Waiting for our Obama

What needs to be celebrated most about Barack Obama's stunning victory is that it has caused fissiparous multi ethnic societies the world over to engage in an appraisal of their race relations and to look at the possibility of emulating the US in electing their leaders and bringing about national integration.

A Sri Lankan scholar in a thought provoking and well argued article on this page yesterday raised a very pertinent question: American people make history: Can we Sri Lankans ever? America has, no doubt, made history by electing a black President and it deserves praise for that. But, isn't it too early to draw conclusions and make value judgments as well as any recommendations?

The outcome of an election does not necessarily provide a reliable insight into a nation's psyche. Rational thinking deserts people during crises and they tend to believe what their eyes tell them in making decisions. Any port in a storm, they say. Germany embroiled in an economic mire saw a messiah in an Austrian called Adolf Hitler and elected him as their leader. Germany regrets having made that choice, doesn’t it?

The American people have spoken at a time of a crisis. It is not difficult to figure out what they have said: About 52 per cent of them have accepted Obama as their leader and others rejected him. But the reaction of the American system to his election has yet to be known.

We will know that only after his induction as president and with the passage of time. Obama is still like a new bride. Everybody is full of admiration for him.

If Obama begins to deliver from the word go and extricates the US from the economic-military crises it is languishing in, he will be a success. And he will emerge a hero. If he fails in that endeavour, then his skin colour, Kenyan origin and his wife's lineage will become issues. Michelle Obama, it may be recalled, came in for criticism the very day after Obama's election for her election-night dress which some critics chose to dub 'horrible' and even 'hell-colored'.

Given America's difficulties precipitated by the economic woes of her allies and the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has a 50-50 chance of succeeding. He will become either the most popular or the most unpopular president of the US, depending on his performance and the vagaries of the global economy and security.

The Catholic Church has fired the first salvo against him. According to an AP dispatch published in this newspaper yesterday, 'America's Roman Catholic bishops vowed on Tuesday to forcefully confront the Obama administration over its support for abortion rights, saying the church and religious freedom could be under attack in the new presidential administration.' Ironically, exit polls showed that Obama was the choice of about 54 per cent of Catholics!

As for the question whether we will be able to follow the American example in electing President, there are several reasons why Sri Lanka has not yet got an Obama since the fall of the Kandyan kingdom to the the British colonialists. The US has remained a powerful country throughout its history and its economic prosperity exerts a tremendous pull on its people regardless of their differences. A robust economy always forms the bedrock of a democratic society. And besides factors like a common language and a common religion, it helps bring about national integration. In that respect, as is obvious, Sri Lanka and the US are poles apart.

All the people of the US are Americans before being anything else –– White, Black, Hispanic etc. They take pride in their American identity as America is an affluent and powerful nation. But, in this country, not all communities have the same sense of belongingness which alone is capable of kindling patriotism. It is the centripetal pull of the overarching American identity on the populace that has made minorities fight against discrimination and try to win their rights while being part of the American nation without seeking separatist remedies.

Had the African Americans been on a secessionist campaign –– which is never possible in the US as evident from the outcome of the American Civil War –– Obama would have stood no chance at all of becoming President. Nor would he have won, if he had been a Muslim American because of the grave threats America has come under from the Islamic terrorists.

The situation prevailing in Sri Lanka is a far cry from that in the US. That may explain why Sri Lanka is not yet ready for having an Obama.

In this country even the election of ordinary MPs has become a threat to national security, if the conduct of the Tiger proxies in Parliament is any indication. In such a situation how can Sri Lankans be psychologically prepared to act like their American counterparts in electing their head of State?

We will have an Obama the day this country is free from terrorism and secessionist forces; the economy develops and the majority community and the minorities are bound by a common Sri Lankan identity. Until such time, having an Obama in this trouble torn island will be only will-o'-the-wisp.

However, we had not just one but a number of Obamas before the advent of the British colonialism, as one of our columnists pointed out in the Midweek Review yesterday. We had several Nayakkar kings following the demise of the last Sinhala King Narendrasinghe.

The last Nayakkar King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe ruled the Kadyan kingdom until it came under the British rule in 1815. He turned out to be wicked ruler and was finally betrayed by the Kandyan chieftains who ganged up against him –– in keeping with the Sri Lankan tradition, one may say.

We only hope that America's Obama will be free from such trouble and rule as a democratic president.

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