For all of us used to the bombastic rhetoric and carnival-like chaos of Indian elections, the American presidential race has been an otherworldly treat to watch. It isn’t just because their big guns are willing to face off on TV while our studio debates often smack of the worst sort of déjà vu. The most compelling thing about US elections is how much the campaign has been fuelled by the power of ideas.
As Barack Obama and John McCain slug it out in televised confrontations, they are being judged how they articulate their positions on everything from Iraq, Iran and Pakistan to the economy, health-care and climate change. The media has made acerbic computations of how many times either candidate has voted on an issue in Congress; websites are dedicated to measuring the truth quotient of every utterance and bloggers write not just on intonation and inflection, but on the intellectual integrity of either side. Perhaps that is what has caught our imagination: this is an election where there is space for nuance and a campaign in which policy will determine performance.
An inordinate time was spent in one of the debates, for example, on what Obama really meant when he said diplomatic contact with Iran should resume. Both men ended up in a smarmy confrontation on what Henry Kissinger, a policy adviser for the Republicans, had advocated on doing business with Iran. An equivalent Indian concern — let’s say the issue of strategic depth in Afghanistan — could have found happy space on our TV channels, but would have been privately dismissed by our politicians as a non-issue. In fact, every ideological or policy debate here suffers from the tag of being little more than a liberal lament.
Of course, you could argue that a contentious and self-destructive war in Iraq and the shadow of 9/11 has ensured that US elections can never be contested in the same way again. For the US, the distinctions between foreign policy and domestic discourse have blurred. And yes, unlike America, India isn’t sitting on the debris of a Bush presidential tenure, where much has to be built from scratch. So, while America and India may be apples and oranges, the contrast is still dramatic.
Think about it. Can you imagine our national elections being determined by the Congress’ Kashmir policy or the BJP’s refusal to endorse the nuclear deal? The Indian economy is beginning to seriously crack under the weight of the global financial crisis. But do you think the 2009 polls will ever be defined by how the NDA and the UPA enunciate their ideologies on capitalism and the role of government in market regulation? Will the present finance minister agree to a take on the BJP nominee to hammer out which way the battleship should be steered? And if they did agree to such a face-off, would we vote on the basis of what they said, and how they said it?
In any case, much too often, populism has pushed our ruling and Opposition on to the same side — whether on issues of fuel subsidies or affirmative action. Caste-based quota policies could have been a definitive ideological argument except that, in the end, no party dared to be that different. And so, now, calculations of caste arithmetic have created an artificial sameness of articulation on quotas, no matter, which politician you talk to.
Perhaps, the only issue that could be genuinely ideologically contested in 2009 is the challenge of terrorism, and the off-shoot debates of secularism and minority politics. But here too, it’s my hunch — that once the TV-savvy spokespersons of both sides have spewed enough venom — Indians may not actually vote on the basis of whether The Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002, should be brought back or not. Not because we don’t care about terrorism — we do. It’s because we tend to vote with our hearts, instead of our minds, in some approximate, instinctive response to issues, rather than a well-calibrated, academic framework of ideas.
And then, of course, there’s the fact that India is anything but a monolith. The multitude of identities within one nation makes it tough for any single ideology to have a pan-Indian following. Our early years of independence may have been powered by the educated and often-esoteric ideas of a political elite. But recent years have propelled a churning of caste and class to throw up an new political hegemony. The liberals may long for an era gone by, but then how often do they even get out and vote? And in any case, there is a certain democratisation that is driving New India, and that needs to be embraced, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
Even America is dealing with its own democracy diva: Sarah Palin. American liberals are huffing and puffing about a woman who had never met a foreign Head of State until recently and didn’t get a passport till as late as 2007. Her gaffes on the Bush doctrine and marching into Iraq are now the stuff of satire. Columnists want to know how a woman who stands for style instead of substance can have the audacity to run for office. But Middle America loves her; they see themselves reflected both in her ordinariness and her aspiration for more and better.
India’s thinking classes have been forced to learn a similar lesson as they watch the contours of Bharat take shape well outside the world of editorials.
The truth is, in India, politics and ideas have stood far apart, with both sides contemptuous of the other. It’s when you blend the two that the world’s largest democracy and the world’s oldest one may learn something from each other.
(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV)