Posted by: Vikram | November 15, 2008

Evaluating the Indian ‘Obamas’

It’s no secret that the Indian middle classes are mostly apathetic to politics, perhaps with good reason but with very bad effects. So the Obama-mania sweeping urban English-speaking Indians is perhaps a good thing in the sense that it atleast got them thinking about Indian ‘Obamas’, and being Indians why would we want to stop at one 😉 . Of course, India’s middle class wants an Indian version of everything American. No stone is left unturned to make Bollywood into our ‘Indian Hollywood’, the IITs are supposedly ‘Indian Harvards and MITs’, Rajiv Gandhi was the ‘Indian Kennedy’ … Instead of creating our own identity from our own genius, like Mahatma Gandhi did and ISRO has just done, we are content to apishly follow whatever the goras do.

Having said that, I wanted to objectively evaluate India’s potential ‘Obamas’, three names that have come up pretty consistently are Rahul Gandhi (INC), Sachin Pilot (INC) and Omar Abdullah (NC). The discerning observer will quickly realize that these are all heirs of a political dynasty, which although not Obama-esque, does not automatically mean that they cannot be good leaders for India. So I am going to compare these 3 guys + my candidate, Kiren Rijiju (someone you have probably never heard of, no dynasty here), and who in all likelihood is never going to get above some insignificant ministry, inspite of his great love and concern for India and his competence as a politician.

First, I have 6 or 7 parameters that will compare how effective these guys (all MPs) are as legislators (how aware and concerned they are about issues, how actively they think of solutions and take the initiative to implement them), leadership within the house (membership on committees, asking questions and taking part in debates), their education and special honours. All information is from the Lok Sabha website.

  1. Number of bills introduced/involved in : Abdullah (introduced 1 on export promotion), Pilot (0), Gandhi (0), Rijiju (introduced 2 to amend consti, 1 for special assistance for Arunachal, involved in electricity bill 2005, 13 other involvements)
  2. Resolutions : Abdullah (0), Pilot (1), Gandhi (0), Rijiju (4)
  3. Questions raised : Abdullah (0), Pilot (1), Gandhi (3, all unstarred), Rijiju (245, many starred + 2 supplemetary questions)
  4. Debates participated in : Abdullah (16), Pilot (16), Gandhi (4), Rijiju (89)
  5. Special Mentions : Abdullah (0), Pilot (0), Gandhi (0), Rijiju (14)
  6. Membership on prominent committees : Abdullah (Commerce), Pilot (Home Affairs), Gandhi (Human Resource Development), Rijiju (Energy)
  7. Education : Abdullah (B.Com Sydenham College), Pilot (BA, Uni. of Delhi, MBA, Wharton), Gandhi (M.Phil Cambridge University ), Rijiju (BA, LLB, Uni. of Delhi)
  8. Special Honours : Abdullah (Led Indian delegations to many important conferences, nominated global economic leader by World Economic Forum), Pilot ( 😮 ), Gandhi ( 😮 ), Rijiju (Member, Khadi and Village Industrial Commission, GoI, 2001-2004)

So, its pretty clear who the better legislator and leader in parliament is. You must constantly keep in mind how easy it is for the Abdullahs, Pilots and Gandhis to get on commitees and attention in the house. And Rijiju did all this being in the opposition ! Can one really turn around a nation if on does not have the strength and conviction to be a good legislator first ?

Now for the ‘intangibles’. Vinod Sharma correctly says that India needs a leader not a ruler. So has any of these guys shown any potential of being a leader of people ? Abdullah has shown some passion and is a good speaker, but I havent seen him do much otherwise. Rijiju, though has the balls to stand up to China and demand a secure Arunachal and a free Tibet, but sadly his efforts seem to be in vain,

As a Member of Parliament, I have done enough, I have tried everything, but the response is not enough. Before I came to Parliament, my predecessors were silent. As you know Parliament is a very noisy place.

Usually people from the northeast are calm, gentle, but I am of a different breed. I speak, shout, come down to the well (of the House), I make my point. Now people know about Arunachal, but what the government does is another thing. They are too busy with political problems, which are not national problems. It is eating the mind of the leaders and the real issues remain unsolved, unattended.

He also properly assesses Pakistan,

Why should we pay so much attention to Pakistan, a small neighbour? Just forget it! We can just have normal relations with them. What is the point of spending so much time, energy and brains on (this country).

Don’t forget that Kashmir is claimed by a small country which does not economically or militarily match India, while Arunachal is claimed by a nation far superior to India.

And the US,

The problem is that India is obsessed with America. All the brains of the ministry of external affairs and the think-thanks in India are obsessed with two countries only: The US and Pakistan.

Let us continue to have good relations with the US. But why be obsessed with them? While news in Washington or Lahore make headlines here, nobody knows about the border areas.

