Monday, November 08, 2010

Obama's Indian strategist?

An obscure Indian author claims to have steered Obama's campaign strategy.

By Jason Overdorf

NEW DELHI, India — As U.S. president Barack Obama makes his way from Mumbai to Delhi, an obscure Indian author is waiting for redemption. His name is Inder Dan Ratnu, and he believes that he deserves credit for the president's stunning landslide victory in 2008, as his third self-published novel, "First Lady President," outlines in detail the strategy behind Obama's "Yes, We Can" campaign.

Written in a month-and-a-half long torrent in 2003, "First Lady President" tells the story of the unlikely election victory of Beverly Hilton and her African-American running mate, Charak Sudama.

In the novel, Hilton selects Sudama as her running mate because she is impressed with an anti-war speech he delivers early in the campaign. But Ratnu believes that the real life inspiration for his African-American character lifted the ideas from that pivotal fictional speech to alter the outcome of the polls.

"He [Obama] was using these two, most powerful points mentioned there — in one of the most important chapters of the book, and underlined portions he was using — so I'm convinced that he used it," said Ratnu, who argues that Obama must have received his novel before forming his campaign strategy because it was sent to him by registered mail in April 2007 and not returned by the postal service.

Now, with Obama on his first trip to New Delhi, Ratnu hopes to get confirmation. Over the past two weeks, he has been trying to arrange meetings with Indian and foreign journalists to draw attention to his story. Obama's visit will focus on U.S.-Indian business relations and cooperation in counterterrorism efforts, but Ratnu hope to focus attention on his book.

"My aim is that somebody here, while he is here, should ask during the press conference this question, and let us see what is his reply," Ratnu said. "Most likely is he will say, 'Well, it is a news for me.' Because he's not that naive that he will say I have drawn inspiration from this book. No politician can do that. But who knows, he may say yes. That would be a blessing for me."

A former bank officer who worked for 23 years at the Bank of India, 60-year-old Ratnu hails from a small village near Jaisalmer, in the bleak Thar Desert of Rajasthan. Educated by a government teacher in classes held under a tree, he describes himself as "a topper, right through college," where he studied agriculture. Having attended Hindi-medium schools, he taught himself English by listening to BBC radio and memorizing the speeches of Winston Churchill — five hours of which he could once recite "word by word." He has not made a penny from the sale of his three novels and one non-fiction book — burning through his life-savings of around $10,000 to see them published and promoted. And he admits that "First Lady President," too, has so far been a commercial failure, even though he did prevail upon American Michael Burchett, who was at the time trying to start an editing/publishing business, to do a 100-copy test printing in the U.S.

"Fortunately, Inder himself was able to rouse sufficient advance interest in the book to allow me to recoup my costs," Burchett said in an email.

Whatever the merits of the author's story, the story of the author is remarkable.

With nothing more than a political intuition sharpened by Churchill and the BBC, Ratnu claims, he crafted a crucial campaign speech for Charak Sudama that bears striking similarities to the rhetoric of the Obama campaign, including its central message.

"The call for change is very famous, you know," Ratnu said. "That was the lady's speech in the book, which he [Obama] also adopted for himself. She said, and that is underlined, she says, 'It will not be a mere change of the gender of the White House, it will be a genuine change of the quality of life of the American people.'"

Many of the specifics of that change, including reforming social security, eliminating the budget deficit, and focusing on alternative energy, are also mentioned in the fictional speech, he adds, leafing through the novel and then quoting, "'We will in a big way develop alternative and cleaner sources of energy,' yet another point. Obama used it all. 'So we are not held hostage' — he used these very words, look! — 'So we are not held hostages by some oil companies or any nation or any region.' He used these very words, I tell you, in some of his speeches."

A member of the charan caste — bards who once sang the exploits of his region's warrior kings — Ratnu wears a white, Rajasthani-style kurta-pajama, graying from repeated washings, plastic-framed spectacles and a brilliant pink, green, purple and orange turban. He has a neat mustache — modest by Rajasthani standards — and he speaks in a soft, resonant voice that drops to a husky whisper when his tale comes to a dramatic point. It was Churchill who inspired his writing efforts, though, and one senses his admiration for the British leader's bombastic oratory in his penchant for underlining and capitalization, as when he describes the evolution of the title of his latest book.

