Obama: The Audacity Of Hope
From a virtual unknown outside his home state of Illinois to the most powerful man on earth, Barack Obama has come a long way in less than two years with his historic election as the first African American US president.
But even before the youthful Democratic senator vanquished Republican John McCain, a Vietnam War veteran and a national hero, Obama signalled momentous change in America’s political scene as the first black person to become the presidential candidate of a major US party.
Obama himself described as a “defining moment for our nation” his clinching the Democratic nomination after a long and gruelling battle against former first lady Hillary Clinton – a contest that gripped the US from January to June 2008.
Obama, 47, who has been able to attract crowds of 100,000 people or more to his rallies and generate a buzz seldom seen in US politics with his message of change, is an ardent admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, the pioneer of Satyagraha – resistance to tyranny through mass civil disobedience.
“In my life, I have always looked to Mahatma Gandhi as an inspiration, because he embodied the kind of transformational change that can be made when ordinary people come together to do extraordinary things,” he wrote in an article.
“That is why his portrait hangs in my Senate office; to remind me that real results will not just come from Washington, they will come from the people.”
Obama, who has promised to renew American diplomacy to meet the challenges of the 21st century by rebuilding alliances and expressed a willingness “to meet with all nations, friend and foe, to advance American interests”, has said that India will be “top priority” in his presidency.
As Obama said in a recent interview with IANS, he believes that “India is a natural strategic partner for America in the 21st century and that the US should be working with India on a range of critical issues from preventing terrorism to promoting peace and stability in Asia.”
A former aide told IANS that Obama has a soft corner for the Indian American community and learnt tales of the Indian epic Mahabharat from his mother who has visited South Asia. He is also believed to like Indian food.
Entering politics in 1996 with an unopposed election to the Illinois state Senate, Obama burst on to the national stage in 2004 with an electrifying keynote address to the party forum in Boston calling for an end of America’s divisive politics.
“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is the United States of America. There’s not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there is the United States of America,” he told the delegates then.
There was no looking back for the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas after that. In the afterglow of the Boston convention he made it to the US Senate with a wide margin just four years after losing badly in his first attempt to enter Congress.
But Obama had set his sights higher. Just three years in the Senate, he formed a presidential exploratory committee in January 2007 and one month later launched his presidential campaign on the steps of the old Statehouse in Springfield, Illinois.
Facing him was an array of seasoned contenders, including his vice-presidential pick Joe Biden, 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and of course the formidable Hillary Clinton, viewed as the party’s “inevitable” choice.
Slowly eroding the former first lady’s large lead in opinion polls, Obama cracked Clinton’s aura of inevitability with a victory in the Iowa caucuses in January and went on to win the Democratic nomination.
Obama was only two when his father left Hawaii to pursue a degree at Harvard University and later returned to Kenya alone, where he worked as a government economist, and the couple divorced. Obama saw him only once again when he was 10.
When Obama was six, his mother married an Indonesian man and the family moved to Jakarta. But four years later he moved back to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents. His grandmother died Monday.
In his 1995 autobiography, “Dreams from My Father”, Obama describes a troubled adolescence in which he struggled with his biracial identity. He acknowledges that he used marijuana and cocaine.
After high school, Obama attended college in Los Angeles, California, and New York before working as a community organiser on the south side of Chicago, Illinois, from 1985 to 1988.
He attended Harvard Law School, where he became the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, and returned to Chicago after graduating in 1991 to work as a civil rights lawyer and teach constitutional law.
There he met his future wife, Michelle Robinson, a Chicago lawyer. They have two young daughters, Malia and Sasha.
What Obama Presidency Means For India
By Manish Chand
With Democrat Barack Obama winning the White House, India is hopeful that its multi-faceted ties with the US, revolutionised by a landmark nuclear deal during the Bush tenure, will acquire new force.
“The real strategic partnership between India and the US will begin with a new government in Washington and New Delhi next year,” Lalit Mansingh, former ambassador of India to the US said soon after it became clear that Obama had rewritten American history by becoming the first African American to win the White House.
Trade and investment, defence and agriculture – all those areas which were sidetracked by nuclear deal would now come to the fore, said Mansingh.
