What Indian Politicians Can Learn from Michelle Obama’s Powerful Memoir “Becoming”

Politics

What Indian Politicians Can Learn from Michelle Obama’s Powerful Memoir “Becoming”

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

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y first memory of Michelle Obama is the one that she describes early on in her recently released memoir Becoming. When the Obamas moved into the White House in 2009, I was 13, with no understanding of American politics. But I knew something big was happening when I found my mama glued to the TV, where footage of the first African-American President and his family kept replaying. It was then that I first heard the name of a certain Michelle Obama.

To me, she was just a nice, tall lady who was married to the President of the United States. Ten years on, while reading the book, much to my amusement, those were the exact words she used to describe what she thought children thought of her when they met her for the first time.

As I grew older, my idea of Michelle Obama grew along with it. From just the tall lady, she became the coolest person in politics. She made us weep with her words on some days and on others, made us lol with her car karaoke. She became a millennial favourite – the fist-bumping, kickboxing First Lady who had all the swag to match her sincerity, who left behind a legacy of empathy.

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She became a millennial favourite – the fist-bumping, kickboxing First Lady who had all the swag to match her sincerity.

Image Credits: NBC News

So when her memoir Becoming hit bookshelves I rushed to get a copy, the way Salman Khan fans rush to Gaiety Galaxy for an Eid release. Becoming is one of those books that sticks with you; entire passages jump out, forcing you to introspect about things that you think are seemingly routine. “Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own,” she writes, letting us know that it’s important to know yourself.

While I’d pretty much recommend the book to anyone I know, the people I thought of the most were our politicians, who could borrow a leaf or two from Becoming, a lesson in empathy, endurance, and elegance.

Lesson 1: Community activist first, politician later

Michelle Obama did not really like politicians or politics for most of her life. “I didn’t much appreciate politicians and therefore didn’t relish the idea of my husband becoming one,” she writes. And never really turned into one, according to her. “Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.”

The belief that the Obamas as a couple and as individuals are there to serve those around them, and not as mere governing bodies, is a lesson in humility that most of our leaders need today. Arvind Kejriwal is that community activist that India had pinned its hopes on. Riding on the anti-corruption wave, he came to power in Delhi in 2013. But six years on, Kejriwal’s popularity has declined. According to a survey by Pew Research Centre, a US-based fact-tank, in 2015, the “favourable view” for Kejriwal among Indians was 60 per cent, but fell to 39 per cent in 2017.

Barack Obama too started off as a community organiser, but as he himself admitted, compromise is the key to bringing about change.

Barack Obama too started off as a community organiser, but as he himself admitted, compromise is the key to bringing about change. During his tenure, the President made big compromises – on healthcare legislation, foreign policy, immigration. So you might have to take a step behind to take two significant steps forward. 2019 is the year for Kejriwal to reexamine and establish AAP as a national party. Will he be up to the challenge?

Lesson 2: “When they go low, we go high”

Throughout her book, the former First Lady speaks about how, whenever things got hard, she had an anthem to go back to: “When they go low, we go high.” This is her life’s mantra to speak out “against bullies while not stooping to their level.”

Her words became a moral code of sorts for Democrats during the 2016 presidential campaign to counter a bitter, babbling Donald Trump. Rahul Gandhi could take some inspiration from her. The BJP, especially PM Modi, has been virulent in its attack on the Congress chief, much of it deserved. During his rallies ahead of the 2014 campaign, the PM rarely called Rahul by his name – instead he referred to him as “shehzada”, mocking his lineage; since RaGa’s elevation, the new moniker “naamdar” became au courant.

Name-calling might be par for the course in Indian politics, but it often goes too far. In a cryptic tweet BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya recently said, “A foreign woman’s offspring can never think of national interest,” and refused to apologise. How different are the folks running two of India’s biggest political parties from the guy who sits in the White House, who is insensitive and callous in his attacks?

But when the BJP goes low, which it often does, it’s time to go high – that’s a lesson that could do Rahul good. And this does not translate to asking the Prime Minister to “be a man”.  

Lesson 3: Girls run the world: How to build a women’s network

“I am an example of what is possible when girls from the very beginning of their lives are loved and nurtured by people around them. I was surrounded by extraordinary women in my life who taught me about quiet strength and dignity,” Michelle Obama writes.

Now that’s some food for thought not only for women politicians in our country but for women leaders the world over – to build a community or network to help other women learn, rise, and speak up. So it doesn’t really help when Union minister Smriti Irani refers to MJ Akbar, accused of sexual assault by multiple women, as a gentleman. India’s #MeToo movement has been spearheaded by its women – but there has been a glaring lack of support from the country’s powerful women, its politicians. The campaign against sexual harassment would have gained even further momentum if backed by Irani and other women netas, but she chose to be politically correct and give her BJP colleague the benefit of doubt.  

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“I am an example of what is possible when girls from the very beginning of their lives are loved and nurtured by people around them.” – Michelle Obama

Image Credits: First Lady-Archived/Twitter

In the past too, our women politicians have not hesitated to display their insensitivity. Who can forget Mamata Banerjee calling the Park Street rape a “shajano ghotona (a fabricated case)” or Sheila Dikshit reducing the Delhi gang rape to “only one rape case”? The same holds true for the fight to enter Kerala’s Sabarimala Temple. Other than token statements from Maneka Gandhi and Delhi Commission for Women chief Swati Maliwal, our women leaders have been largely mum, even as average women got out of their homes and marched toward the temple to overturn the centuries-old “tradition”.

“When you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed,” writes Obama. Hope our women politicians are listening.

Lesson 4: Get out there

“If you don’t get out there and define yourself you’ll be quickly and accurately defined by others and would never be able to snap out of the image and gain their complete confidence,” Obama writes, as she recalls how the American media largely labelled her an “angry black woman” and how she had to actively work toward negating the sentiment.

Back home, Rahul Gandhi can probably relate to this. As Michelle Obama points out “optics governed more or less everything in the political world”. Self-presentation is important. Mrs O took criticism in her stride and went from the “angry black woman” to the darling of the world. What will it really take for Rahul to go from Baba to Badshah of Indian politics? A win in 2019, yes, but now is the time to really “get out there”, change perceptions. Upping your Twitter game, is a small step.

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