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A phenomenon, and a commitment

November 5, 2008
Aziz Haniffa on the next POTUS*

That Barack Obama is a phenomenon is beyond doubt. Those who had listened to his tour de force at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, as I did, would attest to it. But I could never have imagined he would be the kind of juggernaut he is today.

Hardly a few weeks into his Presidential run, Obama's campaign made a major faux pax that disparagingly described Hillary Clinton's Indian links. It was a move that precipitated much angst in the Indian-American community. Obama called me to plead not guilty.

I am still kicking myself for not chatting more with him, when he apparently was willing to give me all the time I needed in his first exclusive interview with a South Asian publication. He was intent then about setting the record straight. He wanted to make sure the Indian-American community he valued so much, particularly the second generation -- the majority of whom seem to be solidly behind him -- would not be disappointed in him about this memo which he said was not something "that reflected my views or my attitudes, and didn't reflect my long-standing friendship with the Indian-American community."

For those who may have forgotten what this controversy was all about: On June 14, 2007, his campaign circulated a document that attacked Clinton's record on outsourcing and her coziness with her campaign's Indian-American fundraisers. It dubbed her the 'Democrat from Punjab,' apparently referring to a joke she made at a fundraiser hosted by Dr Rajwant Singh at his Potomac, Maryland home in 2006.

As the anger in the Indian-American community kept increasing, Obama and his campaign realised it was a major blunder and quickly got into damage control mode. His campaign officials began calling me and describing how Obama had no idea about this apparently condescending document.

Obviously, they were fearful of a 'macaca' moment -- in which then US Senator George Allen's derogatory remark about Shekar Sidarth, his then political opponent Jim Webb's Indian-American campaign worker, upset the community and put paid to Allen's chances of re-election and a Presidential run. Before that happened, he was being touted in Republican circles, particularly among Conservatives, as the heir-apparent to Ronald Reagan.

I told his campaign officials and some of Obama's strongest supporters in the community and close friends like Ann Kalayil, Preeta Bansal and Subodh Chandra that the best way for the Senator to address the community's anger was to convey a personal mea culpa through and India Abroad, the newspaper owns in the US.

So, on June 18, 2007, campaign officials started calling me asking for a suitable time for Obama to discuss this matter and around 2.30 pm the Senator called and India Abroad.

Obama was obviously calling from an aide's cell phone. When the connection began to fade at one point, he said he would immediately call back with "a better connection." He did this at least once more, saying, "I want to answer all the questions you have for me."

While asserting that he had nothing to do with the memo, he acknowledged that the concerns of the Indian-American community "are entirely justified."

I was furious when I heard about it (the document)," Obama said, and promised that "we are taking corrective action to make sure that people understand how this could be potentially hurtful."

Obama added, "I myself come from a multicultural background of promoting the most inclusive politics possible. My support among Indian Americans, South Asians and Asian Americans generally has been very strong. Thatís the culture within which I was raised, having grown up in Hawaii and Asia myself."

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Calling it an example of a clumsy effort by his staff to make a point, he said, "I hope and trust that all my friends in the Indian-American community understand this did not reflect my views either on the complex issue of outsourcing or on my attitude towards the enormous contributions of the Indian-American community to this country."

Obama said he had let those on his staff responsible for this document know "they were wrong and I let them know in no uncertain terms that this was unacceptable."

He said that in future he would make certain that anything "that goes under my name is screened by all senior staff. The other thing I am obviously doing is reaching out to all my supporters in the Indian-American community to assure them this isn't reflective of my views."

Since the interview was essentially to get a clarification from the horse's mouth on this particular controversy, I did not want to take advantage and have a full-fledged Q and A with him, even though he kept calling me back and saying he wanted to make sure he answered all of my questions. He was calling me from Iowa during his first bout of campaigning there; it turned out to be the state where he won his first electoral caucus.

I did, however, throw in a question on how he would foster US-India relations and he immediately said he was "absolutely committed" to this partnership and would do all he could further it. A member of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama, after some initial misgivings, voted in favour of the legislation to facilitate the US-India civilian nuclear agreement.

In the interview, he stressed, "As I have said publicly many times, the United States has a strong interest in making sure that economic growth is continuing in India, that workers in India have increased opportunity."

Obama declared, "India is one of our most important allies in the world and will be increasingly important as time goes on. Our economies are very integrated, we share many cultural affinities -- we are both large democracies that are committed to the rule of law -- and it is imperative for the United States and the global economy to see India succeed. So my commitment to this relationship will remain unwavering."

*POTUS=President of the United States. Photograph: Jewel Samad/Getty Images

Also read: Birth of a New Nation

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