Monday, March 20, 2023

Yes, we can’t

The victory of the underdog in such an unforgiving society is something that fires your imagination. But there's more behind this elation than merely the colour of Obama's skin.

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Much stirring prose has already been written by much better writers on Barack Obama’s victory speech at Chicago, so I had better focus on a couple of the more substantive aspects of the change in the US. America has had many charismatic presidents in the past. But even in times when it was a much more pre-eminent power nobody tugged at the heart-strings of non-Americans around the world like he does.

Why? Is it just because of his race? Yes, the victory of the underdog in so fiercely competitive and unforgiving a society is something that fires your imagination immediately. But there is more behind this global sense of elation than merely the colour of Obama’s skin. It is also the fact that after Bush had made them detest and fear America for nearly seven years now, people around the world have welcomed Obama with a sense of relief. Here is an American leader who’s so positive, so forthcoming and so lovable. Not angry or bitter and always seeking revenge, as George Bush had begun to sound after 9/11.

Obama has still to prove himself as a leader but he has already comforted us all with his choice of words. He has never come across as being soft on terrorism, or even on his country’s engagement in Iraq or Afghanistan. In fact, even in his victory speech he mentioned both in a manner which, substantively, was not pacifist.

But his phraseology is entirely inoffensive, in complete contrast with George Bush’s. We will smoke ’em out, either you are with us or with the terrorists, the axis of evil, history begins now — these were all Bush’s lines, all arrogant, crude, in-your-face lines that embarrassed his allies, scared those who could only afford to be neutral, and gave added moral and ideological justification to his enemies.

Obama knows he has to continue in earnest with the war Bush started, but without offending the world like he did. Even the sole superpower cannot win its battles by making the whole world hate its guts. He knows his ethnicity, his upbringing and, most of all, his middle name will help draw out some of that venom. But he also knows that the American people will be watching him closely, that they haven’t exactly voted a bleeding heart, softie apologist to presidency.

For so many of us, in the non-white world, there is a special feeling of joy and satisfaction that an African-American has risen to the US presidency. But he has not done so because of some affirmative action, or because of some political deal-making of the kind that elevates a Gowda (or, tomorrow, Mayawati) to India’s prime ministership. Obama has fought a series of open political battles to first win his own party’s nomination, and then 52 per cent of the popular vote. And while his being African-American is a factor, most Americans have voted for him not because they wanted a change of “colour”.

They have voted for him because they wanted fundamental change in the way their country was governed, and in the way they are viewed in the world. All of the world sympathised with America after 9/11. But Bush blew it within weeks, using the language of the street-side goonda. He ran a foreign policy that was exclusionist, bitter and angry.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was the first to point out the damage he was causing when she, in a brilliant article in Foreign Affairs, accused him of running the most ideological foreign policy in America’s history. His references to the Crusades and the language of a crusader only weakened his allies in the Islamic world. Obama has to change all that; and yet he has to continue fighting the same enemy with as much intensity, if not more.

His voters know that too. They are by no means giving up the fight against terror, but they would rather do it without becoming the most hated country around the world. So they have chosen a man who could heal, lead, fight and deliver. Obama ran a brilliant campaign and spoke so well, he could have won the presidency of the world. But his real success lay in choosing the moment when America wanted change, and then presenting himself as the one man who could promise that better than any other, particularly Hillary Clinton (to their own partymen) who was seen more as a continuation of the Democratic past.

Also read: In wishing Mahatma Gandhi were alive, Obama echoes all the world’s liberals

But the Americans took such a leap of faith for change because their political and intellectual system did not allow the national debate to degenerate into race or religion. It stayed at a level that was relevant to today’s voters, and vital to their children’s future. And once the question was presented like that, the choice between Obama and McCain was a no-brainer. The people of America and their leaders debated these substantive issues, their place in the world, the war against terror, the dismal state of their economy through the campaign, concluded that change was required and then boldly chose the one man who seemed most qualified to bring it about.

This turn in American politics, unfortunately, also underlines for us the way ours has degenerated over the past few years. India’s economy has boomed; our tech entrepreneurs are the envy of the world; our new, self-confident and skilled manpower gives us an exaggerated respect around the world. But has our politics kept pace with it?

For nearly two months now, India has also been battling the global financial crisis. But the responses of our political class would make you feel it was something confined to foreign lands. A short session of Parliament was held at the peak of this crisis, but our MPs seemed more concerned about communal or caste votebank issues. Nobody moved an adjournment motion or demanded a statement by the prime minister on the economic crisis — but there were adjournments over Raj Thackeray’s statements.

Only the BJP issued a statement that even the media ignored, because their focus too was petty, tu-tu-main-main politics. The Left claimed their blocking of reform in the financial sector had saved India. Before you debate that claim, you have to first ask them if and how they are so sure India has already been “saved”. What will be the consequences, for example, if growth were to actually fall to 6 per cent or thereabouts next year as the IMF predicts?

In America, a contraction of 0.5 per cent over two quarters is considered recession. But that is when you calculate backwards from average growth rates of 2-3 per cent. In India, if you go back from 9.5 to 6 per cent, you lose the same 3.5 percentage points of growth and it will feel like a recession as well, particularly in terms of job-creation. Is that the centre-point of our national political debate today?

Our politics is now falling dangerously behind the curve. A chief minister with a two-thirds majority lost his showpiece industrial project, the stock market lost 60 per cent of its value, industrial growth is faltering, exports are losing steam and the rupee value. And yet, what is the most fiery political debate consuming our national financial capital? It is whether or not its Bihari settlers can celebrate the Chhat festival safely.

This is the issue that dominated the minds of the ruling UPA in New Delhi. In its neighbourhood, a gang of Hindus has been caught for carrying out bombings directed at Muslims. The gang, it seems, also involves former army officers — and yet the BJP, the party that goes blue in the face demanding an Israel-like tough response to terrorism, calls them “cultural nationalists”.

Surely, India needs change, and India too needs a leader like Obama, who would give us new hope, strike chords that resonate with ours, and deliver us from the pettiness of our political discourse. But, given the state of our politics and the intellectual bankruptcy of our leaders across party lines, change of that kind would seem an impossibility. We, therefore, seem condemned to watching change come about elsewhere, and applauding from the sidelines.

Also read: Obama’s book raises one of the central issues for Congress — Rahul Gandhi


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