Barack Obama was in a thoughtful mood during the joint press conference with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday, his sharp mind clearly above the limited demands of conventional political engagement. Obama could not become a Philosopher-President during two turbulent terms in the White House, but as he enters the last lap he is clearly slipping into space that has been left vacant for a long while in American politics. Elected leaders anywhere have always—the odd exception apart—been intelligent. But few have been intellectual. Obama is soon going to become America’s youngest elder statesman.
There was evidence of this at this press conference. One journalist asked about US-Canada relations in case the obstreperous Donald Trump was elected. One wit has already advertised that Canada would be an excellent resettlement residence for Americans in such an eventuality. But as the Republican primaries roll closer towards a convention, and the Trump momentum continues, what began as a slightly off-colour joke is acquiring the proportions of a nightmare for many Americans.
Obama intervened to ruminate: how and why was the unthinkable entering into the realm of the possible? The reason, he said, was because ever since he had been elected, the Republican Party had created a culture of relentless negativity to everything he said or did. Nothing was treated on merit. Everything he did was wrong. Previous Presidents had faced criticism, no one had suffered such alienation. Obama did not use the word “hatred”, but he came close to suggesting this. He did not mention race, but there was an implied hint that he had been treated like a “usurper”. The Republicans found it impossible to accept the fact that he had been elected. They used lies as a weapon, not least being the canard about his birth certificate. Trump was a leader of this hysterical reaction, suggesting that Obama was twice an outsider: as a “non-American” and a “Muslim”. It is not an accident that Trump’s candidature is structured around the “threat” to America from outsiders, either Mexicans seeking jobs or Muslims seeking war.
Most Americans rejected this psychotic, delusional and dangerous narrative, which is why Obama got re-elected. But clearly a majority of Republicans did, which is why they have turned Trump into an idol despite his bizarre views and immature bravado. The Republican establishment is rubbing its eyes in disbelief, but Trump is also their creation. The politics of hysteria is a standard temptation when you are in Opposition, but no one survives the taste of a poisoned apple.
Will the Congress Party in our country ever realise that such hysterical negativity shapes itself quickly into a boomerang? There is something visceral, irrational and deeply personal in its relentless campaign against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Nothing he proposes is ever right, even if he offers something that was first suggested by Congress when it was in power. The GST Bill is only the most obvious example. Its rhetoric is angry; the party froths at the moth under its present leadership. Facts are subverted with an audacious disrespect for truth.
Take the immediate instance, where Congress is accusing the present government of abetting discredited tycoon Vijay Mallya’s flight from India. The simple truth is that it was Congress which permitted state-owned banks to keep pouring funds into Mallya’s Kingfisher airlines long after it had been deemed sick. I quote from one published report dated 21 February 2012, written by journalists S.P.S. Pannu and Sanjay Singh: State Bank of India “threw a Rs 1500-crore lifeline on Tuesday to keep billionaire Vijay Mallya’s sinking Kingfisher Airlines afloat in a move that amounts to throwing good money after bad. The income tax department also softened its stand and unfroze the airline’s bank accounts as part of bailout package for the loss-making carrier.” Congress fed Mallya with a platinum spoon. Action against him began only when the present government came to power. Mallya left in a hurry because he knew that he would not be able to “manage” the system anymore, that the banks had been instructed to close in upon him. The story is not over. The law has long hands, when those hands are protected by government, as Mallya will discover if he does not appear in court on the next due date.
The worry, as Obama pointed out, is not whether America will abandon both its values and common sense; but whether the Republican Party can recover from self-inflicted wounds. A democracy needs a relevant Opposition as much as a credible Government. Only fools, as the saying goes, rush in where angels fear to tread; and one strength of democracy is that it permits fools to become candidates. But electorates are not so lenient. Parties which suffer fools gladly, pay a heavy price in credibility.