I'm a long-standing fan girl of President Obama. I haven't always agreed with his policies and various decisions he has taken, but the liberal, constitutional values he stands for are admirable. You see his poise, the dignified way in which he answers questions, thoughtfully and carefully and with humour, and you wonder - really America, what have you done?
The Town Hall organised by the Obama Foundation in Delhi was for about 300 young leaders in India. I was lucky enough to be invited and for once, put my journalist's hat away and went to listen instead.
There was a remarkable group of young people who came to the Town Hall. This was a truly inspiring group of people who work in all kinds of fields from techies to an NGO working on sanitation to a young man I met who had recently graduated from Stanford and is looking for ways to lift Indians out of poverty. Another bright young man is part of a group lobbying to lower the age at which at which one can become an MP or MLA (from 25 to 21). These are young people who are really making a difference, who are both rooted and working at the grassroots.
Over the course of nearly two hours, the former US President spoke on a range of issues and questions thrown at him. He talked about his foundation, and how it aims to train young leaders around the world.
"There has never been a better time to be a young person", said Obama. "As troubled as our politics and as difficult as the world can seem when you watch the news, the fact is now we are in a world where many more women can vote; global life expectancy is up; extreme poverty and childhood mortality have been cut by half since the 90s; despite terrible conflicts taking place in the world, the world is actually less violent; more girls going to school. It happened because people chose to make it happen".
The moment that really stood out for me was when a transgender person who was once a sex worker and a beggar, got up to ask Obama about Section 377, which makes homosexuality illegal in India. She said "I am a black beauty and I love you. What happens when state terror is against minorities? I'm a criminal under 377?" Obama skirted the specific issue of Section 377 but talked about the need for the marginalised to find their voice and to articulate their views."Hopefully more voices will join you. Find alliances. And applying political pressure and mobilise public opinion. That will take time."
He spoke about how he didn't have a mentor growing up and perhaps that's what has made him keen to mentor young people now. And he spoke about the dangers of online echo chambers. Obama said, "The dangers of technology are that it can actually isolate people, they no longer have a conversation, and because of the algorithms, people start having their pre-existing biases reinforced, they stop listening to people who don't agree with them."
Asked how people can be motivated to stay the course to make changes, he admitted that "change is difficult". And that tempering expectations was important.
I was lucky enough in a huge roomful of people, who all had their hands raised, to have the President call on me for a question. But the moment he heard that I was a reporter by profession, he said he would take a question from someone else since I "always had the chance to ask questions and the others did not!" Needless to say, it was disappointing, I wasn't there on assignment but invited by his Foundation.
But for what it's worth, here is my question: You spoke about echo chambers online and its dangers. I want to know how we can overcome that at a bigger level, where the world is turning more towards hyper-nationalism and taking a turn towards the right. How can we all engage with each other, and how do liberals in particular come out of their echo chambers so that we can understand why, for example, Donald Trump was elected?
You didn't want to take my question Mr. President but nevertheless I hope it's a question liberals everywhere can ponder on.(Nidhi Razdan is Executive Editor, NDTV and the anchor of NDTV 24x7's prime-time show Left, Right and Centre.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
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