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Pol position: Not losing the common touch


A politician should have three hats, someone once said;one for throwing into the ring, one for talking through, and one for pulling rabbits out of if elected. This, someone else would say, is a gross underestimation of the number of hats needed or of their use. A politician should have many hats, or an unending supply of hats;one for every occasion. Even before they throw one in the ring, and sometimes after doing so, politicians go around hat in hand for collecting campaign funds.

All this seems terribly cruel to politicians considering how they strain every nerve and sinew in our service (after helping themselves and their kith and kin). So let's doff our hats, imaginary or otherwise, to them. It takes a great temperament to enter politics given that once they are there, it is more likely they will attract hate and revulsion rather than hat and lolly.

Barack Obama, among the more personable leaders in the world, is no exception, although he is more a cap guy than a hat man. (There are not too many pictures of the US president with a hatted head, much less one in hand, but quite a few of him wearing a baseball cap. ) Despite the antipathy he attracts from hardline, far-right wing nuts, Obama remains popular among workaday people of all races, no matter what the poll numbers say about his policies. He connects easily with people. There is a certain endearing commonness about him that is uncommon among politicians.

Obama displays this regularly. A few weeks back, he walked into a Chinese take-out place in San Francisco to get some lunch. Then he took his wife Michelle for a Valentine's Day dinner to a tony Washington DC restaurant. Last week, on St Patrick's Day, an Irish cultural fiesta celebrated with much gusto (and drinking) in the US, he turned up at a pub to grab a beer. Then there are his frequent golf outings and basketball pick-up games.

Of course, much of this is carefully orchestrated. It's not like he feels like going out for a bite and he rushes out to the nearest burger joint. The places Obama visits are carefully vetted and the Secret Service gets a head's up for a sweep of the place before he arrives there. But other patrons are not forewarned or inconvenienced. So once he gets there, there is much excitement.

This is a situation which Obama revels in, cracking jokes, signing autographs, and generally hanging out like a regular guy. He's almost always in casual clothing, sans tie or suit on these occasions. The Obama White House has often been accused of staging these events but his aides swear that it is done "simply for the benefit of the commander-in-chief's appetite". The White House has half a dozen exclusive chefs, but it appears Obama likes to go out to feel the pulse of the people.

It's a special trait and politicians in democracies all over the world try and do it, some more successfully than others. Before the threat of terrorists drove them into their fortresses and behind bulletproof glasses, Indian leaders connected comfortably with ordinary people (some still do) with regular janata darbars and appearances at concerts and kacheris. Mrs Indira Gandhi was often ribbed about going to remote places in India and joining local tribal dances wearing all kinds of exotic headgear. But it helped overcome the image of her as an aloof person. I met Rajiv Gandhi at a public meeting in Agra just a couple of days before his assassination. He was all bruised and scratched on his hands from the "personal touch" he had generated during that election campaign as he sought to get closer to the people. From all accounts, his son too is trying to develop that common touch.

But many such attempts are contrived. Most politicians secretly disdain the great unwashed. For all his folksy swagger about being a regular Texas cowboy, George Bush was an East Coast elitist, a Connecticutborn alumnus of Harvard and Yale. There is this infamous video of a post-Presidency Bush visiting a Haitian refugee camp after the earthquake;at one point he shakes hands with a refugee and discreetly wipes his hand on fellow ex-President Bill Clinton's sleeve.

Obama too is accused of being elitist but his endearingly common touch surfaces too often to be a fake. Last week, he was visiting a community college outside Washington DC when a deaf student told him in sign language how proud he (the student) was of Obama. The President replied "Thank you" - in sign language. The story has sent the media into raptures with commentaries on how that single gesture, captured on video and film, will ensure votes of millions of disabled or differently-abled in America. It also emphasises the power of simple acts of empathy and connectedness all politicians strive for but few have. Obama does.

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