» News » 'Obama won't change the world'

'Obama won't change the world'

November 04, 2010 11:49 IST
Political psychologist Ashis Nandy assesses Barack Obama ahead of his India visit.

Ashis Nandy, the leading political psychologist, social critic, and sociologist is a lucid thinker on violence, civilisational changes and human conscience.

In this interview with's Sheela Bhatt, Nandy discusses Barack Obama and his leadership.

How do you look at Obama's leadership at this moment of the 21st century?

Obama's leadership has two dimensions: Symbolic significance and political significance.

As far as the symbolic significance goes, I think it is a major event of the 21st century that an African American, who comes from a minority of something like 10 per cent in the US, won the presidency despite the terrible history of Blacks, starting from slavery. So, it is a major symbolic victory.

It is a major re-negotiation by Americans with their past.

As far as the political significance goes, I am afraid it is much less important. In the sense that Obama is also a product of the American political system and American political institutionalisation.

He is a politician and he inherits some of the strengths and weaknesses of the system.

He is an elegant speaker. But in politics elegance of the speech is hardly ever a guide to performance. He has shown us that unless one has the necessary political skill to push through your agenda, ultimately you end up only as a colourful speaker.

You ultimately end up as -- I don't like using this term -- a hollow public figure.

What is it that led you to form this opinion?

I think the American people are deeply disappointed with him because he has not been able to extricate America completely from the Iraq war yet. It is a very unpopular war.

He has not been able to pull Americans out of the recession that the US economy is facing.

To be fair to him he inherited these liabilities. But so far, he has not projected the US president as a leader who is determined to get his way.

Even the healthcare bill is a watered down version of what he wanted. People were expecting more from him.

Whoever has read books by and on him can easily conclude he is a cerebral man with distinct characteristics. What is your reading?

Is he ideology-driven, pragmatic or something else?

He is not at all an ideologue. He is a pragmatist politician. There is a very strong tradition of that kind of pragmatism in American politics. But, as far as his handling of political issues goes, despite his pragmatism, he has not been able to handle it well.

I also don't think he has any pronounced ideology. His ideology is practical and primarily shaped by the pragmatic requirement of politics.

Broadly, he is within the Democratic party's framework. To that extent you can say he has broadly outlined his ideology. His ideology's contents are flexible.

His approach to ideology is flexible. He is not an ideologue by any means. He might have some kind of tacit ideology and a vague concept of what is a good vision for America.

He is a very intelligent person, but that doesn't mean he is an intellectual. He is an intelligent person with some intellectual skills. And, I think, he has made the best use of it.

I don't consider him intellectually as accomplished as Adlai Stevenson (the late stalwart of the Democratic party).

I doubt sometimes if he can even be compared to someone like Jesse Jackson. I see more substance in him (Jackson). He didn't have Obama's finesse. Even Jackson is charismatic and is a brilliant speaker.

In the last two years, what are your other observations of Obama? What is your reading of his commitment to America and the world?

It is very difficult to say. I don't think any practising politician has this kind of commitment.

Politics is the art of the possible. And practising politicians, the good ones, do have some kind of vague vision to which they give substance according to what they can possibly do.

Till now, I don't think Obama has manged to find that kind of substance to his vision.

It is easy to say he is better than George Bush. I would agree with that. But that by itself means little. George Bush is not much of competition.

I agree Obama's speeches are very moving and well-crafted. He is intellectually much sharper than Bush. Still, I won't consider him a good enough politician.

Politics is not an intellectual game, leadership is. Obama is functioning in a highly institutionalised society.

It is very difficult to create space for your vision and beliefs. It needs enormous political skill to push it through. I don't think he has it to that extent.

He charted his path to the White House in just four years. He could not have done that without it.

He couldn't have become the president of the United States without political skill, but he doesn't have the political skill to pursue his programmes and make a great success of it. I think Bill Clinton did better.

Don't you think you are premature in saying this? It is possible that this phase is just the first part of his vision.

But the way it is going, he may not get a second chance.

Keeping in mind his idols and his inspirations like Mahatma Gandhi, how do you see Obama emerging as a world leader?

I think Obama is a lovable character. He is a likable man. He is intellectually alert. He has a humane vision of the world, but not enough.

You expect from the American president to push an agenda. He has a different kind of obligation because to some extent when you are the American president, you are the world's president.

You can't say I speak very well, I am an intellectual, I have a lovely vision of the world...

You have to able to say whatever my vision is. I will start with a few small things. I will accomplish it and move on to larger things.

Here, in his first term he has got bogged down. Despite having so much goodwill and such huge popularity he is facing trouble.

Why don't you consider these things: He is fundamentally anti-war. He could mange a diluted healthcare bill. He even spoke against Wall Street like a left-of-centre politician.

I don't care if he is left-of-centre or right-of-centre.

I would like to believe I am not a leftist. I am a radical.

His healthcare bill is not what he envisaged. I think a politically skilled president could have gone much further. He is not setting the pace. The US system is spacing the pace.

Within the system he is just angling for leeway. A more competent politician would have created that space out of the system without others knowing that he is changing the system.

He could not stop the war. He could not stop the torture. He could not stop illegal prisoners. The US system is so strong.

But he spoke out against Wall Street.

He spoke against Wall Street because they were so unpopular that even Bush would have spoken against the mangers of Wall Street.

On non-proliferation, the Republicans and Democrats are almost the same. Bush gave an exceptional favour to India but the Republicans are against proliferation.

What then is failing him?

The systems in the US are so institutionalised that Obama should know how to work through it and get your agenda succeed. He has lost that skill. That is all.

I am glad he has arrived. The symbolism is all there. But I have to admit that a lot of his country's citizens, including many of his followers, are disappointed with him.

He has reduced the numbers of the Democrats in the Senate and Congress. That is also part of his story.

Why is Bush more popular than Obama in India?

That is a nationalist fling. I don't take it seriously. I don't judge Bush by that criteria at all.

How do you see his thinking on India?

I don't know. I wish his views were positive. I think he is not as starry eyed about India as George Bush was. But within some limits he would like to do good to India.

You think he is a pragmatic leader...

Without pragmatism he would not have been here. But I think he is not a great political leader.

What he represents in the American political culture is more important than substance.

Why do I sense anguish in your voice while talking about Obama?

It is not anguish because I didn't expect much. I am a sceptic in a way.

I doubted how one person could change the rules of the game within a fully institutionalised democracy like America. I had my doubts and I was expecting little.

I can't go gaga over his achievements. I don't see any achievement, frankly.

I must say he is a good president for his country, but I don't think he will change the course of the world.

Also See: Complete Coverage: Obama in India