Obama's Mahatma Moment

If it weren't for the father of your nation, I wouldn't have been here today as the president of mine. I cannot imagine a better way of saluting the interconnectedness of the world we live in than what President Obama said in his speech to India's parliament. I cannot think of a loftier ideal either for the rapidly globalizing world we live in, and it is to President Obama's credit that he spoke up for it in the manner he did. It was as if candidate Obama was back and pitching Hope, but in a global and universal version now.

The growing friendship between the United States and India notwithstanding, it is not easy to speak freely to another nation's aspirations when at least some of them are viewed with hostility in one's own. For example, what Indians see as their legitimate accomplishment through hard work and talent in a ruthlessly competitive global meritocracy, many Americans suffering from the economic excesses of some of their own elites see disdainfully as job-stealing. What Indians see as their legitimate demand for security from international terrorism is seen by some Americans as an unreasonable demand borne out of ethnic hatred that is distracting a trusted American ally from its mission to help America's own fight against terror.

While some perceptions may converge onto common ground in time, some may not. And yet, we will all have to live, work, survive, and maybe even prosper together, for that is the nature of the beast that drives our history now. We call it globalization, broadly, and we know it is changing everything, from the sort of threats we face to the sort of dreams we share. Yet, the stories we have to help us make sense of it are so limited in imagination and so different from place to place that we are still in a pre-global era in terms of our popular assumptions about it. And that is one thing President Obama may have changed, at least in the hearts and minds of all those who believe as much in America as they do in India, and of all those who believe in nations as stepping stones towards shared humanity rather than stumbling blocks.

Global and international metaphors can easily sound like clichés and platitudes, especially where official visits and speeches are involved. Despite it, there was something genuine straining inside the universal ideals that Obama invoked. It was touching when he began his visit by observing that Indians died on 9/11 and Americans died on 26/11. It was a moment of pride for many in India when Obama praised the country's achievements (and I do not condemn such pride as mere vulnerability to flattery as some do because I respect the struggle of generations of Indians and Indian-Americans that has made that moment possible). But no amount of praise can match up to the honesty and humility with which Obama made the connection between Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, and his own historic triumph as the first African-American president of the United States:

And I am mindful that I might not be standing before you today, as president of the United States, if it was not for Gandhi and the message he shared with America and the world.

That one observation, in my view, means more than all the commercial and political gains to either India or America during this visit. For a moment, what we seemed to be watching was not the most powerful man on the planet being feted by the representatives of the largest and possibly the most diverse democratic constituency on the planet, but the deeply felt truth of a single human being who has seen the enormity of the history that he has climbed up to. It was Barack Obama face to face with the spirit of a man we have called our Mahatma. It was a reminder that underneath the pretensions of power and pomp, despite the runaway trains of economic globalization and ecological catastrophe, even amidst the helplessness so many of us feel at this time in history when faced with a world of power beyond accountability, we can be told that the actions of one decent man who lived nearly a century ago somehow made this moment all come to fruition. It was a reminder that decency and humanity can win, that one simple man in a poor, 'third-world' country, could by his example inspire others and yet others until one day a Barack Obama could become president of the most powerful nation on earth.

There may be some who mistake Obama's gesture to the Mahatma as either a disrespect to America or as a carte-blanche endorsement of Indianness. But the point here lies beyond nations or even people. We are all caught up in this whirlwind of forces that we call globalization, and we take refuge in whatever is familiar to us for solace or pride; nation, religion, ideology. But in years to come we will be compelled to seek again that which humanity cannot afford to forget, that which India in its ancient wisdom or America in its newly founded zeal both represent eloquently; the desire to find ourselves again in ways that create and not destroy, and the imperative, in order to do so, to "put aside old habits and attitudes that keep people apart," as President Obama concluded. I feel hope again and will therefore not read tomorrow's papers about the bottom-line for India and America on this. I feel hope again that somewhere in the future I will one day hear an Indian man or woman of substance say that it was an American, Barack Obama, who made something good possible for him or for her, just as President Obama said of the Mahatma today.