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An American moment in Mumbai

Sheela Bhatt in Mumbai | November 05, 2008 15:39 IST

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"This is our moment. This is our time."

When US President-elect Barack Obama [Images] said these words during his victory address before an exuberant crowd in Chicago's Grant Park, Nancy Biasi had tears in her eyes. Her delicate face carried profound emotions of hope for America, her country.

As we watched CNN together in Hard Rock Caf� in the central Mumbai suburb of Worli one could almost touch her optimism and her trust in America.

She said, "Obama's speech reminds me of (Martin Luther King Junior's) 'I Have a Dream' speech." She could not speak further.

Paul A Folmsbe, Consul General of the American Embassy in Mumbai, had invited select Mumbaikars to celebrate the results of US elections over scrambled eggs and ham sandwiches but, the attention of all guests was on CNN's Wolf Blitzer's projections. It was the occasion to celebrate because America was setting new standards for democracy.

One could see thinker Asghar Ali Engineer, former Mumbai police chief Julio Ribeiro, theatre personality Gerson da Cunha to young people from Mumbai University talking about only one man. Barack Obama.

An hour before Obama's victory became certain John Kauffman, a software professional, told rediff.com, "This election campaign has once again reminded leaders to be sensitive to the people. We Americans have seen change many times before, but this time it seems for real."

John, who is from Philadelphia, was a bit anxious because Obama's electoral votes till then were only 207. He said, "Obama needs 270 to win."

He explained, "You know during the campaign, Obama made the right decisions. John McCain [Images] made mistakes. He picked up a candidate for vice-president to win the election but Obama chose (Joe) Biden to govern better. Americans believe Obama will end the war in Iraq quickly. McCain wants exit only after declaring victory by saying 'we won'. But, we have to leave without having said those words."

As the election results unfolded it reminded viewers of John F Kennedy's victory.

But, the most poignant moment of the morning arrived at around 10 am when John McCain came on screen. There was a pin-drop silence. Americans belonging to the embassy and assembled Mumbaikars heard the Vietnam hero in his low moment. But, actually it was not. He raised the bar of dignity. Everybody, in the Caf� bowed to McCain's grace in the face of defeat. McCain said that America was a world away from the bigotry of the early 20th century, he said, "We both recognise that though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation's reputation... the memory of them still had the power to wound."

An employee of embassy, who was standing next to me, said, "I like this man. He is a true American." McCain continued that he called Senator Barack Obama to congratulate him, "on being elected the next President of the country that we both love," Before he could complete someone shouted 'bullshit!' from the audience in Phoenix, Arizona. McCain, immediately, in a stern voice, said "please" rebuking the audience member.

Notwithstanding such remarks, one could see today was truly America's moment.

"It has been a long time, one has not heard good things about America. Today Obama has arrived with good things to say. Obama will not be as adventurous as (George W) Bush. He knows you can't bring change with force," said an American employee of the embassy.

He quoted New York Times, with pride on his face -- Obama's election has removed, 'the last racial barrier in American politics with ease'.

After McCain's speech, everyone was waiting for Obama's first words after he made history. Meanwhile, a middle-aged American employee of the embassy, got nostalgic. "After Monica Lewinsky episode it's hard for me to think good about politicians. I loved Bill Clinton [Images] but when he could not control himself, I got disillusioned. Clinton had all things I liked. But, since then I have turned cynical. Public image is very important for politicians. Obama is once again trying to convince us that we should trust him. We don't know how good he will be. We are not sure, really. Like you Indians we too, are emotional. Later, we back up our decisions with logic."

Just minutes before Obama was declared elected, the New Yorker told rediff.com, "If Obama wins it means that race is a smaller issue. The racism issue has not been solved but some barriers have been crossed. Mind you, Obama has won not because he is black. He won because he gave many more Americans feelings that they wanted to have."

And what is that feeling?

"Hope," he said.

In these overwhelming moments of history its not that Americans have lost balance and realism. He said, "Obama's outlook, his personality and his rhetoric all said that you will be better off under his rule. But, I predict that Red and Blue that divides this country will not go away. On scale of ten, I give Obama 5 for solving Iraq and 7 for solving Iran."

As the announcement was flashed about Obama's landslide mandate, another New Yorker murmured, "Bush is the most modern tragedy. I am lucky to be born in America. Obama's victory is a small reminder how lucky I am."

Dr Ajit Ranade, chief economist of Aditya Birla Management Corporation, had bunked office to join us. When asked if Obama will succeed in handling the economic mess, he said, "In America, trade and budgets are running in deficit. There is recession; jobs are less and less. But, the dollar is going still going strong. Why? Because, American institutions are strong and they have an institutional capacity to rebound. What we call risk aversion. Financial institutions are taking money from other parts of world to the US to back their economy."

Ranade thinks that the financial world still has trust in US regulations and its judiciary.

When asked about Obama's belief in protectionism in managing the economy, Ranade dismiss the fears, "Any country will resort to protectionism when in recession."

Of course, Indians interest is how Obama will perform in South Asia, particularly in the Indian neighbourhood. V Balachandran, a former Intelligence officer who was present at Hard Rock, said, "If he is good for world, he will be good for India. He knows that there is no military solution to issues concerning the world."

Today seemed the day when everyone had an opinion on Obama and America. Some were profound and some critical.

Dr P M Kamath, scholar of international relations, was sitting quietly soaking in the atmosphere with an old-world charm. He said, "I see only one reason behind Obama's win. The state of the American economy. The economic mess has defeated the Republicans. In absence of an economic crisis, the Republicans would have exploited the issue of racism to defeat Obama."

Michael Murphy, an architect from Chicago, was one of the guests wearing an Obama-Biden badge. Currently, Michael is designing a hospital in Rwanda.

He said, "Obama lives in our neighbourhood in Chicago. I have heard his speech when he came to Chicago University. He has won today because his strategy to win the election was incredibly smart."

When asked bout some grey areas of these bright moments, Michael said seriously, "It's probably not good for democracy when one party gets too much power. Second, we don't want the repeat of the Kennedy experience. Kennedy accumulated the best and brightest team but still in his time America was sucked into Vietnam. Like him, Obama is expected to select the best and the brightest. I am afraid of having a problem with the best and brightest. Does this make sense to you?"

On the other end of caf�, Gerson da Cunha, one of Mumbai best and brightest gentlemen, was giving a byte before TV cameras explaining the most important thing of this moment, "Look, who got defeated."

Not a soul wanted to utter the W word.






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