A Magic Moment

Barack Obama’s victory is a truly significant moment in American politics. Hugely so. However, the “Only in America” or “What a great nation we are” stuff needs a res.As also the overblown conclusions from what should be seen as a genuine moment of joy. Perhaps it’s only in America this could take 232 years.

All major South Asian nations, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India have had women prime ministers (Sri Lanka and India very early in their independent history). Nobody argues though, that this reflects the status or liberation of women in that region.

And diversity? India today has an upper-caste Hindu woman as President. A dalit (former Untouchable) as chief justice of its Supreme Court. A Muslim for Vice-President. A Sikh for Prime Minister. And the leader of its biggest  –  and ruling –  political party, the Congress, is Sonia Gandhi, a Catholic from Italy. The Speaker of Parliament is a godless Communist.

India’s most famous war hero (and the only one to make Field Marshal rank) who died this year was a Parsi (of Zoarastrian faith).  Sikhs (Prime Minister Manmohan Singh) account for less than two per cent of the population. Muslims (Veep Hamid Ansari) 13.4 per cent. Dalits (Chief Justice Balakrishnan) 16.2 per cent and Parsis are the tiniest of minorities  –  less than 100,000 in a population of one billion plus.Roman Catholics from Italy —  we have just one and she is the mosttpowerful politcian in the country.

Incidentally, the last President of India was a dalit. No, this does not prove anything positive about the status of those communities. It does mean, though, that the US, far from being unique, is an awful latecomer to representation of minorities.

That said, a nation has gone against its historical record. Risen above its worst prejudices in one, emotional, incandescent moment. Well, at least partly, and for a while. Americans have voted in larger numbers than they have in decades, perhaps ever. Millions of younger voters have been fired by the youthful senator they have chosen to send to the White House.  The African-American President-elect did far better with White male voters than fellow-Democrat John Kerry did four years ago. Barack Obama won the majority of the votes of those who said Race was an important issue in the election. He did the same amongst those who said it was not. It was a historic shift. One that altered America’s political arena on November 4. A small step for the world, a giant leap for America.

The burden of expectations that Barack Obama finds himself saddled with is daunting. He also inherits two wars (estimated final cost $ 3 trillion) that are going badly. A national debt of $ 10 trillion  — and growing  –  will be his constant companion. He’s looking at two million families who could lose their homes in the mortgage meltdown. At job losses that are setting records. And there is a lot more of hardship to follow, including the credit card crisis, yet really to hit home. The greatest names in US automobile history could be just that  —  names in history  — going down for the last time while he is President. He also has to engage with a Wall Street and Corporate America still clinging to their discredited clout and holding the economy to ransom.

And he rides to power on a promise of “Change we can believe in.”  Not the nicest of situations to run up against as you step into the White House. Failure for Obama would mean falling off a much higher cliff. And some of the problems facing him are not of the kind you can fix with bright slogans or personal goodwill. Oddly enough, Obama won this election on the back of the economic disaster whose jaws he now enters. Till the Wall Street tsunami struck, there were polls placing McCain ahead of him in the race. The issues of experience and particularly Race  —  all went against him. The ideological arena was loaded in his opponent’s favour till that point. So much so that until the McCain Titanic struck its iceberg a second time, John McCain was still boasting that the fundamentals of the economy were sound. How differently he was forced to characterize that very economy a few hours later.

The Wall Street collapse rendered the presidential ‘debates’ a sideshow. All Obama had to do in them was not mess up too badly. From the moment of the meltdown, the onus of making the pace was on McCain and the Republicans. Suddenly, the phrases that had enjoyed such great resonance in America for two decades were failing. “Ending Big Government,”  “Stop them from raising taxes”  —  all had so much more zing in them for the public  until they found Wall Street on their backs, its claws on their purses. At that point, even charges of Obama being a ‘Socialist’ and websites like ‘Obamaisacommie.com’ did not matter.

As for McCain, his concession speech was by far his best in two years. It displayed a grace totally lacking in those he made on the campaign trail. Some of those speeches had in fact been vicious and incendiary.        The impact of Obama’s win on the sentiments and aspirations of millions of Americans from the minorities, particularly African Americans, is enormous and impossible to measure. Whether Obama is very different from the vast majority of them or not  —  he surely is  —  they have embraced him as one of their own. They identify with him passionately. In that sense, and to that extent, the mould is broken. Millions of African-Americans have not cared to vote in the past. They have viewed the electoral system with justified cynicism. This time, they came out to vote in far greater numbers. It also means their hopes are much higher than they have been in a long time.

The same for the hopes of millions of white voters who too, have put their faith in Obama. He did better than Kerry even with college-educated whites who backed Bush so strongly just four years ago. At the same time, Obama did extremely well amongst Hispanic voters as well. His voter base appears, in fact, to be very diverse.        However, there is no simple, happy story here of a disadvantaged African American making good on the American Dream. No rags to riches narrative. (As you’d expect, the romancing of the win  in clichés  — “only possible in America”  —  is now in full spate.)

Nor is there  — as some would like to believe  — an amazingly different electoral world created by the Internet, bloggers and new creative, campaign techniques. Sure, they have been used more effectively and on a larger scale than before. That’s hardly surprising. But the oldest American poll device of all was more crucial  —  and used on a greater scale than any other, ever. Money. Barack Obama’s campaign raised nearly $650 million. McCain’s about $360 million. That’s over one billion dollars. It is also more than the GDP of some small African or Caribbean nations. And almost as much as the World Bank’s figure for Bhutan’s GDP a couple of years ago. There were times when the two rivals together spent millions in a single day on television advertising. On October 29, the Obama camp ran a paid-for 30-minute ‘infomercial’ on three major TV networks and four smaller ones. That advertisement drew 33.35 million viewers at a critical moment before voting day. This was 14 million viewers more than the final game of the World Series Baseball drew on Fox Network. Yet, he could only do it because he could spend about a million dollars per network to air his political commercial.

What does this kind of spending mean for the new President? A lot, if he has any intention of running again 2012. Obama would have to raise nearly $450,000 every day he is in the White House to finance a re-election bid. The campaign for which will start not much later than two years from now.        What does that mean for governance? How much time will he devote to fund-raising? How much to do what he’s been elected to do? How obliged will be to the biggies among the fund-raisers. Gore Vidal put it simply years ago. He saw the race for the White House as two guys spending hundreds of millions of dollars to wrest control of the Oval Office TV studio. The scale of spending in UIS elections is stunning —  and stunting for democracy.

What will Obama’s election mean for the rest of the world? Both campaigns dwelt in the realm of the unreal on that front. Hopefully, much of what Obama said about acting unilaterally  on Pakistani soil was part of the rhetoric of the campaign trail. Perhaps he will now discard the idea. If lucky, he will not escalate the war in Afghanistan, maybe the most wretched nation on earth, though he said he would. Will he steer the United States more quickly out of Iraq? How will he lead a nation where powerful forces still believe economic decline can and must be offset by military might?

For the moment, though, the idea of the first African-American family ever to occupy the White House in history overrides every other fact, issue and thought. And justly so. For a community that endured the worst forms of slavery and oppression for centuries, this was their proudest moment. In his acceptance speech, Obama dealt with this only indirectly, yet effectively. He spoke of a woman who was perhaps the oldest voter in the election, Anne Nixon Cooper. Fully 106 years old, she stood in line to vote. A black woman born into the generation just after slavery.  On November 4 she voted. For Barack Obama. And so captured a moment in time and in history, in another era, another generation.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. This fall he is giving a course at UC Berkeley. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.




P Sainath is the founder and editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought.’ You can contact the author here: @PSainath_org