Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Us versus them

Article written for the newspaper, "Mid-day"... Linked here. The nice cartoon courtesy the paper is also reproduced here. All credits to Mid-day.

Us versus them

How does the recently-concluded US electoral campaign compare to the on-going one in India?

Barack Obama's election as the 44th president of the United States marked a seminal moment in American politics. It was a symbolic victory for the historically traumatised African-American population in the United States to have one of their "own" elected to the highest executive post in their country.

The question that is much asked in India's chattering discussion circles in the media is whether there is going to be an Indian version of an Obama and an Obama-like victory based on the message of "change". Only the political systems and processes of the two democracies have so many contrasts as of today that it is too simplistic to expect a similar outcome in the upcoming Indian Lok Sabha elections as in the US presidential elections.

It is clear that the American public have risen above the latent expressions of fear and hate that have jaundiced their past, to move their country away from the woeful legacy of George W Bush and his neoconservative administration. It took an inspired campaign based on strong volunteer activity, networking technologies and innovative "messaging" for Obama to achieve the victory in the US electioneering system that is highly media-driven and which relies on portraying differences in "image" and "packaging of messages".

The socio-politico-economic situation in the USA compares well with what is going on in India today. There is a rejuvenation of hate for the "other", as terror attacks (in many urban centres) and communalism (in Orissa and Karnataka) has ravaged all corners of the country. The agrarian economy has been stagnant and farmers are still under duress, despite concessions by the government. The boom time in the services economy that lasted a few years threatens to come to a screeching halt, as India faces as much of a financial and economic downturn as the global economy. Long time wounds in India such as Kashmir are festering up again. Demands for statehood based on ethnic identity (Gorkhaland) and socio-economic discrimination (Telangana) have reared up again. Competitive regionalism and chauvinism have threatened to disrupt normal life in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and in Bihar.

The government of today is hard-pressed to address all these effectively, owing to a mixture of reasons from incompetence, misplaced priorities, leadership and sheer lack of will. Just like in the US, India will also go for elections soon, with the "hope" that the next elected dispensation will address the issues. Only four years ago, the people had given a mandate all across India against the NDA alliance for its handling of the agrarian crisis, growing inequality and support to communalism.

There is therefore a similarity with the American situation, but the contrasts between the political systems in these countries are stark. In a presidential system like the US, political differences get personalised and issues get subordinated to image and character of the candidates. There is also the preponderance of the two major parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, whose candidates crowd out other "third" party candidates in funding, media coverage and ballot access.

This was what precisely happened in the current presidential elections. The concurrent Congressional elections to the Senate and the House of Representatives were also influenced by the larger show of the Obama-John McCain fight, as the theme of "change" helped the Democratic Party win a majority of the Congressional seats over the Republican party.
In India however, the polity is not restricted to a two party system. India is a strongly federalised union of many states with deeper and wider, linguistic and identity differences than the US. The multiplicity of various parties, both regional and national therefore complicate the process of elections, with issues and factors at the national level having outcomes based on regional equations which depend on factors such as caste alliances. Thus, coalition politics rules the roost in this country as various parties converge upon bigger alliances. This has taken the shape of three broad entities: the UPA led by the Congress, the NDA led by the BJP and the Third Front including the Left and the BSP.

To a great extent thus, the Indian political system offers a higher number of choices for different constituencies; for peasants, the urban middle class, the dalits, the small landowners, the businessmen and the workers and of course the category of "castes". In the US however, the predominance of the two party system meant that voters had no choice but to choose the better of the two options or for some, the least worse off of them. For example, in economic policy; McCain and Obama differ on regulation of financial markets, but ended up favouring a taxpayer funded bailout of failed financial firms, restricting their solutions to the financial crisis to mere liquidity injection. In contrast, there is wider choice for the Indian voter in economic policies — for some parties support greater liberalisation and privatisation, some are dead opposed and some prefer a regulated approach. Except that being a third world country, not all Indians are aware about such differentiation in policy and merely vote on the basis of issues of identity — their caste, religion or regional pride.

Similar to the US, issues and agendas do converge into abstract qualities such as leadership; and no wonder, each alliance is keen to project its best face as the prime leader. And just as Barack Obama's win was seen as much as any African American's win, Mayawati of the BSP would want to win as the Dalit representative. But while Obama highlighted his personality and demeanour to win over support which transcended skin colour, Mayawati would have to pitch her party's slogan of "sarva-samaj" by stitching together a larger caste alliance.

Both democracies therefore have their strengths and their deficiencies, but the redeeming factor remains the voter. If in the US, Americans rose above their partisan divisions to vote Obama as the alternate to Bush's legacy, in India too, voters need to rise above mere "restrictive identities" to elect their representatives who are capable and offer value as policymakers and executives. Using Obama's words, the challenge is to achieve a "more perfect union" and there is no other means but the ballot box.

The writer works for the editorial board of Economic & Political Weekly

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