The magnitude of the failure of the political class in ‘free’ India is underscored by the fact that there are 300 million Indian citizens whose living standards are worse than that of the average citizen of Haiti, and a further 500 million whose standard of living is well below what would be considered acceptable internationally.
One of the reasons for this failure is the unpleasant reality that key elements within the Indian political class understand that keeping their jobs means perpetuating poverty and ignorance. In effect, they’d like to see the marginalised and the disadvantaged frozen in their existing way of life in the name of ‘protecting culture and heritage.’
Such politicians also typically oppose the spread of the English language, fearing that a more English-savvy population will also be a less docile one. As a result, it’s clear that greater contact with the Anglosphere would strengthen those elements within civil society who are working towards greater modernisation. After all, if there are an estimated 200 million Indian citizens who can get by in English, there are likely hundreds of millions more who are eager to learn, but who have been deprived of this asset by state policy.
By depriving all except those with above average incomes from developing English language skills, India's political class has put in place a modern variant of the caste system, where advanced education is a privilege open only to the few.
Forming a kind of diplomatic trinity with the United States and the United Kingdom wouldn’t mean abandoning the benefits of better relations with key players such as China, Russia and Iran—all three are important to India. But by increasing its pool of English speakers and reforming its institutions to reflect the values and practices of a free rather than a colonised society, India would also be able to pursue its unique geopolitical interest, even if these were unpopular with London or Washington. Indeed, in locations such as Africa and some parts of Asia, India needs to go its own way and fashion alliances distinct from those crafted by the West.
When Obama comes to India, he does so not merely as the leader of India's main geopolitical focus (followed by China and then the European Union), but as head of state of an enormous English-speaking democracy, with all of the cultural and other similarities ties that this implies. This is an essential difference from his visit to China last year and it is to be hoped that Obama (who was a quick learner on the campaign trail, but who has been less nimble in office), will understand the potential of this, and seek to build on the commonalities between the United States and India.
Unfortunately, the omens from his administration aren’t promising so far. Instead what we’ve seen is the patronizing tone of Bill Clinton, who implied by his neglect that India should be dismissed as less important than traditional European allies. While such views were also present among some of George W Bush’s team, they were generally overcome by the recognition of Bush and key advisor Condoleezza Rice that India merited the status of Japan and Germany, if still not that of Britain.
So, what are the prospects of this democratic trinity for the 21st century emerging? A look at the new British government suggests they could be very good. When Cameron came calling recently, he made clear his acceptance of the potential. Unlike many of his predecessors, Cameron didn’t talk down to his Indian interlocutors, but instead spoke to them as they are—representatives of a geopolitical power that is, with its similar mix of threats and interests, an essential ally.
Should Obama return to the promise of his campaign and free himself of the Clinton legacy, he too could be a prime mover behind a new alliance of English-speaking democracies. To do this, though, he will have to fend off efforts by his bureaucracy to restrict avenues of cooperation with India. In short, Obama will (in this regard at least) need to follow the example of Bush, who saw India as a kindred country, and who battled to remove some of the restrictions that had been placed on technological and other exchanges. Bush and Cameron have shown that despite being conservatives, they’ve accepted that the only way for the Anglosphere to retain its global primacy is through a close alliance with India. So far, Obama has shown little indication that he understands the immense potential in the Indo-US relationship. But there’s still time for him to transform relations.
All this said, India has a long way to go before its people enjoy the freedoms—and of course the lifestyle—of their American and British cousins. Manmohan Singh has less than four more years in office to ensure that the shackles of colonial law and administrative methods are removed from a country whose people could take the economic growth rate up to 15 percent if only their own government didn’t perpetuate (private and public) monopolies and impede the kind of education needed for modernisation.
Meanwhile, next month will give us a chance to see if Obama understands the potential of India as a great, English-speaking and like-minded power. If he does, it will benefit not only the United States, but an Indian prime minister who is making a lonely effort to kick off a second stage of far-reaching, but very necessary reforms.