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The Rediff Special/ George Joseph

'Am I better off than eight years ago? No!'

October 17, 2008


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At a time when New York Senator Hillary Clinton's [Images] campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination seemed set to steamroll all opposition, award-winning filmmaker and activist Theresa Thanjan was among the first to come out in support of Illinois Senator Barack Obama [Images],

Thanjan, the New York Coordinator of South Asians for Obama, says she joined the campaign out of conviction and support for all that Obama stands for. She plans to return to the media world once the elections are over, and says she did not join the campaign expecting to springboard into political office later.

Ask her about the perceived decline in Obama-fever across the country, and Thanjan is quick to deny it, and ask quick to add that there is no doubt Obama will win in November. "He even attracts huge crowds in states like North Carolina that are traditionally Republican," she points out.

Another point that has come up in recent times is that when people get into the polling booth, race -- which doesn't figure as a factor in the polls -- could play a part in their choice. "The only reason Obama is the Democratic nominee is because a very broad coalition of citizens representing every colour, ethnicity and religion, voted for him in the primaries. He would not be here if he did not have the support of white citizens.

"Let's not forget that he won the Iowa primary, whose population is 94 per cent white. He is also currently leading in a number of polls in states such as Maine, Oregon, Wisconsin and Missouri, all of them with significant white populations."

There is no point in worrying about ultra conservative states like Alabama, she argues, pointing out that even Democrats like Al Gore [Images] have never won from there.

In drawing contrasts, Thanjan points out that "Amidst the current economic crisis, Obama has demonstrated leadership and foresight by putting forth a very sound economic plan. His emphasis on the regulation of the financial markets is necessary in order to protect the interests of the American people.

"All of this while his opponent, John McCain [Images] has built his career as a deregulator. It is also important to note that McCain's economic plan was written by former Senator Phil Gramm � the same man who, while in Congress, wrote a bill in 1999 that lifted restrictions on banks and allowed them to escape regulation. This bill has been widely blamed for causing the fiscal crisis we are in now."

Thanjan fluently rattles off the Obama talking points: How McCain flip-flopped on the economy, saying the fundamentals are strong one day, and then proclaiming a crisis a day later even as the Dow fell 500 points. "We do not need confusion during this crisis, we need leadership. Obama's plan would provide tax relief to 95 percent of Americans and eliminate income taxes for seniors who make less than 50,000 a year. His plan would invest in environmental initiatives and create 5,000,000 new green jobs," she says.

SAFO is a national grassroots organisation with the stated mission of mobilising individuals from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka [Images], Guyana, Trinidad and the West Indies [Images] to participate in Obama's campaign. She plans to set up booths at Indian events during the festive season, such as Navratri and Diwali celebrations, to seek support of the community. SAFO will also send volunteers to Pennsylvania for grass roots work.

Since Obama announced his candidacy in 2007, SAFO has organised forums and discussions, canvassed neighbourhoods, registered voters, raised money, published written materials, and much more. "In terms of why I support Senator Obama, it comes down to one question -- am I better off than I was eight years ago? The answer is a resounding NO! I believe Obama's policies are desperately needed to put this country back on the right track. He is in touch with the country's need for change and will work as president to break America away from eight years of disastrous Bush/Cheney policies," Thanjan says, quickly pointing out that "McCain, for all his talk about reform, has voted with President Bush 90 percent of the time. That is not change; that is more of the same."

More importantly, the activist argues, Senator Obama "understands the huge influence lobbyists have on our government and their role in preventing true reform. That is why he has not accepted a dime from lobbyists or PACs during his run for President. He is clear about the fact that lobbyists do not run his campaign and they will not run his White House."

Arguing that Obama's stated policies in the realm of the economy, health care, women's rights and foreign policy are all calculated to benefit the nation, Thanjan picks health care as among the most crucial in that list. "With 47 million people without health care, his plan is by far a better choice. It is more comprehensive, provides oversight on the health insurance industry, covers pre-existing conditions, and lowers premiums for American families by $2,500.

"McCain is proposing that we pay taxes on our health care benefits. His answer to rising health care costs includes providing tax credits of $2,500 to individuals and $5,000 to couples. Unfortunately, that amount is nowhere near the estimated $12,000 an average couple pays for health care. His plan would not mandate coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, basically leaving the sick, children with special needs and the elderly to fend for themselves."

She is also enamoured of Obama's positions that women deserve equal pay and, on the subject of abortion, that they have the right to choose. "McCain is against both of these fundamental rights for women. His vice presidential choice, Governor Sarah Palin [Images], is against choice even in the case of rape or incest."

That Obama was against the war in Iraq from the beginning underlines his vision, Thanjan argues, and adds that his offer to meet even the most contentious of world leaders is an example of diplomacy at work. "I believe his emphasis on diplomacy is vital to restoring our moral standing in the world and enlisting allies to help us in the fight against Al Qaeda [Images]."

Thanjan, like others of her stamp, takes considerable delight in recent polling that have uniformly given Obama the edge, after a brief surge into the lead by McCain following the Republican National Convention. From here on, she says, the strategy has to be to work aggressively "to dispel many of the distortions put out by the McCain campaign. It is not that the Obama campaign is not responding; it may just be that they are not being covered by the press," she says, pointing out that the campaign volunteers, and groups like hers, needed to be more proactive on this front.

Thanjan, who did her masters in social work from Columbia University and her film training from New York University and Film/Video Arts, is a 2006 Fellow in Video from the New York Foundation for the Arts and a graduate of the National Black Programming Consortium's New Media Institute. She has been awarded grants from the Center for Asian American Media (formerly NAATA), and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. She is founder of NYC Maharani Productions, LLC, a company that specialises in producing socially-conscious media.


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