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Politics and the power of hope

By T V R Shenoy
February 26, 2008 11:46 IST
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A solitary letter of the English alphabet distinguishes 'Obama' from 'Osama'. A Grand Canyon separates American perceptions of the Democratic Senator from the founder of Al Qaeda.

Half a dozen years ago, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, who would have dreamt that a man bearing the name 'Hussein' -- Barack Obama's middle name -- could aspire to the White House? Much less that he would be not just taken seriously but treated like a rock star?

In a world torn between President Bush's 'crusade' and Osama bin Laden's ranting about 'Jihad', who dared predict that a Muslim's son could be president of the United States?

There are several things that have been said about the American political process. The money that goes into it all is mindboggling, and the sheer length of it is mind-numbing. The actual election can't take place before November 4, over eight months away. But let us face it, no other country does a better job of ensuring that its chief executive is elected democratically.

Yes, I know that India is the world's largest democracy. But do we, or the British, or the French, or any of the others, enjoy inner-party democracy? We vote for candidates who have already been chosen by their respective parties, yet have no say in how those nominees get the ticket. That is simply not true of the United States -- as Barack Obama is proving.

Look at his history. He is just nine years older than Rahul Gandhi, but unlike that scion of the Nehru-Gandhis there is no dynasty propelling him. He is the son of a Kenyan father, Barack Hussein Obama, and the stepson of an Indonesian, Lolo Soetero (who enrolled him in a Muslim primary school, something that caused a minor controversy). There is no family wealth from any side of the family. All that Obama has going for him are his native wits and that intangible something called charisma.

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But this primary race has proved that money and marketing skills cannot buy an election. Mitt Romney spent over $35 million in a bid to win the Republican nomination; he has quit the race because nothing he said or did could attract voters. And everything seems to indicate that the man heading the Republican ticket shall be John McCain, a man disliked by the powerbrokers in his own party.

That last is, of course, equally true of the Democrats, all of whose senior leaders were mustering behind Hillary Clinton -- right up until Obama mustered voters by talking about 'hope'. He summed up his message when talking about his second book, The Audacity of Hope, the title of the keynote address he gave to the Democratic National
Convention in 2004:

At the Rediff Bookshop: Buy The Audacity of Hope

'Get involved in an issue that you're passionate about. It almost doesn't matter what it is -- improving the school system, developing strategies to wean ourselves off foreign oil, expanding health care for kids. We give too much of our power away, to the professional politicians, to the lobbyists, to cynicism. And our democracy suffers as a result.'

Barack Obama could be talking straight to an Indian audience, couldn't he? The 'cynicism' he spoke about is just as prevalent in India as it is in the United States. Education, primary health, and the cost of fuel are probably of even greater concern to us than to the relatively wealthy Americans.

But where is the Indian politician who shows concern for all this? (Come to that, how much time does the media spend on such matters?) All we get to hear is endless griping about 'secularism' and 'communalism'. Because even politicians get bored with all that after a while they will divert attention with talk of cricket -- or even discuss the length of an actress's skirts.

And in our cynicism we, like the Americans, forget just how precious democracy truly is. We take it for granted, treating polling days as an extended weekend.

But we don't need to look across the ocean to see how an Obama has changed the dialogue of politics. Look across the border, and see how Pakistan voted. We were told that it was 'the world's most dangerous nation' and that its North West Frontier Province is a hotbed of Muslim fundamentalism.

Given half a chance those selfsame Pakistanis booted out all those who borrowed their vocabulary from the Dark Ages. Come to that, this was one Pakistani election where the K-word, Kashmir, did not feature!

There is, of course, absolutely no guarantee that Pakistan's civilian leaders will grasp the lesson. It is a country whose leaders whose politicians have historically demonstrated an amazing capacity for self-destruction. Nor is there any guarantee that Barack Obama shall actually win the Democratic nomination, leave alone the presidency.

But what the voters of Pakistan and the junior senator from Illinois have demonstrated is the power of hope, of hope that the democratic process offers the chance of enacting genuine change.

We, as I wrote above, claim to be the world's largest democracy. There is genuine merit in that claim. But we can still learn something from the world's richest democracy and from what is, hopefully, the world's latest democracy.

About a hundred years ago, Vitthalbhai Patel, then one of Bombay's leading lawyers, confessed to his younger brother that he had a hankering to join politics. 'What stops you?' his sibling demanded, to which the older brother said he was afraid his family might suffer.

'Don't worry about it,' came the response from Vallabhbhai Patel, 'I shall make more than enough for both households.' (He was as good as his word.)

'And so,' the younger Patel told his friends, 'I must do all the paap while the world lauds my older brother for performing punya!' (All this, of course, was several years before he himself came under the Mahatma's sway.) At what point in the century since then did politics stop being punya? Today, some would say a man earns punya by renouncing politics!

It is marvellously appropriate that a hundred years later, hope in politics is again being revived by a lawyer-turned-politician in the United States and was ignited by a lawyers' agitation in Pakistan.

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T V R Shenoy