Barack Obama is telegenic, carries himself well and has a beautiful voice and it all comes through in this video. It’s beautifully made. But I wonder if the half-hour-long infomercial would have clicked in India.
It reminds me of Indira Gandhi in her glory days when she was deified as a goddess. “Indira is India,” proclaimed billboards and posters showing a smiling Indira Gandhi waving reassurance to the nation. She was charismatic and the undisputed queen of India in the early 70s when she led her Congress party to a landslide victory after the Bangladesh war.
“Garibi Hato” — “wipe out poverty” – was her political slogan. She could not end poverty, but she amended the constitution, became intolerant of her critics, imposed a state of emergency, muzzled the press and arrested opposition leaders.
Americans will be familiar with a similar story, All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren. Willie Stark had his redeeming features, as did Indira Gandhi. She never sought riches, never even owned a house. She did care for the poor. She had excellent taste. She showed India’s technological prowess by carrying out a peaceful nuclear test. I hated it at the time. But it certainly made an impression on the world. And her critics were no angels.
I did not like her criticism of the West. But India was forced to devalue the rupee after she went to visit President Johnson seeking food aid, I read in a biography of her, and it hurt her badly. She regained her popularity only during the Bangladesh war. President Nixon dispatched the Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal during the war as an ally of Pakistan. That was when she signed the Indo-Soviet pact as a countermeasure.
She was courageous, too, and it killed her. She was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards after she sent in the army to fight Sikh separatists in the Golden Temple. She should have changed her guards, it was said afterwards. But she didn’t.
Love her or hate her, there’s no doubt about her charisma and her enduring legacy. Even today, more than 20 years after her death, her Congress party is still led by her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi.
Such personality cults can’t be dismissed as a Third World phenomenon. Washington already has, according to the historian Arthur Schlesinger, an imperial presidency. A charismatic leader adored by the press and the public could very well become an undisputed leader like Indira Gandhi. He could, of course, do a power of good like Franklin Roosevelt.