Daya Varma


Obama has been the President of the US only since January 2009. Normally this is too short a time to judge a  new leader; yet given the impact of this change on world politics, it seems one has no choice but to judge him.  How does the Indian left judge Obama? Immanuel Wallerstein, a leading figure of the US Left offers a clue.



Given the central place of the United States in the world, what happens there is of significant concern to the  governments of all countries as well as to all political formations. The Indian left gives the impression of being  far more cognizant of the role of imperialism in Indian and world affairs than the left in general. It is no surprise  therefore that the election of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States has posed a bigger  puzzle for the Indian Left than did the victory of Congress over Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2004  elections.  Does it or does it not make a difference that George Bush has been replaced by Obama? To many,  especially the black people of America, the mere fact that Obama is as Afro-American as one can be is of utmost  significance. To others, the populist utterances of Obama regarding the American corporate world, taxation  policy, health and education, even if not fully implemented, make a difference. To the Indian left, however,  Obama merely represents a change in the face and not in substance. Subtle differences are of no political  consequence. Others look at these developments differently.   


For example, Immanuel Wallerstein (The Nation, March 23, 2008) summed up the left’s dilemma in the  following words: “The problem the left faces is nothing new. Such situations are standard fare. Roosevelt in  1933, Attlee in 1945, Mitterrand in 1981, Mandela in 1994, Lula in 2002 were all the Obamas of their place and  time. And the list could be infinitely expanded. What does the left do when these figures “disappoint,” as they all  must do, since they are all centrists, even if left of center?” Wallerstein goes on to argue that the attitude of the  left towards Obama should be should me similar to that of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil  towards Lula; they got Lula elected in 2002 and supported his re-election in 2006 despite all his failures.


There are many countries, some established and some in the making, who may be or wish to be imperialist but  the US, however, is in a different category. The US plays a role in practically everything in the world from the  anti-China crusade of Dalai Lama to “Israel’s right to defend itself by any means”. No president can change all of  these and probably none can change US policy towards Israel. Crucial as this is, it is unrealistic to assess Obama  only on the basis of his policy towards Israel. As far as India and Pakistan are concerned, it is very likely that  Obama will be a continuation of Bush. But then Bush was not particularly hostile towards India. May be neither  Bush nor Obama thinks in terms of economic or political domination of India; rather they wanted India as an  ally. In a narrow sense, whether the US promotes or opposes a policy of friendship between India and Pakistan is  a decisive factor in judging Obama. This obviously is not of primary significance for the left in the US.  However, the US left would be doing the right thing if it follows Wallerstein’s advice of patching together a  social movement to “press Obama openly, publicly and hard–all the time, and of course cheering him on when  he does the right thing. What we want from Obama is not social transformation. He neither wishes to, nor is able  to, offer us that. We want from him measures that will minimize the pain and suffering of most people right now.  That he can do, and that is where pressure on him may make a difference.” 

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