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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 50

Obama Wins

Wednesday 3 December 2008, by Shankar Sharan

It is not Obama who has created history. It is history which created him.

The human family has a common destiny and a common capability. Race and wealth may divide them for a while; lack of opportunity may help some to wield power and others to submit. That could put blinkers of arrogance in some and humility and helplessness in others. But they or very few of them feel unequal unless forced by denial of opportunity, feel as equals once back to their roots and have no sense there of being inferior or superior to anybody else of whatever colour or creed or calling. History restores to all deprived or exploited people their rightful status, as equals, not merely by organised resistance by the oppressed people but a call of conscience by elements of dominant communities to join the fight against unjust or inhuman oppression.

Then history always balances the rights and wrongs of one part of the world by the progress made in another. It was not possible that Blacks and Whites be equals in Africa as one country after another became free from colonial rule or that South Arica and Zimambwe should have Blacks ruling over Whites by a simple numerical majority but the equality denied or reversed in the USA.The White races have tried to raise and protect the barrier for a time even after the end of colonial rule but the barriers have kept coming down both under the compulsions of democracy as their votes are valuable to all the contesting parties, and growing liberal and humanistic opinion specially in the second generation. The myths of inequality have been exploded by the brilliance of individuals of all races including Blacks from time to time in positions of highest responsibility which they have come to occupy to reconcile divergent opinions in the dominant communities of the last few centuries, for example, Secretary-General of the UN or eminent positions in other UN bodies, or the world of academics or literature or music or dance or sports. In the last three their contribution has been outstanding and deeply influenced American and European style.

This extraordinary levelling of races in the US at the top has come sooner than we expected because the prejudices there were deeper, because Blacks had been brought there as slaves, by brutal force, in chains, for the most demeaning jobs in farming cotton in the south, whipped into submission, and by the oppression of the hapless though occasionally rebellious slaves, thousands of miles away from their homes and help upheld rather than punished by law.

But the Americans have fought their own brutal injustice the way no other people has done. It fought a Civil War with its own southern states under its outstanding President Abraham Lincoln to abolish slavery rather than allow its extension to the north. Discriminations persisted under various subterfuges, including denial of votes by subterfuges like requirement for the Blacks of reciting the Constitution or repeating a Latin sentence.Various forms of apartheid continued to be practised, for example, in schools or jobs or residential areas, public transport or clubs or restaurants. The Blacks needed to put up another bout of resistance and needed another bout of backing from the Whites. It came in 1968 in the form of Civil Rights Bill under another famous President John F. Kennedy who at the sacrifice of his life had it enacted by his successor Lyndon Johnson. From then the Americans became legal equals of Whites against apartheid and increasingly rose to positions of ever higher responsibility including Secretary of State and Joint Chief of Staff of the armed forces.

But it was still a big jump to the Presidency for Obama not only with a Black father, though a White mother, but the middle name of Hussain.

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His victory was both a negative vote against Bush and Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton’s spouse and a gender bias but more than them a huge positive vote for a man of Obama’s qualities of head and heart and transcendental values that surpassed those of his rival Hillary and appealed to the American people regardless of race and American aspirations of peace and to be respected rather than feared through the world. It still would not have happened had not the White Americans risen above race and voted for the best candidate.

Huntington’s Clash of Civilsations has been buried once and for all. Disparities and differences are not always resolved by conflict and clash but just as well by wisdom and accommodation and integration. The reconciliation achieved in plural and multicultural societies also bear testimony to it be it in India or South America or even in Eastern Europe under men like Lenin and Tito. Alas nothing being permanent the story at places has also been reversed. But if peace is not permanent nor is conflict or clash.

A word needs to be said of the great possibilities of integration, reconciliation opened up by the great institution of democracy, one of man’s finest inventions and half the time against the very grain of natural order and human nature. Over the long term there is no leveller like democracy not only as a device to reconcile or transcend differences, but to iron out grave disparities and inequities in economic opportunities or their fruits, convert privilege into shared rights and convert past failures into new opportunities albeit without spilling a drop of blood, peacefully. America has demonstrated as a strong and healthy democracy in its will and capacity not only to change its relations with the outside world to improve its security and peace, but also its internal coherence and equity and peace.

The current economic crisis and recurring past crises have put a question mark on the sustainability of democracy and its capacity to manage the economy against the combined strength of the capitalist order. Much has been written about the essential contradiction between democracy and a free market economy and how the benefits of democracy are negated by the ills of capitalism.

While the power of the capitalist system to create disruptions and cause grave disparities of income and economic instability is a well-founded view, democracies round the world and in America have also demonstrated the power of democracies to put checks on the excesses of capitalism. What democracies have demonstrated repeatedly is that they will not permit an unholy alliance between political and economic power and that in the end political or people’s power, if wisely exercised, will prevail.

Yet it is also a fundamental truth that grave social or economic divisions between the people who constitute a democracy will invite grave dangers to it. The tenets of the free market have to be tempered with the regulations of a socialist economy, with a strong network of social security, and social disparities as in India must be eradicated both by law and by educating the people and offering them better economic opportunities.

Finally Obama is only a hope and possibility. He has to convert himself into a reality but he cannot do so only by serving old wine in new bottles. While the need to achieve national reconciliation is important, of greater or equal importance is the need to break new ground.

The author is the President of the Awami Ekta Manch, Patna/Delhi. He can be contacted at e-mail: shankarsharan@hotmail.com

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