Thursday, November 06, 2008

TAPPING THE PHONE LINES: NON NSA STYLE

As part of the election, I did something which I had not really planned for; I made 30 phone calls to voters on behalf of Barack Obama's campaign. I did this pretty much on impulse and in spite of not being a US citizen. But I also think that there was a genuine reason behind it. Perhaps that reason points to how important we felt this election was not just for the country but for the world. It indicates how much each of us were fed up with bullying, cronyism and irrationality, and how all of us wanted a breath of fresh rationality, honesty and compassion in the national and international dialogues of our times. Perhaps it especially demonstrated how those of us who have come to these shores with a certain image of the US in our mind wanted to resurrect that image after we were sorely disappointed with how badly that image was tarnished.

I started with registering on barackobama.com and noting my address. After that it was really simple. They gave me a list of tasks I could do, such as driving people who cannot drive to the polls. Since it was a little late for that, I thought I would do the next thing on the list which was really easy: call people. Call them to make sure they have voted. If they have, ask them if they considered supporting Obama. If they have not, ask them when they plan to vote. And ask them if they will strongly consider supporting Obama. If nobody is home, leave a message with the above questions and comments. If the phone number is not working, note this fact on the website. That was really it.

I had an interesting experience overall. Most of the times I either talked to people who have already voted, or left a message. In some cases I left a message with another member of the household. As I made one call after another, I understood the value of doing this. I realise that sometimes when people are sitting on the fence, a simple phone call from a campaign (and a lack of one from the other) can possibly change their minds. I guess that's what all the talk about grassroots efforts is about.

My last phone call was the most interesting of all, when I had to accomplish the difficult task of convincing someone to vote for Obama. I reached a 88 year old voter in Ohio. This man had lived through the Depression and the War. He probably was fed up with both political parties. Before I could say anything, he asked me to recite the first 7 words in the Declaration of Independence. I was completely caught unawares and hesitatingly began with the words "We the people" before quickly embarrassing myself and realizing that that was the Constitution. I had another chance to salvage my dignity, but then I realized that the most famous words of the Declaration, the whole part about all men being created equal which I did know, could not possibly be the beginning. Nevertheless I mumbled those words and got another reprimand from him. Finally he decided to give this anonymous Obama supporter (with an accent!) a last chance and asked me who wrote it. I said Jefferson and thereby barely managed to save the last shreds of my dignity. But then it got interesting. Somewhat bitterly, he asked me why he should support Obama if I did not know the Declaration. To which I falteringly answered that while I profusely apologized for my ignorance, I did know what the document stands for and I thought that its implications and ideals were more important than its exact wording. That seemed to satisfy him. I breathed a sigh of relief and wiped my brow before thanking him and hanging up, although it turned out at the end that he had already voted "at high noon" and this was probably a "test". Later I asked many of my American friends the same question, and all of them except one or two ended up citing the same lines from the Declaration or Constitution as I did. I guess they are as ignorant about Obama and what he stands for as I am!

So I had an interesting experience. But I also realized the power of grassroots efforts and the medium of the Internet. If I could so easily place 30 phone calls and out of those 30 voters if I could convince even 2 to vote, imagine what it would be for hundreds of thousands of such people around the country to constantly make phone calls days on end and talk to voters.

It may sound strange and perhaps even unpatriotic that I who have never voted in India am now contributing to a drive to garner votes in a country where I am not a citizen. In fact not voting in India when I had one chance to do it is something that I count as a failure in my life and, although I had my reasons, I feel ashamed of not doing it. In my flimsy defense, I was blissfully uninterested in politics when I was in India. This was mainly because I was too cynical about it and also because I was too interested in science and music to find time for it. My protests against politics had a ring of truth to them; what's the point of voting if all of these people are going to mess up the country anyway? But it was later that I realized that even if my disillusionment with the national political scene made sense, by not voting I was not exercising the most crucial right I have in my country, and ironically by not doing this I was not helping to improve the same situation that I had been deploring for so long. More importantly, even if none of them were good, someone has got to be better than the previous one. He doesn't need to be a paragon, he simply needs to be better than the previous one and that should be reason enough to vote for him or her.

I resent the fact that I did not vote or do such simple volunteering in India. If I am back in India at some point and can do it, I surely will. But in spite of being an outsider, I am glad I did this here on Tuesday. Perhaps it was the scientist in me that encouraged me to do this for a man who respects scientific inquiry more than many of his predecessors. It was my shout out not just to Obama but more importantly to rationality, a virtue without national boundaries.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Manasi said...

That must have been some conversation! And though I would have frowned upon the contradiction in your behavior (volunteering here vs. not voting back home), I think the significance of this election and the man kept me from doing so. And I am also surprised that you did not vote. Cynicism is understood and shared. Disinterest is surprising.

Anyways. Your campaigning account reiterates to me something I have been thinking all along during this election. Real grassroot middle class and student participation in elections in India. And because it seemed to be getting to be long for a comment, I have made it into a post. (http://manasikakatkar.blogspot.com/2008/11/reflecting-on-elections.html)

11:32 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

I am guilty as charged Manasi! If you had known me six years ago you truly would have wondered how I could be so detached from the political scenario.

However, I think we all pass through phases in our lives. Until I came to the US, I was almost exclusively interested in science with scant knowledge or appreciation of any of the arts and humanities except music. My general interest in politics unfortunately grew only after I came to the US, and that too was really because of an exponentially increased interest in history and nuclear energy.

The only defense I can offer is that in India I was as detached from everything else as I was from politics! I definitely hope to make up for that when hopefully I can go back to India for a prolonged period sometime and vote in the general elections.

I will read your post soon.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Manasi said...

A surprise again. But I will leave it at that.

9:33 AM  

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