On 9/11, 1906, Mohandas K. Gandhi launched his experiments in 'passive resistance' against the Natal government in South Africa. As a young and idealistic lawyer, Gandhi was trying to gain rights for the indentured servants against an oppressive system. Very few people could predict that his experiments would become a powerful instrument for civil disobedience. Fifty years ago during his trip to India, MLK adopted Gandhi's experiments as the mantra of the American civil rights movement.
Over the past 100 years, the instrument of civil disobedience has influenced many quietrevolutions around the world and generated just as many theatrical interpretations, movies and plays. The most recent adaptation by Phillip Glass, called the Satyagraha (literally translated, 'truth force'), just appeared on Broadway.
In the current election season, the democratic nominee, Barack Obama claims to be inspired by Gandhi and wants to lead the moral majority against the Iraq war. However, he is quick to point out that he is not a pacifist and not against all wars: "What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this Administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne."
Obama's satyagraha was enunciated in an anti-war speech on Iraq delivered in 2002, which has been instrumental in winning him the Democratic nomination. When he made the speech, he was an upcoming local politician in Illinois, who had not yet decided to run for the U.S. Senate. He certainly did not anticipate that his speech would become the cornerstone of his candidacy during the long and drawn-out democratic primaries or the platform on which to fight the Republican opposition for the presidency.
Like the characters in a good novel, great figures in history mature with the passage of time and are lifted up by seemingly unforeseen events. Gandhi did not become a Mahatma overnight. He was a cold and calculating lawyer and politician, who later evolved into a spiritual leader. The "fast Eddie Obama", as David Brooks calls him, is a Chicago style politician, who may be more Machiavellian than Republicans are willing to believe.
Obama has not been shy about his aspirations to be a transformational figure. This is the key to his rhetorical persona and mass appeal. His critics claim that the Obama charisma is vapid, without any core beliefs or substance, given his shifting positions and thin resume. As Maureen Dowd has commented, "for some of Obama's critics, it's a breathtaking bit of fungible principles, as though Gandhi suddenly donned a Dolce & Gabbana, or Dolce & Mahatma, loincloth."
Nevertheless, his followers willing to wait for hours on end to hear him speak have been crowding out huge concert halls and sports arenas to get a glimpse of their new progressive avatar and drive long distances to obtain the Obama darshan or to simply be in his presence. One can just imagine what the peace and flower-power concerts in the 60's might have been like. Many even see in Obama a messiah-like figure, a great soul, and some affectionately call him Mahatma Obama. Clearly, people are hungry for a change and want an inspirational leader who can serve up some hearty 'chicken soup for the soul'.
As a political descendant of the civil rights movement and MLK, Obama seems to have swallowed up the Mahatma in whole. Obama like the Mahatma believes in:
· Power of the people to transform society at the grassroots level;
· Social equality and economic empowerment for the poor;
· Unity among different races, creeds and religions;
· Use of non-violence or soft-power to break bread even with your enemies.
Finally, both the Mahatma and Obama found their ultimate calling in Africa. Mahatma, whom Mandella called the "sacred warrior," found his identity in South Africa when as a young barrister he was thrown out of a train cabin reserved for the White South Africans: "I recall particularly one experience that changed the course of my life. Seven days after I had arrived in South Africa the client who had taken me there asked me to go to Pretoria from Durban. It was not an easy journey. On the train I had a first-class ticket, but not a bed ticket. At Maritzburg, when the beds were issued, the guard came and turned me out. The train steamed away leaving me shivering in cold. Now the creative experience comes there. I was afraid for my very life. I entered the dark waiting room. There was a white man in the room. I was afraid of him. What was my duty; I asked my self. Should I go back to India, or should I go forward, with God as my helper and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that day."
Barack Obama found his identity in a Luo village in Kisumu, Kenya, when he finally confronted the legacy of his Kenyan father and grandfather, sitting amidst the graves of his ancestors: "For a long time I sat between the two graves and wept. When my tears were finally spent, I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close. I realized who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw my life in America-the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I'd felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I'd witnessed in Chicago--all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father's pain. My questions were my brother's questions. Their struggle, my birthright."
Why is any of this important now? Like the Mahatma, Obama is becoming a global symbol of the 'hopes and dreams' of millions around the world. Those who look up to the American ideals, consume American media, and dream American dreams are tuned into this historic election. While Gandhi marked the end of the colonial era, Obama with his multicultural background and upbringing represents the age of globalization. Obama is in an unprecedented historical position to not only be the first African American president, but the first 'global president' of America. Obama's images on T-shirts, magazine covers, and TV screens around the world may be a harbinger of the next American century, if the American people are willing and able to lead it.