“Indians should celebrate change in the political structure of the US. Obama’s presidency begins a new chapter in America’s political history, a new chapter in America’s engagement with the world and a great opportunity for India to combat terrorism in its region,” said Chintamani Mahapatra, professor of American studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“I visualise a very bright future for India-US relations. He would be the first Democratic president in the White House after Bill Clinton who began the path-breaking turnaround in India-US ties during his visit to India in 2000. He will build upon that legacy,” said Mahapatra.
Less than a fortnight ago, the 47-year-old Obama had promised in an exclusive interview to IANS to make strong strategic partnership with India a “top priority” of his presidency and described New Delhi as “a natural strategic partner” for Washington in the 21st century. Obama, who liked to keep Mahatma Gandhi’s portrait in his Senate office, is also known among Indian Americans for his fondness for Indian dal.
Experts and diplomats see Obama’s promise to restore America’s moral standing in the world, especially in the Muslim world, that was damaged by military intervention in Iraq and his more nuanced policy on combating terrorism working to the advantage of India in the region. This will deflect some of the hostility the US attracts among India’s 140 million Muslims.
“Bush was more muscular in his approach to what he called the Global War on Terror. Obama is likely to broaden the alliance against terror and use a combination of diplomacy and force that may be better suited for India’s interests in the region,” said Mahapatra.
Agreed Mansingh: “Obama believes in exercising smart power. Obama will be less inclined to use military force.”
The 94-page Democratic Party document entitled “Renewing America’s Promise” adopted at its convention in Denver eschews using the phrase “Global War on Terror” and focuses on ending the war in Iraq, stablising Afghanistan and “combating violent extremism”.
Obama has, in fact, accused Pakistan of misusing funds for the war against terror and allegedly using it to fund militancy against India – remarks which were hailed in India’s diplomatic and strategic circles.
With the global financial crisis affecting emerging economies like India, Obama’s advocacy of a stricter oversight on the financial institutions and greater state interventionism also inspires greater confidence in this country, said Mahapatra.
Not all are so enthusiastic about the Obama presidency in India though. The diplomatic establishment and strategic circles are treading cautiously, especially after Obama’s recent remarks on Kashmir, which they see as a throwback to American postures 10 years ago.
In an interview to MSNBC last week, Obama had said: “We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants.”
“It is ill-advised and outdated and reflects his advisers have not kept up with the times,” said Arundhati Ghose, a former Indian diplomat who represented India in the UN, while advising a wait and watch policy towards the Obama administration.
K. Subrahmanyam, however, counseled that India should not overreact. “Obama is a flexible intellectual. Let’s wait and watch”.
Another issue that is causing concern in India is Obama’s incentives to American companies who don’t outsource jobs. “This is certainly going to affect us if Obama’s policies turn protectionist. Given the financial meltdown, there is a greater likelihood of protectionism,” Ghosh told IANS.
Mansingh also sees a potential pitfall in Obama’s strong views on non-proliferation and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. “India will be under enormous pressure to sign the CTBT,” pointed out Mansingh. Ghose, however, thinks India need not worry much on this count as the nuclear deal has been sealed and New Delhi will not mind coming on board after the US and China does so.
Obama and India: cheers and caution
What Cheers India:
Natural Ally: Obama says building strategic partnership with India top priority and sees India as a natural strategic ally of the US in the 21st century.
Terrorism and Pakistan: More focussed on ending terrorism and Al Qaeda by concentrating on finishing Al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan and bringing stability in Afghanistan. Plans to increase aid to Afghanistan.
Iraq and Muslim world: Promises withdrawal of troops in Iraq within 18 months – a fountainhead of hostility against the US in the Muslim world. Makes it easier for India to deal with a US with better standing in the Middle East.
Economy: Favours greater regulation of financial institutions.
Backs immigration reform and H1B visa programme.
What makes India cautious:
CTBT: Obama has strong views on non-proliferation. May try to force India to accept CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) and provoke a fresh debate in India on this sensitive issue. Shouldn’t be a problem after the US, China come on board.
Kashmir: May try to play peace-keeper in Kashmir, a tendency that is likely to be resented and opposed by India which sees Kashmir as a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan and one that does not need third-party intervention.
Outsourcing: India fears global financial meltdown may force Obama to turn protectionist. Obama has promised tax incentives for US companies that create new jobs.
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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