Two of a Kind : Shades of Maya in Obama's Rise
By M J Akbar
Barack Hussein Obama could not have been older than he is. He is 47. Four years after he was born, America enacted the first set of electoral and positive discrimination reforms that lifted blacks from the deep depression into which they had been cast after their escape from slavery. President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan who understood the virulence of half of America, led the momentum of radical change. Martin Luther King's assassination was the last great crime of white racists. It proved the tipping point. A new generation of blacks answered with arson and terrorism.
That rage was calmed by care. Obama is a child of that remarkable achievement of democracy, a child wafted towards his destiny on the silent engine of a peaceful revolution. The genuis of any minority is wasted without the chemistry of circumstance. We will never know how many Obamas existed before Obama, for their talent was poisoned prematurely by prejudice - just as we in India will never know how many Mayawatis existed before Mayawati. She too is a combination of individual genius and six decades of social engineering through reservations on electoral and academic maps that has empowered a people enslaved for thousands of years by the inequities of the caste system.
Obama and Mayawati, despite their vastly different temperaments and trajectories, have understood two critical aspects of the transition from the margins to centrestage. First, you cannot achieve this by unidimensional community mobilisation. You have to consolidate your base, of course, but that is only the first layer of a pyramid that needs the support of many communities.
Obama reached out to white liberals, of course, but that was the easy part. He had the courage and wisdom to have faith also in middle class America in the middle west, and it has responded in sufficient numbers to take him so close to victory that now only a major self-goal can stop Obama. Mayawati could not have become chief minister of Uttar Pradesh without substantive support from Brahmins and Muslims. Her future progress in national politics will depend on how sustainable her alliance with others is. Muslims will be the hinge to her future.
The second realisation is that you cannot defeat the entrenched power of establishment without money. Their methods seem completely different, but they are not as different as you might think. Obama does not convert his donations into real estate in Washington, and I doubt if he likes diamonds. But the principal source of funding for both is grassroots donations - the expanse of the dribble effect.
Mayawati of course has exploited power to add to her stash, but in this she is no more culpable than any other Indian politician. You cannot hold her to different standards just because she is a Dalit. She probably has complete contempt for conventional political morality in any case; that is what kept her community in bondage.
Obama has left Republicans reeling, when they are not seething, with the amount of money he has raised in small donations - $150 million in October alone. Republicans are used to a money advantage. They are now whining in self-pity compounded by disbelief.
Republicans might have reconciled themselves to defeat against a traditional white Democrat. But to be upstaged by an "upstart" has churned their souls and turned them visceral. They have run through a range of slurs. They accused Obama of being an ally of a black racist, white terrorist, red socialist and finally green Islamist. This is yesterday ranting against tomorrow.
Obama also has that unique distinction that Napoleon demanded from his generals: luck. Victory belongs to he who can spice his talent with good fortune. Hillary Clinton should have stopped him in the primaries; instead she mismanaged her way to defeat. The fact that he had to fight every inch enabled a nationwide network that is paying dividends today. But his biggest stroke of luck was John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as running mate. Bill Clinton called her "hot", a view endorsed by his soulmate Asif Zardari. But America wants a cool hand at the top at this moment of grave economic peril. The Wall Street meltdown could not have been better timed for a Democrat triumph. Moreover, Palin is, to put it correctly, ignorant and politically foolish. As if she had not done enough harm, she bought $150,000 worth of clothes for the campaign from expensive stores. This is the kind of morsel that feeds a million conversations.
Obama is the dream that Martin Luther King had for his nation. The dream has come true within a single generation, against huge odds.
Mayawati is the dream that Babasaheb Ambedkar had for his India. It is still a work in progress, but the odds against Mayawati could not have been greater.
The Muslims of the subcontinent saw the realisation of Jinnah's dream in 1947. In 2008 we can only ask a question: was that a dream or a nightmare?
Appeared in Times of India - October 26, 2008