President Obama's farewell address touched upon most dangers that the United States now stares at. It is clearly transforming from an open, inclusive society to one that will change under a new President who made his stance clear, at least on the issue of immigrants, free trade and foreign policy. The economy has shown some signs of recovering but with the inward looking policy that Trump promises, prospects of growth are hampered. Also, with the new administration clearly speaking out against outsourcing and importing labour, costs of production in the US are set to rise. It is a very uncertain future for the global economy when its largest economy starts regressing and going back to thinking of a world that does not believe in globalization once again.
President Obama’s most important message was that race relations, income inequality and the state of political discourse had become threats to the fabric of the republic. Sadly, that is exactly the situation in India now. The only difference is that race in North America is replaced by religion and caste in the Indian context. And the one problem that the US does not have is the gender discrimination that is rampant in India.
Obama talked about how important it was that all forms of discrimination be addressed. He specifically talked about upholding the various laws against discrimination in recruitment, housing, education and the criminal justice system. Each of these is a serious problem in India with the Dalits and Muslims facing the brunt of each of these kinds of discrimination. While there are harsh laws against discrimination that apply to behavior against the Scheduled castes, these are often not implemented well leading to very low rates of conviction.
As for discrimination against Muslims, it is only recently that such practices have even been acknowledged. However, there is no law in place that can be used to punish any such discriminatory practice. The Constitution guarantees equal rights to everyone in India, but as Obama mentioned in his own context, it is not enough to have laws. Hearts must change, he emphasized. And nowhere is it more pertinent than in election bound India where religious polarization has recently been key to success for both national and regional parties.
The election in 2014 in India brought to light a new feature of India’s politics and a new economic reality. That was one where disgruntled youth appeared frustrated over stagnation of growth and increasing unemployment. This youth could easily be won over using a narrative that addressed their helplessness. In the US, Obama said it is the unemployed white man, who from the outside may seem like he's got all the advantages but who's seen his world upended by economic, cultural and technological change. In India it has been the upper caste and the upwardly mobile backward class who saw a corrupt political system frustrate ambitions of increased income growth. This dominant class found solace in an aggressive nationalistic agenda that promised change keeping the majority population at the centre of change.
What is refreshing about Obama’s speech is an acknowledgement that the US continues to treat its minorities badly. He addressed the fact that vulnerable sections of society, like the immigrants, face threats to their life and liberty even now. Obama made it a point to argue that all Americans must start with the premise that each fellow citizen loves this country just as much as the other. He underlined the fact that patriotism and loyalty must not be questioned. He highlighted the fact that all Americans value hard work and family; that all children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as any.
He then went on to admit that the world has several problems now. The violent fanatics who claim to speak for the Islamic cause have caused massive death and destruction across the globe. There are those, and he was referring to Euro sceptics and protectionists in various countries, who see free markets, open democracies, and civil society itself as a threat to their power. These are really dangerous and we can see many such people in India. The rising tendency to see NGOs as rabble rousers and trouble makers is a clear indication that the same dictatorial tendencies that rock China and North Korea could manifest themselves here. Slogans that hail the various make in India and buy in India campaigns fall in the same category of protectionist thought that makes free trade around the world suffer.
Obama could easily have been speaking for us in India when he reiterated the fear of change that exists in the USA. A fear of people, he said, who look different or talk a different language. He highlighted the absence of the rule of law that makes leaders in all walks of life accountable. He warned his people against intolerance of dissent and free thought. The speech was as much for all that is altering in the US, that has stood for a strong democratic tradition for more than two centuries, as it was for dictatorial tendencies that are creeping up around the world.
Obama in his farewell address talked about stark inequality being corrosive to democratic ideas. He talked about how the nation must view minority protests correctly. When marginalized groups stand up in protest, they are not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that the founding fathers and the Constitution promised. In India, when civil society groups and NGOs protest against atrocities against Dalits, violence against Muslims or damage to the environmental, they increasingly are seen as being engaged in seditious activity that harms the interest of the nation. President Obama differs with this view, absolutely and completely.