Spring in the Time of Obama

Dear Chandni Chowk,

The six-month curtain is about to descend on the Administration of Hope in our part of the world. So far, at least, hope seems about the only thing it
has been administering. Rare is that day which passes without the president giving a speech; the teleprompters having become our century’s answer to FDR’s crutches — indispensable to the Presidency, and politely unmentioned in the press, by and large.

Now it was plain enough to any dispassionate observer of Obama’s campaign, that he was more a person of competence than of conviction. It is also true that American political wisdom is unambiguous on one point: that any politician, left or right, who holds fast by any principles, is a born loser. Many, including well-known Bush critics, were persuaded during the campaign that this wasn’t such a bad thing after all, for winning was key. Look at Kucinich, they said. Look at Ron Paul….and Nader is a joke.

Obama’s chief bankable asset was an inchoate likeability, making him a respository for a spectrum of vague aspirations held by millions across the land…all without any commitment on his part.

Nor on theirs — I sometimes ask myself, just how much did it take to be an Obama supporter? A 25/50/100 dollar online donation, maybe? A bumper sticker? Waiting in line to catch a glimpse of the Myspace Messiah throwing his head back and flashing a smile as he loped easily across the dais, to return with a cellphone photo to upload on Facebook?

Whatever it was, there was no doubt he had supporters. That wasn’t in question. More notable, to me, was that the candidate did not make the least effort to harness all this goodwill into a viable mass force. To take just one example. He was at the crest of his popularity when Congress passed the wirtetapping bill to provide retroactive immunity to lawbreakers. Did Candidate and Constitutional Law Profesor Obama go to the mat on the issue? Could the force of his oratory, strong enough to send tingles up the legs of TV anchors, have moved thousands to peacefully surround their Congressmen and Senators’ offices pressuring them to vote against this outrage? Hard to say, because it was never even considered, much less tried. Do you know what he actually ended up doing? Voting FOR the bill! So much for faith in the people.

Where an earlier generation might have shaken its head at the frippery of his slogans, our media-soaked audiences in the US lapped it all up as if Hope and Change were the actual stone tablets from Mt. Sinai, nestled in Prophet Obama’s arms (You remember our watching the Ten Commandments at the old Shiela Cinema in Pahar Ganj, don’t you? India’s first 70mm Movie Hall!). Naturally they were quite unperturbed when Grandma Moses (I mean Obama’s real grandmother) was vilified in public by their hero without a second’s remorse (albeit in a reprise of what was already in his book). But this was as she lay dying, shortly after it became clear to the candidate that the Bible had had it right all along — after Jeremiah comes Lamentations.

But we are past all that now. After the elections, Revelations is where it’s at. As in his Cairo speech, where he referred to Arabia as the place where Islam was first ‘revealed’. An extraordinary piece of phraseology for a President of the United States to use in an official address, wouldn’t you think? But in his defense, the US Supreme Court has only insisted on the separation of Church and State; it has never been asked about the Mosque. I hear you groaning. My point is, a spirit of kya kar loge (Tr: Eat my Shorts – Ed.) is now abroad. Where during the campaign, any mention of his middle initial (H for Hussein) would result in Obamaites calling in an Air Strike on the offender, so to speak, for playing the Muslim card, President Obama these days appears to revel in his Husseinhood.

Of course, some revelations are more equal than others. For one whose hi-tech campaign elevated photo-sharing to an art form, Obama sahib has declared Abu Ghraib to be ‘Taboo Ghraib’ where images are concerned. Ditto for releasing transcripts of Dick Cheney’s interview about his role in Valerie Plame’s exposure.

But this above all. The highest reverence is accorded to not shaking up things. Yes, Arabia was the place where Islam was ‘revealed’. It was also, many would say, the place where 9-11 was ‘conceived’, But as you saw, the President didn’t dwell on such inconvenient truths all that much. For he is against partisanship. So what if there are people walking free who have have knowingly broken the law with torture or cooked the intelligence to start a war? Why stir the pot, cause dissention, by dredging up all that? Yes, yes, I know what you’re saying, the oath says to uphold the Constitution. But you only know America from the books. Sorry to shatter your rosy vision, but no one in America is bothered about all that old stuff any more. We’re about the Twenty-First century, not the Eighteenth.

It’s a different matter if you were to hold the ‘wrong’ opinion on gay marriage, gender equality, race, or even immigration. Then, if the Obama administration gets its way, you could be in a power of trouble, with extra jeopardy for a ‘hate crime’. In other words, we may let it slide if you’ve committed a real offense, but by golly if you harbor unholy thoughts we shall throw the book at you. To paraphrase the old Angrezi muhavra (Tr: English idiom – Ed.), “Only the Holder knows what Hold That Thought really means”. (I can see you’re lost — sorry, I should explain — Eric Holder is the Attorney General, who’s clamoring for a Hate Crimes Act).