"It [his intuition] became so strong and heavy that I could no longer hold it with me," Ratnu writes on his web site. "I had to pass it on to my publisher with a revelation that I intended to write a book in the future entitled — First Lady PRESIDENT is first LADY PRESIDENT. In due course following due consideration I changed it to First Lady President, highlighting the double meaning of the original title through font and color."

Ratnu is also somewhat prone to hyperbole, describing a question-and-answer book he penned about Churchill as something "nobody has ever tried in the western world" and occasionally referring to Burchett, who also printed his earlier novel about the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, as "my American editor." But it's impossible to fault his perseverance or to resist his sincerity, and, believe it or not, he does seem to have a track record of prescience.

"I'm more accurate than Nostradamus," he said. "What Nostradamus wrote were the stanzas, the verses, which were poetic, and people made conclusions out of it." In contrast, Ratnu's predictions are specific.

In his second novel, for instance, first titled "Ultimate Defense Against Impeachment" and later shortened to "The Ultimate Defense," Ratnu predicted Clinton's impeachment and outlined many of the arguments the president and his accusers would use during the proceedings. (That novel, too, might have influenced history, had it been read by any of the dozen senators or the chief justice to whom Ratnu sent complimentary copies).

And prior to the election of George W. Bush in 2000, Ratnu predicted the second Gulf War and toppling of Saddam Hussein, writing, "Make no mistake, in the event of the election of George W. Bush to the presidency of the United States, there is certainly going to be another round of Gulf War. ... I sincerely believe that even if Saddam, in view of the potential danger to his existence, restrains himself and offers the younger Bush no provocation, George W. in turn is likely to maneuver Saddam into making one, thus clearing the road for a second round of armed conflict."

When the events of his third novel looked to be coming true as well, Ratnu decided to take matters into his own hands. After mailing his novel to Obama, he traveled to the United States in 2008 to attend the Democratic Convention and — unwittingly somewhat in the manner of Sascha Baron-Cohen's Borat — seek out Hillary Clinton and Senator John McCain to provide them with his advice.

In Washington, a vigilant bus driver reported him as a terror suspect and he had to talk his way past a cordon of policemen before he could meet McCain staffers — to whose incredulous looks he explained that the running mate of McCain's fictional analogue was a white woman a scant six days before McCain named Sarah Palin. But the real adventures came in New York.

There, Ratnu managed to secure a meeting with Mary DeBree, Hillary's director of outreach, which he attended, as he does all his activities, in his white kurta-pajama and rainbow-colored turban.

"To my surprise, I found that she was not much interested in talking to us," Ratnu said. "Finally, I said, 'Look, there are two points in this book, which are very powerful, the call for change and anti-war, which I think the rival of Hillary Clinton is using.' I didn't mention to her, frankly, that I had sent a copy to Mr. Obama, but I just said he's using two points which are very powerful and they happen to be in this book also, and I think he can bring down your candidate with those points. She just smiled and said, 'Gentlemen, we appreciate you wrote a book, but we know American politics better than you do.'"

The cell number that Ratnu has for DeBree — published on his web site, incidentally — was not accepting calls. But the associate who accompanied him to the Clinton campaign office, Ramesh Gathoria of the Indian-American Intellectuals Forum, confirmed the gist of his story, though when asked if he had read the novel himself, he said, "Not completely, but a little bit, yeah. Mostly, I have heard from his mouth."

Questions also remain regarding whether Clinton read the copy of "First Lady President" that Ratnu left for her.

"It did not even reach Hillary Clinton," Ratnu said, who suspects that the first chapter White House sex scene between the former president and president-elect prompted the Clinton staff to deep six the novel.

"If it had reached, it would have made a difference. I'm certain about it. ... It is in details, the bedroom scene, so they must have felt repelled by that. They didn't see the useful things lying ahead in the book," he said.

So far, Ratnu has received much the same treatment from the White House, where he estimates he has sent a dozen or so letters, and CNN and the BBC, where he says the Indian staff downed shutters when they saw his turban coming. But if by some quirk of fate he does secure a meeting with the president he believes he helped elect, Obama might do well to listen to his next prediction — which sees Obama stepping aside after a single term and helping to put Hillary in office unless he can follow Ratnu's unpublished prescriptions for stopping Osama bin Laden. And those aren't going to come to light anytime soon.

"That I will not tell to any reporter, ever," Ratnu said, his voice dropping to a whisper. "I will tell it only to one man, the president."

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