Barack Obama's farewell speech: India will do well remembering his message on democracy, rising partisanship

"Four more years," the crowd in Chicago chanted as President Barack Obama began his farewell speech on Tuesday night.

"I can't do that," replied Obama.

The world needs hope more than it did eight years ago when Obama burst onto the scene with his epoch-defining campaign and its defining message of "yes, we can." The world needs Obama's moral and political leadership more than ever before.

Even India does. And, at his farewell, it seemed Obama was indeed talking to India, its people and reminding us how we would miss his leadership.

It is almost tragic that we can't have a few more years of Obama in a world, in an America, that seems to be at a threshold of erasing his legacy, negating his ideals.

Barack Obama. AP

Barack Obama. AP

Over the past few decades, the world has seen many politicians and presidents. There have been despots, tyrants, dictators, war-mongers and bigots whose sole purpose in life has been the perpetuation of their own regime, quest of more power. In the pursuit of their goals, they forced wars and invasions, unleashed fear, totalitarian states, bigotry and undermined the very foundations of the democracy and society that chose them or helped their ascent to power.

But, Obama — like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela — was different. He tried to lead people with the power of his moral force, humanitarian ideals and the message of peace, harmony, equality, love. Obama tried to lead a movement of hope for the high ideals humanity pursues. In an age when politics strives to divide and rule, Obama turned into a symbol of universal brotherhood by recruiting his campaign voters of all categories: White, Black, Hispanics, Christians, Muslims, Indians; those from the south, the ones from the north; those with degrees and white collar jobs, those without them.

The rise of Donald Trump in the US, the far-right in every corner of the world, the raging headwinds of xenophobia, aggressive nationalism, bigotry and fear, may perhaps force us to think Obama failed in his mission of making the world more liberal, inclusive and optimistic — a frustration that was evident in his farewell speech. But, Obama represented the very ideals that humanity was built on. And, one day, if not already now, he would be remembered as a symbol of the good in us, someone who strove for the greater common good, a leader who aspired not for the commonplace, but the grand and magnificent in every human.

His farewell speech, thus, was a fitting finale to his legacy. In a mix of humility — a rare trait among politicians — and emotions that made everyone around him emotional, Obama harked back to the themes of his leadership and warned of the dangers we face.

"It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," Obama said, words that define his ideology as well as a reminder to those, including Trump, who propagate discrimination on the basis of colour, religion and nationality.

Not everyone gets respected and loved as a global leader, gets recognised as the beacon of universal hope. Even the greatest presidents of their countries, Ronald Reagan for instance, fail to transcend a few boundaries and, in the end, are remembered just as leaders of their country, their party, or, at best, a small part of the world.

Obama was able to do it because his message cut through geographical, religious and linguistic barriers. And he spoke to the world as if he was talking to every citizen, addressing his concerns, fears and dreams, speaking of their well-being.

Many themes of his farewell speech, for instance, could have applied even to India. His rebuke to bigots, call for strengthening democracy and its institutions, focus on the importance of debates, his assertion that democracy is a clash of ideas and not the monopoly of a select few and their ideologies, his warnings against rising naked partisanship, splintering of media into a channel for every taste and belief that right should prevail over might are as relevant to India today as they are to his own country.

Was India listening when he rapped those who claim sole ownership to patriotism, underlining the fact that his country belongs equally to everyone, including the immigrants and the Muslims who made it their own, strengthened it with their commitment to the Constitution and hard work?

"So regardless of the station we occupy; we have to try harder; to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own," Obama said.

Obama talked about how faith in reason, and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might, allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression, and build a post-World War II order with other democracies, an order based not just on military power or national affiliations but on principles — the rule of law, human rights, freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and an independent press.

That order, he said, is now being challenged – first by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam; more recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets, open democracies, and civil society itself as a threat to their power. The peril each poses to our democracy is more far-reaching than a car bomb or a missile. It represents the fear of change; the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently; a contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable; an intolerance of dissent and free thought; a belief that the sword or the gun or the bomb or propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.

It is a message that Indians would do well to remember. It is a shame Obama will not be around for four more years to remind us.

There are certain things even Obama can't.