The economy continues to struggle, with more job losses on the horizon. It reminds one of the ancient Banta Singh yarn, where he visits an ailing acquaintance at the hospital. On seeing Banta the patient appears to be overcome with emotion. All choked up and tears streaming down his cheeks, he begins sputtering and gesticulating wildly. Seeing his distress but unable to fathom all this sentiment at the sight of a casual visitor, Banta nevertheless has the presence of mind to hand him a paper and pen. The patient scrawls something and shoves the paper back at Banta, collapsing even as he does. In the ensuing melee of frantic doctors and nurses, Banta Singh stands petrified, watching them try to revive the man. In vain, unfortunately. It is only when he reaches home that evening that he remembers the piece of paper, Fishing it out of his pocket, he looks at it: “Get off my Oxygen tube. You are standing on it”.

When a decades old import-heavy and outsource-friendly trade policy has both feet planted solidly upon the country’s neck, what are the odds of a recovery? The timidity of the administration’s plans here is a metaphor for the man at the top. How difficult would it be to declare, “We have a job in America for any American who wants one.” Looking around there certainly seems to be enough scope for WPA-like public works to employ people from all fields, while adding directly to the nation’s wealth. As to discouraging imports through taxation, perish the thought. Simply not in the cards — which are themselves Made in China!

You’ll have to tell me what they’re saying in India about the Obama foreign policy. My own impression is there’s little more than cosmetic changes. You do remember the early 80’s when Indira Gandhi, with her fine eye for tactics and tin ear for strategy, ignored all the political demands of the moderates in Punjab, proceeding instead to appease the religious demands of the extremists, all to win an election? You might even remember her allowing Sikhs to carry daggers on Indian Airlines planes to display her “respect” for religion… Here in America each day brings some facile and puerile new shibboleth in the name of diversity and multiculturalism, diverting attention from the effects of real depredation and expoitation. Lake Naivasha in Kenya, I heard the other day, is being exhausted to provide water to grow roses — for the drawing rooms of Europe. Western agribusinesses are booking large tracts of land in Pakistan as captive resources to be used for farming, even as acres of rich American farmland are paved over each day to make way for new suburbs. And do you really want me to begin my rant about the Iraq invasion?

If Obama sees the absurdity of all this, there is no sign. Public policy is still car- and suburbia-centric — practically no departure from the Bush years. The imperial mindset is alive and thriving. In other words the news is the same, only being read by a fresh, charming and articulate new anchor. Invite the World, Invade the World, In Hock to the World, as someone described it a few years back, is still very much the watchword.

And then there is health care. Here Obama’s wishy-washiness makes even Bill Clinton seem like a Casabianca. Perhaps the latter’s strongest moment was when he stood in the well of the House and held up a card, saying everyone should have one of these, with access to health care. Apparently today’s teleprompter cannot be coaxed to carry a simple sentence that would help cut the cost of health care to a fraction, and also help cut the…that is to say, get to the heart of the debate — “The health of our people is too important to be caught up in the imperatives of money-making”.

A timorous affair, then, is the Age of Obama thus far. A great opportunity to rally the people (for action or for sacrifice) has been lost. A tidal wave of enthusiasm has been squandered, dare one say, strangled. A far cry indeed from Martin Luther King, as whose second coming Barack Obama was touted in the press during the campaign (come now, you must admit, even you bought this!) Talking of which, do you remember the old Sanskrit poem from our middle school? The reference to blackness is entirely incidental but hardly infelicitous:

Kakah Krishna, Pikah Krishna
Ka Bheda Pikakakayoho?
Vasanta Kaleshu Sampraapte
Kakam Kakam, Pikam Pikam

The Crow is black, so is the Cuckoo
What then separates the one from the other?
Just wait for springtime to render
The Crow a Crow and the Cuckoo a Cuckoo.

Well, I guess Spring just came and went, and it seems pretty clear who’s President… and who’s King.

Until next time,

Yours affectionately,

Niranjan Singh “Amrikawale”

P. S. A bit of trivia for you. It was Gerald Ford who reportedly said upon being sworn in, “Remember, I’m only a Ford, not a Lincoln”.

NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living in the West Coast. He may be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.









/>Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast.  His book, “Reading Gandhi In the Twenty-First Century” was published last year by Palgrave.  He may be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.