Obama Renews This Expat's Pride

DELHI // A little more than 60 years ago a sharp-eyed, diminutive man with the tongue-twisting name of Jawaharlal brought the world’s most populous democracy into being with a stirring, landmark speech.

“Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny,” began Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, speaking in August 1947. “Now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially.”

Squeezed into a south Delhi cafe not far from where those words were spoken, a ragtag band of nearly 100 Barack Obama admirers – Indians as well as Americans and various other foreigners – watched the United States redeem not one but two pledges with Tuesday’s presidential election.

Subdued optimism gave way to unbridled glee when the results appeared on the big screen at 9.30am local time. People stood and cheered, hooted, hollered and whistled.

“Bush created a perception of what Americans are like – arrogant and unable to listen,” Rishi Jaitly said shortly after bear hugging anyone within reach. An American of Indian origin, he has been working in Delhi as a policy analyst for Google since early last year. “This reaffirms that we are an exceptional country; today I’m so proud to be an American.”

Whether the dream of Dr Martin Luther King Jr has come to pass – and African Americans can proclaim themselves “free at last” – is not yet clear. But never has the United States so boldly lived out its creed: that all men are created equal. Come Jan 20, Barack Hussein Obama, an African-American raised in near poverty by a single mother, will become the most powerful man on the planet. A more persuasive argument for American democracy is hard to imagine.

Of greater concern for the world’s six billion non-Americans are the values for which the US has long stood: fairness and morality, liberty and human dignity, values many believe George W Bush trashed with post -September 11 bullying.

“When Bush was elected for the second time – after the Iraq war and torture and that – America lost a lot of respect in the world,” said Miguel Alcalde, a 29-year-old Spaniard who has been in India for a year. “But this means that people have had enough. This is good for America.”

Working as a South Asia correspondent for the past few years, I have faced regular fallout from the Bush failures. The most cutting occurred this past May. I was walking towards the Red Mosque in Islamabad when I locked eyes with a gentle-looking, white-bearded man wearing a salwar kameez and a skullcap.

“What country are you from?” he asked, smiling and walking alongside me.

“I’m from the United States,” I said.

He winced as if in pain.

“Why are you coming here and killing us?” he asked.

“I’m not killing anyone, sir,” I said, forcing a smile.

“Well your president sure is, coming here, going to Iraq, killing Muslims,” he said, holding my arm for balance as we negotiated a series of awkward kerbs.

“Yeah, well, I think he’s trying to do something good but doesn’t know how to go about it,” I said sheepishly.

“He’s not doing anything good!” the man retorted, pausing as we reached his turning. “And I speak better English than he does.”

Such people as Mufti Omar see hope in Mr Obama.

In South Asia, Mr Bush is widely panned, and support for John McCain has been scarce. Mr Obama is seen as offering redemption, the possible renewal of those great American values. His tryst with the world is thus not just a historical precedent, but a crucial break from the recent past.

Still, the Indian government is already voicing concern that in an effort to shore up a still tense relationship with Pakistan, Mr Obama will force Delhi’s hand in Kashmir. Other countries are sure to have their own concerns and with Mr Obama’s record so slim, his career still in its infancy, it is impossible to predict how successful a president he will be.

Yet even before he settles into the Oval Office and makes his first decision, the progress is clear. His middle name, for instance, is gaining him fans in the Muslim world.

Henry Pedersen, 22, an American camel genetics researcher, recalls being asked when he visited Algeria this year: “You’re electing a Shia president?”

“They were absolutely shocked,” he said. “But they definitely dig it.”

Can Mr Obama’s skin colour and background offer hope for the world’s minorities and disadvantaged?

“This is about America opening up to the rest of the world,” said Himali Kapil, 32, a Delhi-based writer and filmmaker. “The identities that truly represent America are finding their voice – that’s what feels so positive about Obama.”

For those eager to see Mr Obama in office, nearly two years of campaigning has revealed a steady hand, a sharp mind and confident, deliberate leadership skills.

“The good thing about Obama is that he might talk to somebody before bombing the crap out of them,” said John Butler, a Briton doing voluntary work in India. “It’s nice to have hope in a politician again.”

Could it really be? That after eight years, there will be no more discomfort when talk turns to international politics? No more bullying, no more assaults on the English language from the leader of the free world? We shall see. For many Americans abroad, however, Nov 4 2008 will go down as the dawning of a bright, new morning for the US on the world stage.

-- published in The National (www.thenational.ae) on 6 Nov 2008.

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