Friday, November 7th, 2008
I have been following the U.S. Presidential Elections now for exactly 60 years. In 1948, as a boy, I was in a New York hospital during the Truman/Dewey’s election, and in Washington for President Truman’s inaugural parade in January 1949. Since then I have followed each American election with much interest. This year’s one has, by far, been the most exciting and one of the most historic in American history. That a man of African descent, Barrak Husein Obama, could overwhelmingly win the election to the highest office in the United States is itself an astounding event, given the appalling history of cruelty and discrimination against blacks for centuries.
Each century produced one outstanding President, George Washington in the eighteenth, Abraham Lincoln in the nineteenth and Franklin Roosevelt in the twentieth. Will Obama be the one in the twentyfirst? Here is a man who comes across not only as an eloquent and mesmerizing speaker but as one possessing maturity, compassion and steadfastness. I was particularly impressed that at the height of the battle he took fortyeight hours off to visit his dying grandmother in Hawaii. His campaigns, first against Hillary Clinton within the Democratic Party and then with Senator McCain were a model of how such exercises should be organized. Obama never once lost his temper or raised his voice, and reacted with amazing grace to the often vicious attacks and smear campaigns of the opposite camp. Apart from the racial aspect, which has for so long bedeviled America, there are some other aspects of this campaign that are of special interest.
Firstly, although Senator Obama comfortably outspent his opponent, his funds have been mostly made up of small donations from a very large number of people. Unfortunately in India we have not adopted this practice, as a result of which huge funds for our elections are far from transparent. Indeed this whole question of funding our elections is one that needs closer attention. The Election Commission has tried to make some improvements, but they do not seem to have demonstrably changed the situation on the ground. Perhaps the Obama model could be attempted in India also.
Another point that impressed me was the manner in which, for two whole months, both the candidates crisscrossed the country, speaking directly to people from all walks of life, addressing huge public meetings as well as small Town Hall and village square gatherings. This requires each candidate to answer questions and to spell out clearly the policies that they intend to adopt. Here again, while our MLAs do go virtually from door to door, senior leaders from all parties are confined to large public meetings where they cannot be directly questioned. Perhaps a series of television debates could help fill this gap.
Senator Obama represents a major transition in American leadership in terms of demography, race and public participation. The President of the United States is the most powerful man in the world, and therefore to see a person of such caliber being elected in these very troubled times is a matter of satisfaction far beyond the boundaries of his own country. Without going in the specifics of Indo-US relations, which will need a separate in-depth analysis, it is worth noting that as a key player in the emerging global society India has a vested interest in the U.S. projecting a progressive and visionary leadership. Obama’s pro-poor, inclusive agenda is in line with our own approach, as is the pattern of a mixed economy that is emerging from the debris of the global financial meltdown.
I recall the thrill that my generation felt when Kennedy was elected President way back in 1960. I was attending a Governors’ Conference at Rashtrapati Bhavan when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru got a message and made the announcement. Now, almost half a century later, there is again a thrill of anticipation and hope generated by Obama’s victory as the President of the second largest democracy in the world. With Indo-American relations having strengthened over the years, including a strategic relationship, one can look forward to a new dimension in which our two nations could together become a major force for peace and harmony in a troubled world. An aggressive unipolarity must give way to a more inclusive and enlightened paradigm that can effectively meet the challenges of climate change, global warming, terrorism and poverty elimination that are faced by the emerging global society.