He has just been chosen as one of the top 200 iconic youth leaders from Asia-Pacific and is in Tokyo attending the Asia 21 summit.

When was the last time Rahul Gandhi or Pilot talked about a secure India ? Do they give you the impression that they can bring change or even try to bring change that they are passionate about ? Do they ever talk passionately about … anything ? Has any neutral source ever honoured them ? This is perhaps just the destiny of a country and a culture conditioned to be scared and afraid and not look at things objectively. India perhaps has many potential Obamas, working in NGOs throughout the country or even in Parliament trying to make a change, but will we give them a chance ?

Quotes are from this Rediff interview.

P.S. : I might have been a bit unfair to Gandhi, and particularly Pilot (who actually seems to work quite hard on many fronts), but I just want people to think objectively before choosing their political heroes.


  1. Good post Vikram. As I have not analysed these leaders I cannot say who is worthy but I do balk at words like India’s Obama. I feel we can elect a great leader again (remember we had people far greater than Obama at the helm in the initial years of our Independence, whether it was Patel or Shashtri), but there are many problems in our politics today, which is preventing more of India’s Mahatmas, Vallabhai Patels or Shastris to come up. Corruption is one, and the lack of interest and apathy of middle class educated Indians to politics is another, which you rightly pointed out. Actually I can list about 50 problems right now as I just did an interview for a magazine for this very topic, but lets just say that we are going to be improving, slowly and surely and we will get more of our great leaders back again.

    I hope so Nita. Where’s your interview by the way ? Would definitely like to take a look.

  2. @ Vikram : You know something its not really an Obama that India needs. Can someone really argue that that present PM is not Obama like? His background is as humble as his. The problem in India is Indians not Indian leaders. What we need is to revise ourselves. If all of us just did our own jobs properly things would witness some change if not a dramatic change. The only question is how do you go around fixing that.

    Well, I didnt say that India needs an Obama, just pointed out that his ascent has atleast kindled some curiousity by the middle classes about our own politicians. The next logical thing to do would be to objectively analyze the credentials of the names that came up. I wanted to show that the criteria often used are not complete enough and that a good leader can come from anywhere and in any form.

    Odzer, yes, Indians need to revise themselves, if you sit back and think we have changed quite a bit in the last 60 years, but not as much as needed. But whatever changes have happened have been because of good leaders, extreme situations and mass media among others. Good leaders are people who can motivate Indians to change, just like Gandhi motivated Indians to protest against foreign rule, Ambedkar motivated Dalits to mobilize, both these sets of people were dormant before. In many ways the film and TV industry has motivated change towards the status of women in our society. Try to think of how different you are from your father, and your grandfather !

    But see, those were, in some sense, the easy changes. It was perhaps easier to protest against foreign rule when you are oppressed than to protest against a media that constantly indulges you. It is easier to just say, yes all Indians are equal but much more difficult to step aside and let everyone have what they have a right to and have fought for. It is easy to let your daughter ‘choose’ her destiny, harder to see your wife become more successful than you. Of course, changing Indians is urgent, a good leader can accelerate the process and give the right direction.

  3. Vikram I completely agree about Sachin Pilot and Rahul Gandhi. We seem to be as enamored with Dynasty as with America 🙂 This happens everywhere in India, from movies to businesses.

    But about Indians looking for a political leader like Obama, I think it springs from our unhappiness with our current leaders, or rather the lack of leaders. We are all looking for someone like Mahatma Gandhi, a unifier, someone who can make us think of ourselves as Indians, first and foremost.

    When Obama spoke of the “determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress”, I think he made us all wish we had someone here who could if nothing else, make the right statements, and someone who would consider him/herself the leader of India, not this region, that caste, or that religion … the rest will follow.

    We have in the past also admired Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi is admired all over the world. If we hear of someone who speaks for justice, (in present day India, they don’t even speak of justice, equality, unity) and if we all are reacting with such open awe, maybe there is something in it.

    But I agree with Odzer on this, Manmohan Singh comes close. Kiren Rijiju sounds good too, but unfortunately until you mentioned him I had never heard of him. Good you mentioned him, when we hear of him next, we will know him.

    Manmohan Singh has brought a lot of change to India, not just as a PM but as a Finance Minister. His impact though is mostly at a policy level. I think we under-appreciate Sonia Gandhi for having the magnamity to step aside and let him handle the nation. But having said that he does not have the same galvanizing effect that a younger person can have. During the nuclear-deal debate, the others did not even allow him to speak. It is remarkable that he has held firm and a man of such honesty and dignity survived our political system. But a more impassioned person can force other politicians to change their dirty ways, which is something we need desperately.

