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FEW events in recent history have so captured public imagination as the just concluded U.S. Presidential elections. And unlike the excitement generated by the victories of Bill Clinton or Tony Blair earlier, seen by many as heralding both a new political vision and a new style of leadership, this time around both the interest in and expectation from the outcome infected individuals across nations and cultures. This in a world fearing global meltdown and a heightening of conflict speaks to us of new possibilities, if only we recover the ability to hear.

Many lessons will be drawn from the victory of Barack Obama, both the careful crafting of his campaign strategy – the drive to enrol new and first time voters, the creative use of new technologies to interact with the young, the drawing in of volunteers, and the amazingly successful strategy of raising campaign finance – and, even more, his continual ability to rise above the fray and reach out to an audience beyond the core Democratic Party supporters. His speech on race has already secured its place in history. Less recognized perhaps, as Peter deSouza in the recently delivered Maulana Azad Memorial Lecture reminds us, were the acceptance and concession speeches of the two candidates – John McCain and Barack Obama.

‘By speaking differently from their pre-result speeches, by appreciating the achievements of the other – "the great significance of the win for the African-American community" says McCain, and "a great patriot and a leader" says Obama – the two contestants rose above party positions and strove to unite the country behind the result, after what had been a bruising campaign.’ It is this modification of political behaviour once the results were out – ‘of being gracious, rising above partisanship, of statesmanship rather than one-upmanship’ – that we need to note and learn from.

But, as we too move into a season of a bruising political campaign, elections to six state legislatures which are widely perceived as defining the terrain for the forthcoming general elections, has our political class, the various parties and their leaders, learnt any lessons? In their selection of issues, campaign modes and styles, and candidates, are our political leaders speaking to and trying to connect with the India in the making? Or are they, as conventional political wisdom suggests, once again focusing on the faultlines in society, appealing to narrow and sectional interests, fanning insecurities rather than seeking to unite the polity.

We, as the Chinese say, live in interesting times. The recent spurt of violence against the minority Christian community, the continued foregrounding of ‘Islamic terrorism’ and now, the shrill talk of ‘Hindu terror’, not to forget the orchestrated and vicious campaigns against ‘outsiders’ – from Bangladeshi Muslims generally to North Indian migrant workers in Mumbai – is only serving to intensify the feelings of ‘othering’, ghettoization and insecurity. And while political parties routinely appeal to what they perceive to be their core constituencies, should not their leaders also rise above their partisan considerations and look at the post-election future, to a time when they will need to govern? Why is it so difficult for them to realize that once elected and in power, they represent all, not just those who voted for them?

More than the quality of our contemporary political leaders, or even the state of our political institutions, what needs interrogating is a mindset and political culture that privileges a political positioning of strategic calculus and of the outcomes that follow from such strategic politics. As deSouza underlines in his Azad lecture, ‘Our institutions have become feeble because the representative process has been bypassed with the politics of the street replacing the politics of the elected assembly, where a rowdy can hold the polity to ransom, and where those holding constitutional office respond with a strategic calculus of gains and losses.’

If there is one lesson from the recent US elections that we need to take home, it is that, possibly, the conventional politics of pragmatism, of strategic calculus trumping constitutional and moral principles, may no longer appeal to the new and young voter. This is why the ‘failure’ of the Congress high command to discipline its Maharashtra leadership during the anti-outsider agitation or the knee-jerk defence of those accused in the Malegaon blasts by the BJP leaders is so distressing. It is only when we speak to the future, one of possibilities, and not to the past of fears and insecurities, that we can hope to ignite the imagination of citizens. Barack Obama spoke to us not only because of what he is, an African-American in a dominantly White United States, or in his eschewing a politics of victimhood and resentment, but because he offers a hope for change.

Hopefully, our leaders will draw the right lessons.

Harsh Sethi

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