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Our netas need some lessons from Bill
Some 12 years ago, as Bill Clinton was winding down his second term, I jokingly asked the then President why he shouldn't think of running for office in India, perhaps contesting a parliamentary election. He was only 54 and would be demitting office in a few months because of US term limits which don't allow a third shot. It seemed such a waste, considering the stellar record he had. Couldn't we, in India, stuck with a lumbering, geriatric 20th century leadership, borrow or hire him to take us into the 21st century?
Of course, it was a lighthearted suggestion;we knew the law wouldn't permit it. But he burst out laughing, and chortled that maybe he should think about it. By then he had taken a liking to India, and I think even the thought of it intrigued the wonk in him. The exchange took place in the White House during a state dinner the Clintons hosted for then Prime Minister Vajpayee. The Indian delegation had left the party early (the Prime Minister was leaving for India that night), but Clinton had urged local guests to stay back (it was the last banquet of his presidency), so the party went on till the wee hours of the morning, enabling almost everyone to chat with the President.
There was plenty of wine and desserts that night. A colleague who got fairly sloshed asked me what would happen if he passed out in the White House - would they allow him to crash in the Lincoln Bedroom? (One of the many White House scandals those days centred on Clinton allowing friends to sleepover at the Lincoln Bedroom in return for campaign contributions. ) "Well, more likely they will put you in a cab, send you home, and you will never be able to set foot in the White House again, " I chuckled.
Those were giddy times, and early days in the renewed US-India courtship. Clinton had decisively tilted Washington New Delhi's way during the Kargil war, triggering a big change in Indian perception of the US. But Clinton's courtship of India occurred very late in his second term. Both his trip to India and Vajpayee's visit to Washington took place in Clinton's final year in office, but on both occasions, he showed Indians his complete mastery over both style and substance when it came to engaging the public.
Clinton's speech to the Indian Parliament in March 2000 is one of the most eloquent I've heard in the Indian context. But many others came to mind - including his farewell remarks as President at an airport hangar in Maryland - as I sat listening to his peroration at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week. The compelling thing about Clinton's speeches is not mesmerising words and soaring rhetoric. He's all about policy, dressed up in folksy humor and personal anecdotes. In the era of global communication and instant reach, he has reinvented the fireside chat, and elevated it to such a level of intimacy that you feel he's talking only to you. Most of what he speaks about is what you'd call kitchen table issues - education, healthcare, social security, neatly arranged in a grand architecture of Democratic Party principles.
Soon after his address, friends on social media, swooning over his performance raised the question again. Why can't we borrow him for India? But a more pertinent question is: why aren't our leaders, even those cerebral and analytical, similarly gifted in framing policy, problem-solving, and connecting and conveying them to the masses? Why is our political discourse full of platitudes, banalities, and triteness of the "Gandhiji ne kahan tha...garibi hatana hain" kind?
Our leadership is a reasonably accurate reflection of our people and priorities. Indian voters largely vote on identity issues, not policy matters. And when they do vote on issues, it's usually myopic. We don't make our politicians work hard for our votes, never ask them questions about long term issues like national education or health blueprints and budgets. So if we bother to learn and don't ask, where is the compulsion for our mostly mediocre politicians, many of them semiliterate criminals and still mired in a mofussil mindset, to have any grasp, much less mastery, over the subject?
To see what we are missing, take a look at our leadership's desultory speech on (any) Teacher's Day or any speech on education for that matter. Compare that to the several made by Obama (including an epic State of the Union in 2011 when he called for a "sputnik" moment). Check them out of for vision, depth, clarity, urgency, passion, all illustrated by statistics, personal stories and anecdotes. Then recall our own prime minister's heartwarming journey from an unlit home in the boondocks to 7, Race Course Road, and his government's epic Right to Education Bill, both spottily conveyed to voters. Imagine what Clinton and Obama would have done with such material.
Well, we missed hiring Clinton in 2000. Maybe we can hire Obama as our policy wonk and explainer-inchief when he steps down.
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