Byline by M J Akbar: The Quiet Shift to New Horizons
The sound of a stereotype crumbling travels deep into the individual psyche and the collective consciousness. The two largest democracies, India and America, comparable in size, demographics and ethnic tensions, have both heard such a rumble in the last few days. The trigger in both cases might have been the relentless pressure that elections bear upon social relationships, the amoral quest for power that brings subterranean flows to a boil.
In Malegaon, Maharashtra, a perception that had slowly grown into a public fact has cracked apart. Indian Muslims, perhaps many of them, have been responsible for acts of terrorism, but they are not the only terrorists in India. The kneejerk production of Muslim suspects by the police under all regimes, including Congress governments, an almost thoughtless projection by mass media and, of course, the opportunity provided by anarchist groups like the Indian Mujahideen with their hate-filled message, had convinced most Indians that the only face of terrorism was a Muslim face. The latest arrests in Malegaon are evidence that subversive violence has more than one visage, that sadhvis and their malevolent associates have been exploiting schisms to foment a unidimensional image of terrorism. It had reached a point where the police would routinely put out identity-kit sketches of suspects in beards and flat caps, whether bombs went off in a market, temple or mosque. The plural had disappeared from the phrase "the usual suspects".
Thousands of miles away, in Pennsylvania, a key swing state that could establish the social benchmarks of America in the 21st century, a story broke of a predatory attack on a young, white girl, a supporter of John McCain. She claimed that she had been assaulted by a tall ("six-foot-four"), powerful black man who branded her face with a "B" because she had dared to campaign against Barack Obama. Every racial stereotype was embedded in her tale: the dark, lustful outsider, inflamed by the thirst for revenge, ravishing a helpless young white girl. This was the real monster hidden at the core of the Obama thrust for power, the apocalypse that awaited the nation if McCain lost on 4 November. That "B" on her face was seen by millions on television, a horrifying omen of the nightmare that would descend upon civilisation.
The story fell apart under scrutiny. The "B" had been written incorrectly, indicating either illiteracy or stupidity. There was no assault. It was a lie designed to inflame white passions. Unable to bear her guilt, the woman admitted she had been set up.
Twenty years ago, in 1988, George Bush Senior, the incumbent's father, had become President by using a variation of this theme in his contest against a rather depressing looking Michael Dukakis. A black felon on parole was pumped up into a metaphor to incite majority fears. The 2008 version is far more crude and dangerous. This, if you think about it, is logical. There has been a marked degeneration in the wares of the merchants of fear, precisely because it has become much harder to sell such provocative merchandise. A baby born in the year Bush Sr was elected will cast his first vote in 2008. This will probably be the decisive vote on 4 November. This generation of Americans is, consciously, deliberately, rejecting the traumas that have bedevilled the past. This was obvious to me in the thinnest of possible samples. If the electorate had consisted only of the students I addressed at the University of Connecticut last week, Obama would have got 90% of the vote. (The other 10% would be undecided.)
The shift to new horizons may not be as marked in India, but it is happening. Those political parties who still cling to tired ideas, who do not realise that the culture of fawning sycophancy or communal antipathy is no longer sustainable, will not be able to avoid wreckage over the next decade. Leadership means lifting a nation from the quagmire of its own prejudice and inconsistencies.
Obama has already proved he is a brilliant politician and a sensitive son. Nothing he has done over two impossible years could top his decision to suspend his campaign for two days to visit his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, now on her deathbed in the modest Hawaii apartment where he grew up. He had postponed visiting his mother when she was dying of cancer until it was too late. He did not repeat that mistake. "My grandmother's the last one left. She has really been the rock of the family…" he said. Cynics might suggest that it was the perfect way to remind America that his grandmother was white, but for two days Obama was a child filled once again with his grandmother's dreams, and not the next President of America. This is why he will make a good President if he becomes one. As Colin Powell said, Obama knows what he doesn't know. That is the first qualification for maturity.
He even has the chance to transform himself into a great leader. It will not be easy. We do not know what lurks behind the steel on his face. We dare not underestimate the strength of the forces who will mobilise against him, not the least of them being big business. If you want to gauge the might of the private sector in America, take a look at this statistic. Between them the two candidates have spent about $2.5 billion trying to win the most powerful job in the world. Don't hold your breath. The annual advertising budget for just one corporation, Coca-Cola, in 2006 was $2.6 billion.
2009 is an election year in India as well. Does any Indian politician have the courage to graduate into a leader through the Indian electoral college?