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An idea called Obama

As I watched millions in Washington in freezing cold for Obama’s inauguration, the penny dropped. Obama was not just a president and he was far more than an icon. He was an idea, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Jan 25, 2009 13:08 IST

Let me begin with an admission. On Tuesday night I became a convert. To put it simplistically, Barack Obama has one more fan. I must be number 3 billion, 451 million, 346 hundred thousand and whatever. But the story I want to share with you is how this came about. You could call it my conversion on Obama’s road to Washington.

A year ago, my position was very different.

When Hillary Clinton still stood a chance of winning the Democratic nomination, I was rooting for her. I believed that it was time for a woman president. Even when Obama won, I felt the presidency was beyond his grasp. America, I argued, was not ready for a Black president. Obama’s candidature would only ensure a McCain victory.

I suppose my transformation began with Obama’s acceptance speech in November. Though it was bright daylight in India, his soaring oratory, the musical cadences of his delivery and the poetry of his expressions had the magical qualities of a dream. I had tears as he spoke and I wasn’t ashamed to cry. It felt like cleansing. More importantly, I felt being a part of a community, one that embraced members from within America and also internationally. Obama was speaking to all of us. And for all of us.

On Tuesday, as I watched millions gathering on the Washington Mall in freezing cold for Obama’s inauguration, the penny dropped. Obama was not just a president and he was far more than an icon. He was an idea.

Like all powerful ideas, we interpret this one — and then believe in it — as we want. In fact, Obama, the idea, is a part of us. It could even be, in part, our creation. That’s why we hold to it with such passion and raw emotion. And that’s why Obama, the person, has become so important and, yes, so beloved. He is the living embodiment, the very personification of that idea. He is, therefore, a reflection of us, not what we are or could become but what we’d like to be. We see in him the ideals we value, the perfection we seek and the person we want to be. Obama, we believe — or pretend — is us.

If this can be the case for a once-disbelieving Indian, watching from 10,000 miles away and at the other end of the world’s time zones, can you imagine what Obama means to his fellow Americans, and to Blacks in particular?

I would say he is at once the clearest and the most focused expression of their collective desire for change. But I would also go farther: they despise what they ended up as and they want to be very different. Obama both personifies that sentiment and he has been elected to realise it.

Now, of course, all successful politicians represent an idea. Some even symbolise it. But Obama is the only one I can think of who, in my lifetime, has come to embody an idea. In fact, he has become the idea. That’s why Obama’s appeal spans continents, languages, races as well as a vast range of levels of economic development and intellectual sophistication.

Obama speaks in English but he can be equally effectively understood by those who only know Swahili, Serbo-Croat or Sinhala. Language, in fact, is not necessary to grasp what he’s about. All you need is a sense of romance, a craving for justice and a belief that there is a better way.

In other words, you only need to be a human being with dreams to see him as their means of realisation.

I can’t say Obama will make the world a better place. In fact, it could end up the other way round. But I do know that he will end up changing the world. That process began with his election. It will continue and accelerate with his inauguration. That change will be Obama, the idea, realising itself. And the world he will leave behind — be it in four years or eight — will have that idea written all over it.

All we can do is wait to find out what it will be like.