  4. Very thought provoking post Vikram. As far as I am concerned, my ‘Obamamania’, for want of a better word, is primarily because he brings to the global arena a set of values which are quite different from the ones that any white leader has or would have brought. Obama, to me at least, does not signify something typically ‘American’ that needs to be replicated in India. If you have noticed, I have been mentioning in my posts that he has used Mahatma Gandhi’s message of ‘be the change you wish to see’ as his USP, but not just as an election gimmick. I have also been highlighting, among other ‘non-American’ things, that the Mahatma’s photo adorns his office.

    If an African-American can do that, it is a matter of pride for me as an Indian as well a matter of concern because these values have all but vanished here. As Nita has brought out, we had tall leaders immediately after Independence. But gradually, they were replaced by rulers, some of whose focus was and is on self and dynasty preservation and advancement, no matter how damaging the means adopted, for the nation.

    Obama’s sudden emergence on the global scene is a reminder to us that we too must find a leader who can deliver ‘the change we desperately need’. How can those who are responsible for creating the present situation and have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, deliver that change which will deliver India from them is something I cannot comprehend.

    Manmohan Singh is a man I truly admire, as you would have noticed from the many posts I have written in which he has figured. But, he cannot deliver what he is capable of because he is not a leader in the real sense of the word in a parliamentary form of democracy. In a Presidential form of government perhaps we would have seen him in full flow, but that change is not going to come in a hurry, it seems.

    Kiren Rijjiju sounds very sensible, and appears to have the makings of great leader. You impressive comparative analysis is quite illuminating. But, again, parliamentary form of democracy will not allow him to rise because he cannot bring more than a couple of MPs along.

    There are many others outside the political arena too who have it in them, Narayanamurthy, Nilekani, Sunil Mittal, even Saurav Ganguly, on whom I have done a post, to name a few.

    If the rise of Obama has generated a debate in India and given rise to a call for change, it is a good development. I only hope that it results in India getting the kind of leadership that in needs and deserves.

    We have to salute Manmohan Singh for just having the strength to even stay in our dirty politics, but like you said he is a thinker not a mobilizer. And yes, the arrival of Obama has hopefully raised the expectations people all over the world have from their leaders. Not just Obama, but the entire African American struggle has taken a lot of Gandhi, which is something we can be proud of.

  5. Vikram, the interview I did was actually for a freelance assignment and whatever I write for those assignments usually I cannot put up on the web.

  6. @ Vikram : I don’t want to be seen as bragging but my parents, grandfather and great grandfather did pretty well for themselves. My great grandfather was an Indian diplomat, my grandfather a civil servant and an engineer in Imperial India. My father was a fullbright scholar and between my parents who have 10 degrees in between them I seem fairly illiterate when I compare my 2 1/2 to them. So I don’t know what you meant 🙂

    I didnt mean you specifically, but in general a (fairly large) section of the Indian populace. Also I meant more in in terms of attitudes towards women and your social views in general rather than economic and career achievement. I should have perhaps been clearer.

  7. […] a search to look for the Indian Obama (if there is such a thing), Vikram evaluates the four possible choices [via]. Feel free to agree/disagree or add your own choice even if he is your local […]

  8. […] Vikram feels that the Obama-mania sweeping urban English-speaking Indians is perhaps a good thing in the sense that it atleast got them thinking about Indian ‘Obamas.’ […]

  9. It’s a stretchy suggestion – MS Dhoni. I do not want to look at it frm a political angle, rather from a populist one. He has come up frm a humble background and has suceeded to a large extend in his endeavours. On the way, he shown excellent leadership traits as well.

  10. I would suggest Sachin pilot is the suitable candidate for that…but In india, Sachin can’t do without Congress party…Congress would support Rahul instead of Sachin in this case koz family politics…

  11. Funny, how there’s no woman on your list. I did presume that we’re a less misogynistic country than the United States, and therefore more accepting of femal politicians, and that in a nation of 1 billion, there’s at least one inspirational woman somewhere?

  12. 2 years ago how many knew the existence of obama?Today he is the grammy of all “change” (with all respect due )

    we are looking for somebody to be the “obama” for us to help us feel elated and feel the tears of joy?! Obama won a successful campaign with great managers, who might also be his image makers. So what are we evaluating here with comparison to obama on campaign terms ?!

    On another note Rijiju’s take on things seem to sound secure in india’s new identity of a confident country ( only what i read.) May be many should hear him. Have you heard Rijiju speak? or Have you worked with him or know somebody who has worked with him. Or Is he because he is not associated to any dynastic name that we don’t hear him as much as we need to…

  13. I would just like to say this:

    Had the first three been not born in political family, would they be able to stand on their own in politics??????

    I have no idea about the fourth one….but good point though from the writer….

  14. Do check out Rijiju’s videos on Youtube put up here:
    The guy speaks damn well, his Hindi is sharp too. Hoping we see more of him in the times to come.

