Serial Bus

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Ginger Rogers & Sonia Gandhi did everything….

with 5 comments

The other day an American colleague asked me how different were Indian elections, compared to what US is doling out. I was tempted to denounce even the thought of comparison – to me, aside from being democracies, the 2 countries were a study in contrast. But, then as I began talking about India, I realized that my colleague was, sort of, identifying with everything I was saying. Perhaps, at a high level, both systems have the same strengths and same failings.

For someone like me who is completely uninitiated in American politics, the presidential election campaign has lived to its promise of a being a great spectacle. I added the following words to my lexicon since I began following the elections: Primary, Super Tuesday, super-delegate, swift-boat, pitbull, hockey mom, pork and Iowa (just kidding!). And, I learnt one of the most interesting lines on women-power:

“Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did; except that she did it backwards and in high heels.”

Sure, US uses a different parlance and also follows a different system of democracy (presidential, as opposed to parliamentary) but the electoral tactics utilized by the politicians have the same hallmarks: some facts and a lot of spin. I had believed that Indian politics alone was about emotive issues and vote bank tactics. Sitting afar, you see US as a developed country that invented Google and WMDs, which should mean that all its citizens are swayed by nothing but facts and national interest. They would pay scant attention to someone’s religion, race, gender and anything else that has no direct bearing on one’s performance as a president.

But, that is not true and most differences with India are only of degree. For instance, while psephology is still in nascent stages in India, use of polls and punditry is excessive in the US. Also, while US is more accepting of public debates between candidates, they are altogether missing in India. On the other hand, age of candidates is never an issue in India. Our leaders have always been doddering septuagenarians while Americans seem anxious over the possibility of McCain giving up the ghost while in office.

However, here is how US is so much like India:

a) Personal affiliations are public fodder. Religion is big and so is race although divisions are no longer as sharp as in earlier decades. As a candidate, Kennedy had to a give a speech on why he could be a good president despite being a Catholic. Obama had to publicly defend his race and at times, go an extra mile to convince people that he is pious. When Rick Warren calls, both McCain and Obama can not resist. In India, religion and caste decide who gets the ticket to contest. Championship of pulling down an old mosque in the otherwise forgotten district of Faizabad gave rise to a mammoth national party, BJP.

b) Family is a big card. Appearances and speeches by spouse are part of an established routine. Cindy trails John where he goes and Todd does Sarah. An unmarried candidate or without kids would be an anomaly. Spin doctors for the candidates subtly release pictures of candidates sharing a private moment with their families or hugging a stranger’s kid at a rally. People elect and re-elect clans of Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons. In India, having the ‘Gandhi’ surname is a ticket to ride. Sonia Maino, who was born an Italian Catholic, is the most powerful person in a largely Hindu India, as she had the opportunity to change her family name to Gandhi. Assassination of her husband unleashed a public wave of sympathy so strong that people voted Congress party to power, putting aside any reservations of more important kind.

c) Courtship of media is important. Every week, media keeps announcing how the gap is narrowing and what American people want. I am sure the campaign staff gets sleepless nights the day their candidate commits a harmless gaffe or makes an unpracticed remark. Television and of late, internet have become potent force s that can not be ignored. McCain’s lack of savvy in internet is quickly spun by Obama campaign as an indication of his being stodgy and old-fashioned. Obama’s use of text messages and YouTube’s use of Obama (see Obama Girl) change the way electorate is influenced. In India, internet is yet to become a credible tool for most grassroots politicians (who match McCain in age and savvy) however, television and newspapers have a very powerful reach into the middle class.

d) Economic Populism is unavoidable. Obama wants to levy windfall taxes on oil companies, give tax rebates to the masses and re-negotiate NAFTA to stem the loss of jobs. McCain is more even-keeled on economics but still whenever he is speaking in Detroit or Ohio or Pennsylvania, it is difficult to justify outsourcing and it is a political land-mine to speak ill of America’s working class. If Obama loses this winter, ‘clinging to religion and guns’ will go down into the history as one of costliest blunders ever.

Similarities and differences aside, some topics never get jaded in the US e.g. gun control, abortion, loss of jobs, drilling of oil, immigration and war veterans. The Indian counterparts are agricultural reforms, privatization, Kashmir and provision of basic necessities. Each election, parties and candidates continue to serve the same old wine in a new bottle and the masses are bound to get drunk.

With all its ironies, the dance of democracy is any day better than the Russian roulette where the world’s largest country’s citizens have no clue how their next President will be elected and where he/she will lead the nation.


Written by serialbus

September 12, 2008 at 11:06 pm

Posted in Politics

Tagged with , , , ,

5 Responses

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  1. Good read. I am in the US now and I am watching the election scene here and keep comparing with the elections in India, my home land. Two things are very clear – people are getting informed and generally the results of elections in US do refelct the wish of the people. I have compiled my thoughts on how the process of elections in India could be reformed to make it more representative of the wish of the people. You may kindly read the same in my blog
    and give your comments on the same. If you like it, you may give it a wider circulations among your colleagues and friends. Thanks

    L V Nagarajan

    September 14, 2008 at 2:01 pm

  2. Why Mix Gandhiji with USA?


    September 15, 2008 at 8:47 pm

  3. good comparison of elections in india and USA.One more thing came to my mind while reading this post.In india people are least interested about the personal lives of politicians.In south india many politicians have mistresses.In fact they have 3 families staying in the same city and every body knows about it.even mayawati was living with kanshiram.there are many more like them.even press is not concerned about it. But in US personal life of politicians is also under scrutiny all the time.


    September 23, 2008 at 2:01 am

  4. It is true that in India we tend to ignore the personal lives of candidate, but it is also true that if one dares to mention/comment on it, then the lives of the reporters are made miserable by the very same politicians..
    I think we still have the old heirarchial society model (“Raj and praja”) system embedded in our brains wherein which we are either idolizing the politicians or equating them to be superior to us; hence the fear


    September 24, 2008 at 9:38 am

  5. finally you are at the right place- express yourself you are simply great at this.I appreciate your vision and wait for many more write-ups.


    September 24, 2008 at 11:16 am

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