Thursday, 6 November 2008

Ich bin ein Amerikaner


Change has indeed come to America. And what momentous change!

Take your eyes off Barack Obama for a minute to see the greater wonder. Michelle Obama enters the White House as First Lady of the country that enslaved her ancestors. Now that is poetic. None of Barack's ancestors was ever a slave. It is in Michelle Obama that I see the wheel of history come full circle.

Still, the world has reached but one milestone. We rejoice that a black (or as my pedantic mind would interject, "half-black, half-white") person has won the recognition he deserves for his talent and potential without regard to his race. That is a triumph of American meritocracy. The next milestone for our collective civilisation will be when such an achievement does not evoke comment.

Personally, my opinion of the US has now soared. Having always looked at the US from outside, I would say it was US foreign policy that has had the greatest influence on my opinion. Specifically, as an Indian growing up in India during the seventies and eighties, resentment was my uppermost feeling whenever I thought of the US. US foreign policy never practised what it preached. It preached democracy and human rights. Yet when asked to choose between democratic India and authoritarian Pakistan, the US always came down on the side of Pakistan. Repeated evidence of Pakistan's sponsorship of terrorism in Kashmir and elsewhere in India was ignored by successive American administrations. In particular, Nixon's shameful partisanship during the 1971 Bangladesh war will remain forever in my mind, and I could not help but feel glee at his subsequent ignominous departure from public life. If I was religious, I would call it karma.

It has only been in recent times (i.e., during the Clinton adminstration) that India has received more favourable treatment compared to its troublesome neighbour. And that's not so much because the US finally saw the error of its ways but because India became economically so much more important. Barack Obama too understands where the threat to peace comes from today. He is the highest-profile American to have talked about possible military action against Pakistan to root out terrorism. One more example of his clear thinking if one was needed. At last, an American President who sees what only Indians could see so far.

Regional politics aside, Obama's election now robs every dictatorship around the world of its last remaining excuses. I remember eighties-era Soviet propaganda and its boast - that it was easier for the descendent of a Russian serf to achieve high office in the USSR than it was for the descendent of an African slave to become a governor or the President of the US. Now, a truly liberal American populace has shown the lie to that sort of thinking. As recently as a couple of months ago, people around the world were muttering that American racism was alive and well, that American voters would never "allow" a black person to become President.

America retorted: Yes, we can. Just watch us.

And the world watched, mouth agape.

I have always resented it when Americans referred to their country as "the greatest nation on Earth." Today, I'll swallow that resentment and grant them the right to say that. As Obama said in his victory speech in Chicago, "the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope."

Meritocracy matters. At least two generations of talented Indians have left India's shores for the US. "Opportunity" is the word most often used to explain their decision to migrate, but what provides opportunity is the undiscriminating meritocracy of American society. You perform, you are rewarded. No wonder Indians are known as the most successful ethnic minority in the US. The entrepreneurial Indian provides the seed, and the meritocratic American environment provides the fertile soil for that seed to become the biggest tree it possibly can. Reportedly, 40% of Silicon Valley's startups have Indian owners. So many Indian names feature in the senior executive level of the American corporate world and in the faculty lists of the Ivy League. In contrast, India's own soil has been sadly barren for several decades, and native seeds could never grow into such tall trees in that soil.

The challenge that Barack Obama's election poses to India is different from the challenge that it poses to many other countries. India is already a democracy with an equally impressive record of righting historical wrongs and empowering its historically disadvantaged minorities. Next year's Indian elections may see the elevation of a Dalit ("untouchable") woman to the highest office in the land. That will be doubly impressive for a society that has historically been both patriarchal and caste-ridden. No, the challenge for India from Obama's election is to develop as an equally visible meritocracy. Can India provide opportunity to all, regardless of personal background? Affirmative action is hugely effective in India in churning and inverting the social pyramid, but it is also hugely controversial and creates its own pockets of unfairness. There is also entrenched unfairness and bigotry in the Indian populace at large of the kind that Americans were so recently accused of. As an example, the leader of the party that formed the current Indian government was effectively denied the Prime Ministership in spite of her Indian citizenship because she was born Italian. Even educated Indians wrote emphatic comments on blogs swearing that they would never accept her as PM. Welcome to racism, Indian-style. India needs to answer the American challenge - Can a white person become prime minister of India? Because meritocracy counts, and change starts at the top (or at the bottom, if you're talking about the mind of an individual).

We will definitely see this election reverberate throughout the world. Obama's greatest handicap now is the weight of expectations that he carries. No one expects that he will sell out US interests in a naive internationalist spirit. He will first and foremost safeguard US interests. If he can see (in a way that past US administrations could not) that US interests are best served by supporting a network of true democracies around the world rather than by propping up acquiescent dictators, he would have achieved a win-win situation for all of us.

I also cynically hope he will renege on his protectionist election promises. Protectionism always harms those it is meant to protect, so I'm hoping he will prove to be as pragmatic (on trade) as he was when he rejected campaign financing after initially pledging support for it.

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