As Democrat nominee Barack Obama was declared the President-elect, my mind drifted back to another presidential campaign in the US that had caught the imagination of the world. At that time, as a 16-year-old, I watched a man called John F Kennedy win an election that confronted prejudice and arrogance in the US. I believed that it was JFK’s charisma that carried him through. But I now realise the strength of even limited internal democracy: it gives the principle of ‘greater common good’ a chance to assert itself.
The US has had a controversial public image in the rest of the world. Between JFK’s and Obama’s victories, there has been a trail of opinions, images and presidential decisions that led to the US steadily losing its moral ground. Despite the brain-drain from countries like India and the desperation of the expatriates to get the coveted Green Card, the US has never been seen as a paradise for democracy. Instead, it is still seen as a ‘Big Brother’. The Bush administration only managed to reduce the country’s ratings to an all-time low. Today, the US is seen as a country that has attempted to terrorise other nations as
an answer to all the terror acts against it. The ‘Bushisms’ that accompanied this raw use of force have only left a distasteful cynicism in the world that all that matters is money and bombs. Now, even the beneficiaries of US largess are under threat. The bombs have only made their rulers more insecure and the Wall Street collapse has raised fundamental questions about the ‘get rich, quick’ market capitalism practised in the US.
But suddenly that arrogance appears to have gone. The 2008 US presidential elections and its discourse have brought in a tonal and attitudinal change and a hope for the disadvantaged. Instead of scandal-mongering, both Obama and his opponent, Republican John McCain, brought a tempered tone into the debates. That President George W. Bush was kept far away from the campaign by the Republicans was a clear indication of how fed-up the Americans were with all that he represented. That Obama overcame prejudice is not only a tribute to his campaign, but also to the hope that, given a chance, ordinary people can overcome injustice to create a more humane world.
What does this US election mean to us? Some Indians seem to have developed a penchant to let the US lead the way. In India, as in the US, corporate financial interests have connived with the State to destroy basic political values and brute force is used to settle scores. What are the positives we can draw from the elections? The inspiration is not of an unlikely and radical change in the world order, but the message that we, the ordinary people, all have a potential role in creating a better world.
The fact that Obama says he will listen and particularly to dissenters reminds us of Mahatma Gandhi. It is also something that is familiar to those who fought for independence in India. May be success without necessarily becoming self-righteous and arrogant has a message for those who want to break through the barriers of prejudice in this country.
A Black President in the White house is a dramatic and powerful political visual. It remains to be seen whether Obama will deliver as a statesman. But for now, that visual is cause enough for a moment of celebration.
Aruna Roy is a social activist