(This column was published in DNA edition dated October 29, 2008, barely days ahead of Barack Obama’s election as US President.)
A week from now, it appears near-certain, Barack Obama will be elected the first president of the world. (That’s right, the world.) The symbolism of a black man in the race for the White House has generated enormous interest in unlikely corners of the world, and the enduring appeal of George W. Bush’s eight years in power has virtually nailed the prospects of John ‘More-of-the-same’ McCain. An online poll of the world on the Economist website shows Obama sweeping the polls worldwide except in the last remaining pockets of conservatism such as Namibia, Congo and Cuba. Such is the power of Obama’s sway that even diplomats at the United Nations, who normally speak in mind-numbing opacity and take toilet breaks to avoid voting on critical resolutions, are out there shaking the pom-poms for Obama.
Even given the hyperbolic nature of American presidential election campaigns down the ages, this one was completely over the top: Obama has been characterised, at different times, as both an Islamic terrorist and an atheistic communist; he has been likened to the former president John F. Kennedy for his youthful charisma, and to ex-Beatle John Lennon for the flower-power, heal-the-world nature of his political philosophy; and in some of the more ecumenical assessments, he has been equated with both Jesus Christ and the Antichrist.
In fact, Obama’s political philosophy, persona and posturing draw inspiration to a larger extent from someone more familiar to us as the Mahatma.
It may seem ludicrous to talk of Obama and Gandhi in the same breath, given that one is accoutred in natty business suits, and the other, for the most part, lounged around in a loincloth. Not counting, of course, the other stark differences between them: one led a nation’s independence struggle against a colonial power in a pre-digital age of spartan simplicity, and never ran for public office; the other is running for political office, waging the costliest campaign ever, even taking out ads in Xbox video games.
But in fact, there’s far more that unites them on substantive matters: Obama has himself acknowledged this, noting that in his Senate office, there hangs a portrait of Gandhi as a reminder that transformational change can only come from the bottom up, catalysed by ordinary people coming together to do extraordinary things.
During his campaign, Obama has proven himself to be, like Gandhi was, a visionary with a keen political instinct, a sharp legal mind and a heightened sense of civility and fair play even in the conduct of confrontational politics. Also, like Gandhi, he’s an inspirational speaker, with a rootedness in his religious faith, from which he draws, and the intellectual honesty to critique his own community’s failings. And just as Gandhi connected the dots linking the economy and politics and used the swadeshi movement and agrarian issues as instruments to advance the independence struggle, Obama has outlined the interconnectedness between, say, preserving national security and inflating car tyres. (The argument: optimal tyre pressure heightens fuel efficiency, which reduces America’s dependence on foreign oil, which underlies the Iraq war, which has rendered America unsafe.)
It’s easy to see why the prospect of an Obama presidency has given rise to a revolution of rising expectations around the world. But the risk with such messianic expectations is that they can rapidly give way to a revolution of rising frustrations. Gandhi, for instance, did succeed in securing independence with a non-violent campaign, but even his moral authority couldn’t prevent the bloody Partition of India, a political failure born of an unrealistic faith in the goodness of all men.
Obama too faces formidable challenges: a collapsing economy and a racially surcharged mood at home, and an America whose power influence around the world is shrinking. He may win this election by campaigning on poetry, but it will take more than moral force to govern in these difficult times. Obama shares many of Gandhi’s inspirational qualities, but even he isn’t infallible. In his case, the price of failure can be just as brutal.