  15. Arby, KVR, slv, Manan, Salil, welcome to my blog and thanks for comments.

    Arby: I was looking more at politicians who can bring change to India’s ineffective politics, Dhoni is a cricketer whom I dont know much about, he would be a good role model but not necessarily a good political leader.

    KVR: Yes, Sachin is a better leader than Rahul Gandhi for sure. But he is inexperienced at this point and so far has not connected with the broader public.

    slv: I am sorry 🙂 , the only young female political leader I can think about is Agatha Sangma, but she is quite young and is yet to step out of her father’s shoes.

    Manan: Most likely not. The fourth one did rise on his own and thats probably why you never heard about him.

    Salil: Thanks for the link. He is a good speaker, just needs a good platform.

  16. Anrosh, if you click on the link Salil provided, you will get to a youtube channel which has some speeches by Rijiju.

  17. India is a Parliamentary democracy. So political parties are more important than individuals. Policies of the Party to which a leader belong to is the crucial factor. Why nobody in the blogosphere discussing the policies? Obama won mainly because of his health and economic policies.

    Very true about India Charakan although I dont agree with the Obama statement. Parties are surely more important than individuals but individuals matter too. I did not mean to stay that any one of these guys would ‘solve’ India’s political problems, but just wanted to compare a few upcoming politicians.

  18. Vikram,

    Thanks for blogging about Rijju. I will track his progress with interest from now on.

    But Rahul, Pilot and Abdullah would have been nobodys if they were not born into political dynasties.I shudder to even think of Rahul Gandhi as a future PM of India, though I know he will claim his birthright 🙂

    What about Mayawati, btw? She doesn’t have a dynasty, and she has come from the grassroots level.She has administrative experience.And she is able to weave a broad-based coalition of communities.

    Yes, Mayawati might actually be a very viable candidate for future PM. But I wanted to compare younger people who could appeal more to the middle-class youth. I doubt any of these guys could appeal to Dalit voters.

  19. Thanks for pointing me to this Vikram… I really like the sound of this guy. The tragedy is that success in Indian politics depends on intra-party politicking rather than talent. And if he does manage to make it to the top, by the time he gets there he’ll be so unrecognizable that he won’t be worth this post. I hope I’m wrong but that’s the way it usually is.

    Somebody up thread talked about policies. Good point! You know why nobody talks about policies? Because it’s easier to treat the electorate like cattle and herd them along with a few well chosen slogans and resentments and then when you’re in power you can pretty much do anything. If you’re really interested in policies and would like to see more people talking about it, then bring it up yourself. Maybe Gandhi was having a bit of a look into the future when he said “be the change you want to be”… because nobody really cares otherwise.

    If someone is looking to use Obama as a template then I hope they use his bottom-up organizational model which I think was his biggest strength as well as the thing I found most inspiring. Throughout the elections, I would read first hand reports at 538 and by the end of it, even though I couldn’t vote in their elections, I came away feeling as though “we” had won something because it was such a community effort. It was the only time in my life that I’ve ever envied an American.

    I’ll keep an eye out for Rijju in the future.

  20. Hi, came hear thro’ Indiequill, and it was quite heartening to read about Rijju. .

    I also see Mayawati as a strong candidate in the future..Pilot, Gandhi and Abdullah are finally too urbane and unlikely to appeal to rural voters, the urban poor, marginalized communities, the way she can.

    However, why are we so euphoric about a guy who isn’t even in office yet? Shouldn’t we wait to see Obama actually do something before idolizing him ?

    • Welcome to the blog ! Yes, Mayawati is certainly a candidate. I do think that Pilot and Abdullah have some appeal in rural parts. Lets see what effect Abdullah has in the J&K polls. But you are right, they cant connect with the disadvantaged communities like Mayawati can, nor do they have the political acumen that she has.

      If you read my other post, you will realize that I have absolutely no illusions about Obama. This post was just to put forward some names for emerging leaders in India.

  21. Riiju seems to be an interesting guy. He should try to connect more with the Indian netizen community. This will definitely pay off in the very-near future. His blog is empty as it stands.

    I would be quite proud to have an Arunachali as a PM 🙂

  22. […] of his on youtube making arguments in the parliament) seems to be most impressive (More details in this article […]

  23. i invite you all to vote your indian obama on in not only voting but trying to develop the habit of voting objectively. where we build thoughts and then collate all thoughts into one broad view on each and every leader

  24. somebody has mentioned earlier in tis page tat Mayawati is a potential political leader…i dont think her as a strong political leader in terms of development as she is more concerned about her party’s image and her statues…rather than spending the same money on the development of neglected sugarcane industry of uttar pradesh……and a person who is quite reluctant to obey the orders of Supreme court is nt the rite person to rule a state..

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