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Home > India > News > Columnists > B S Raghavan

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An election without parallel

November 06, 2008

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The ocean can be compared only to the ocean, the vast expanse of the sky only to itself. Similarly, there is no parallel to the just concluded US presidential election which, for the first time in the 232 years since the Declaration of Independence, has opened the doors of the White House to an African-American. It is a triumph that is richly deserved. The growth in stature and appeal of Mr.Barack Obama [Images] has been so rapid following his electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention that it is a case study in self-development in its own right.

Just look at the scale of his achievement: Here was a 47-year old first time US Senator who, at first sight, was no match for Hillary Clinton [Images],  a former First Lady, an established two-term Senator, and a public figure of renown. With tremendous self-confidence and courage, he outmanouevered and defeated her in the long and gruelling primaries.

He conducted a flawless campaign for the presidency following his nomination as the candidate of the Democratic Party, putting forward his views with clarity and conviction. His selection of Joe Biden, six-term Senator, chairman of the US Foreign Relations Committee and a savvy politician respected for his sagacity and experience, was a masterstroke.

His thumping victory, against an opponent whom millions of Americans regarded as a distinguished hero and who was way ahead of Obama in public life, is a great tribute to the enormous trust he was able to inspire in masses of people in his sincerity and capability to lead the US to a new era as per his promise of change.

No one observing him in his public appearances would have been in any doubt about his serious-minded commitment to public issues of interest and concern not only to the people of the US but to the world community as a whole. Indeed, in being reserved and restrained with becoming modesty, he differs from the average effusive, hand-pumping and back-slapping American politician. The only other President whom he closely resembles in many of his qualities, including his scholarly credentials and pursuit of study and reflection, is President Woodrow Wilson.

Bitter struggle

But the US presidential election of 2008 acquires its unparalleled character not because of the qualities of individual candidates, however impressive they may be. This was an election where a black stood as a candidate against a white for the ultimate political prize of the President of the most affluent, most powerful and technologically most advanced nation in the world and yet race was never an issue.

How big a transformation this was will be evident when it is remembered that barely half a century ago, the blacks had to wage a bitter struggle for becoming eligible to basic civil and human rights. Even the Catholic faith of John F Kennedy  became a bone of contention and sparked an excited controversy over the length and breadth of the US.

The election has shown that finally America has arrived, with 88 per cent of the whites feeling at one with 12 per cent of the blacks, and marking the start of a momentous journey of, what President-elect Obama exultantly proclaimed as the true and genuine United States of America. In a sense, this is a moment of catharsis for the whites who have, without their knowing it perhaps, made amends for the barbarities inflicted on slaves in the early years of the country's history. It is to be hoped that the process of penitence would be taken further forward, with the election, sometime in the future, of an American Indian as the President. 

The election of Obama as President is bound to be a matter of rejoicing for the downtrodden sections of society everywhere in the world. Most of all, the immediate effect will naturally be on the black population of the US itself. There will be a surge in their self-esteem and sense of integration with the mainstream and this will be all to the good.

Topmost priority

At the same time, there may be some excessive ebullience, subjecting the new President to immense pressure to redress, or compensate for, fancied or real injustices and grievances extending back over a long period. If he seems like being responsive to such demands, he may give the impression of being unable to get over his origins. On the other hand, if he keeps a distance and leaves the matter to be dealt with by the relevant departments, he may create a sense of disillusionment and even resentment among the blacks. One way of getting over the dilemma is to establish, as India has done, a department for minority affairs, in which the minority interests will be adequately represented.

The President-elect will no doubt put to the best use possible the time between now and the date (January 20, 2009) of his inauguration. His topmost priority will necessarily have to be to compile a list of persons to occupy Cabinet positions and the senior levels of the departments in the new administration. People will judge his earnestness and effectiveness on the choice he makes. Since the economy is in a shambles, his advisers will have to be eminent in the fields of public finance and corporate governance. They should be given the task of coming up with policy prescriptions for the President-elect to consider and formulate his approach.

Second, liaison with US Congress will assume the highest importance in enlisting its cooperation for measures which, considering the nature of the crisis, are sure to be wide-ranging and in the nature of bitter medicine. From the look of things, Democrats may dominate the new Congress. In this circumstance, harmonious relationship with elected members in opposition will become all the more imperative in order that they do not feel ignored or taken for granted. Fortunately, Obama has in his Vice-President, Joe Biden, a political veteran who enjoys the goodwill of Representatives and Senators on both sides of the Congressional aisle. He can prove an invaluable asset in the smooth and timely passing of legislation by the Congress.

Exit strategy for Iraq

Third, with the approval of the incumbent President, George Bush [Images], the President-elect will do well to have a selected team of reputed defence experts and trusted political colleagues to engage themselves in dialogues with the defence secretary and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to draw up a list of concrete and realistic options available for exit strategy in respect of the bog that Iraq has become. Without stopping the mind-boggling drain of human, material and financial resources, no plan of economic recovery can be successful. Quit, and be damned, is what the British did in India and it has not worked badly!

Leaving all this aside, the one question uppermost in the minds of the people of India will be, how India will fare under an Obama presidency? The pattern of the strategic partnership and the manner of giving effect to it having already been set, there is no scope for any serious upset on this score. Obama, in his public statements, has shown himself to be friendly towards India. This feeling will undoubtedly be buttressed further by the support he has received from a majority of Indian Americans. There is nothing looming that will derail the relations. True, Obama has made a passing reference to the resolution of Kashmir issue, but we should take it in our stride instead of getting into a tizzy, as some commentators have done.

B S Raghavan is a retired IAS officer who was a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Director of Political and Security Policy Planning in the home ministry, and chief secretary of a state. He was also a US Congressional Fellow


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