If sloganeering characterised President Donald Trump’s inaugural address, sagacity marked Barack Obama’s farewell address a week earlier. Undoubtedly, it is the Obama pitch that will reverberate in the chambers of history. Uncannily, Obama’s words seemed directed at India though they were meant for the United States. His theme was rather platitudinous—the responsibilities of democracy. But isn’t wisdom ultimately a pack of well-minted platitudes? Like, “do unto others as you’d have others do unto you”. Like, “the government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth”.
Abraham Lincoln is said to have composed the Gettysburg Address while travelling by train to the venue. The speech was so short that it took barely three minutes to deliver, but it has remained the unalterable motto of a “nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal”.
On par with Lincoln’s quotability was John Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country”. Kennedy lived in an age when the President had teams of speech writers at his disposal. Even so, he worked on that speech for two whole months.
We have no way of knowing how long it took Jawaharlal Nehru to write his Tryst With Destiny speech delivered at midnight on August 14, 1947. He certainly had no ghosts to help him. Yet the wondrous ring of those phrases still works its magic as we read, “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance”.
Obama is in a different class, more intellectual and naturally more pre-occupied with the entangled challenges of our times—the rise of old-fashioned orthodoxies, the populist rejection of a globalised world, the emergence of nationalism as an emotive force.
Hence his repeated references to the dangers of taking democracy for granted. Democracy requires perpetual participation, he said. Indifference to democracy is betrayal of democracy. Citizenship must be continuously reinvented in a functioning democracy. He was of course referring to the shadows cast upon democracy by Donald Trump’s philosophy of protecting the white middleclass American from immigrants. But we can see the parallelism between that philosophy and the narrow nationalism that has gained ground elsewhere in the world, too, including India.
When Obama cautions his audience to be wary of forces that “weaken the sacred ties that make us one”, he is giving expression to truisms that are as important for India as for any other nation. When he says that the country’s potential will be realised “only if our politics reflects the decency of our people”, we know he might just as well be referring to India.
He elevated the whole issue to a lofty level where minds are challenged to go into overdrive. Politics, he said, is a battle of ideas but, he hastened to add, “ideas that explore differences on the basis of reason. We should be reasonable enough to concede that the opponent may have a valid point”. He was saying in effect that the foundation upon which democracy rested was debate. To what extent is debate practised—or indeed allowed—in today’s India? How far do we explore differences on the basis of reason?
The way intolerance has become a term of everyday currency contains the answers to such questions. The BJP’s enthronement in power has emboldened the party’s riffraff to pose as protectors of the nation, with a monopoly of the right to talk about its civilisational status. Dissension is not acceptable. Even criticism of a government policy such as demonetisation is enough to tar responsible citizens with the anti-national brush.
Like all extremists in history, the Hindutva extremists will have their fifteen minutes of glory and then collapse. They will be cast aside by their own ludicrous positions. A case in point was the recent denunciation of Yashwant Sinha, a distinguished BJP leader, just because a committee he headed recommended talks with Kashmiri separatists. The Hindutva forces are open to no suggestions outside the communal calendar they follow, a familiar problem of closed minds.
Obama no doubt had such self-defeating partisans in mind when he said, “we have become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinion”.
Fortunately bubbles burst. Unfortunately some bubbles swallow up a generation before they burst. But burst they will.