Tuesday, November 04, 2008

US & us: United they stand, divided we fall

US & us: United they stand, divided we fall
By M J Akbar

The Obama-McCain election should be abandoned immediately for reasons of discrimination. It is inhuman to pit the young and brilliant against the old and insecure.

Barack Hussein Obama soars above pitfalls of race and colour, his vision lifted by oratory. John McCain, stunted by George Bush's death-and-dread legacy, crippled by a running mate he selected in a moment of maverick panic, whines with the self-pity of a dead idea struggling to crawl its way back from a grave. It is a no-contest, even though news channels like CNN, dependent on ratings-revenues, pretend that there is some tension left. (If I have to eat my words on November 4, I will be dining out alone for a long time; but let me take the risk.)

As if individual élan were not enough, look at the help in Obama's corner: the smartest politician in half a century, Bill Clinton, to his left, and the toughest candidate in the contemporary process, Hillary Clinton, to his right. McCain has Sarah Palin, who manages to plumb new depths of idiocy when you thought it was impossible to sink further. Ten days ago, in Pittsburgh, she attacked scientific research on fruit flies adding that some of it had even taken place, hold your breath, "in Paris, France". It was wise of her to add "France"; she wasn't overestimating the IQ levels of her base. No one had told her, or them, that Pittsburgh, a classic example of American reinvention after the collapse of its traditional steel and coal industries, is now the leading centre of medical research through its highly respected Pittsburgh University.

McCain's second running mate is someone he affectionately calls "Joe the plumber", a wondrous hick dredged up from anonymity in Ohio to symbolize the evil that Obama would unleash through "socialism", the most slanderous term in American politics. Why is Obama a "socialist"? Because he has the courage to attack the pernicious "trickle down theory" inflicted by neo-cons and thrust upon the world through institutions like the World Bank. Obama says, and repeats, "At a moment like this the last thing we can afford is four more years of the tired old theory that says we should give more to billionaires and big corporations and hope that prosperity trickles down." (Memo to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and finance minister Chidamabaram: if the theory isn't trickling down too well in America, I doubt if it will seduce the farmer in Andhra or Maharashtra.)

Joe hates the thought that Obama wants to "redistribute" wealth by taxing the top five per cent; McCain insists that this is utterly un-American. In an ungainly turn of phrase, he calls Obama "redistributionist-in-chief" while he sets himself up as "commander-in-chief". It turns out that Joe is not actually a plumber, that he would not have to pay more taxes under Obama's plan, and that he hasn't paid his taxes anyway but this has not stopped McCain from turning a canard into his most important campaign theme. Joe, in the meantime, has got himself a PR agent and is preparing to become a big-time celebrity. We shall see if Joe can survive a McCain defeat.

America wants change. That is obvious from Bush's ratings, down now to 22%, the worst in history. You can't call them popularity ratings anymore; they must be relabelled unpopularity ratings. The real story lies in the manner that Obama, and America, are creating change. Obama is restoring the idea of America as an inclusive, free and equal society where egalitarianism is the key to prosperity. This is democracy at its finest.

Democracy is not a love-fest. Elections can be corrosive. We in India are also in the midst of continuous turbulence as parties struggle for popular approval, while terrorists, secessionists and virulent sectarians choose this moment to amplify their destructive intent. But while Americans are gathering behind the idea of a better nation, Indian politicians are ever ready to reap the temporary rewards of long-term disunity. Democracy has become a playground for the dissection of the idea of India.

Comparisons are considered odious, particularly by those who can be compared. But think about it. How much difference is there between those who terrorise Bihari workers in Mumbai and those who drove out Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley? Both expellers want to restructure a complex subcontinent, blessed with a liberal Constitution, from shared space to exclusive compartments. The idea of India was the gift of a great generation with an open mind. It is being battered by petty men with closed minds.

The terrorists who set off murderous bombs in Maharashtra or Gujarat or Delhi or Assam must be laughing all the way to the graveyard. India is spinning on wheels that no longer seem to respond to a common engine. It would be distressing to conclude that we have lost the engine. The problem is that the driver at the centre has lost control, but refuses to relinquish charge of the steering wheel. This reinforces a perception of weakness, which is easily exploited by forces inimical to the nation, wherever they may be, whatever might be their methods.

Last Wednesday in Florida, Bill Clinton called the American presidential campaign the "greatest job interview in the world" with the voter getting to "make the hire". The Indian interview is even tougher, actually. This does not diminish the availability of candidates. If they were to be tested only for ambition, they would score high marks on the cynicism scale. The Indian voter, who makes this hire, is, however, getting fed up with quantity. He wants quality and commitment. Is that too much to ask?

Appeared in Times of India - November 2, 2008

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