US Versus THEM
November 16, 2012
The only event of consequence and utter in-consequence that has taken place since I moved to New York has been the much discussed and debated U.S Presidential election. I moved to the U.S in July at the peak of election fever. I have been able to watch it from somewhat close quarters – first because I covered the elections for an Indian news channel and second because I am married to a man obsessed with politics! I was outside the white house on the night of November 6 when his supporters kicked up their heels as Obama won a second term – even as votes for most states were still being counted. Indian news channels were also celebrating like they were the MSNBCs of the developing world. In the following days, again, while Florida was still counting its votes, I read several pieces by Indians hinting at how the US elections and their politicians were somewhat better than the uncouth spectacle that the Indian democracy presents.
Here is where I have a slight problem with that comparison. My premise being, that politics by its nature consists of “social relations involving authority or power.” Such absoluteness of a term that governs our social construct, I believe, can rarely be different in distinct parts of the world, primarily because human ambitions remain alike worldwide. Politics in India or U.S is just as good or as rotten. Wikipedia rightly states that power can be seen as evil or unjust, but the exercise of power is accepted as endemic to humans as social beings.
Let’s keep some cosmetic issues aside. The Indian politician will remain dhoti clad because almost 70% of India (mostly the one that votes) lives in villages. It would be unfair to grant a western designer suit clad politician points for his urban attire. Let’s keep the language aside. Speaking an Indian language will be the mainstay of Indian politics whether or not a candidate is educated in English– for his vote bank will remain largely educated in an Indian language. Also let’s not compare the politicians on the size of their girth.
Once we are over the initial cognitive hurdle of looking at politicians of the two countries, the question I ask is are two of the world’s largest democracies so very different so as to declare one a winner against the other? I referred to Florida a couple of times in this post. The fact that it didn’t matter what the popular vote of the country meant for the presidential race is slightly disconcerting. That the election was limited to 9 swing or deciding states is a mockery of democracy because it assumes that some states will vote Democratic and Republic in whole and even if they don’t the majority votes will ensure the intangible electoral votes. In India politicians don’t have the liberty of such confidence. My neighbor in Mumbai and I would vote for two different parties, and that was the case in most of India. So every election is a test of the will of the people. While in the U.S in the year 2000 while Al Gore won the vote of all America’s people, Bush went on to become to President. The tremors of that mistake are still being felt in the middle-east and around India.
Indians also marvel at the platform of presidential debates. I agree that debates should be encouraged for the sake of democracy. India completely brushes away the idea of a confrontation where voters can hear two candidates on the same platform. Indian politicians are wary of their bluff being called. Having said that, US Presidential debates are contests where the smooth liar takes home the cup.
Also if the U.S does call itself a democracy, then why is it that just those two parties are allowed to thrive. And this is no coincidence or fate, but it’s by design. It serves the Democratic party and the GOP well to just compete against each other than have splinters to worry about. It serves the media well to create a hype that splits the mandate in the middle. It serves well for advertisers, corporations, television, seven-elevens, religion and just about anything else to curtail the growth of any other party that provides a valid alternative. No wonder then that a New York Times endorses Obama. For whatever its failings and affiliations, an Indian news organization dare not endorse any political party openly. It would be signaled as the death of journalism.
In India people scorn at the “corrupt” politicians that spend millions of rupees in their campaigns. According to estimates, around Rs 50,000 crore were spent in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. At the same time over $6 billion have been spent to elect one President (not the senate or congress.) Technically Indian election commission had put a cap of 25 lakh per Lok Sabha seat which roughly totals up to Rs 1.3 billion (around $25 million) for the entire Lok Sabha. Whether it’s adhered to is another question. The U.S doesn’t bar any amount of spending by any anonymous source. While people in India complain about crony capitalists financing elections, it no different in the U.S. Super PACs that fund the candidates’ campaign are funded by big corporations that under law can form organizations that do not require disclosing the source of donation. In India a candidate is given a ticket to contest if he can raise enough money to spend in the elections. Likewise in the U.S, data by Democracy Info shows that Obama with a higher collection had a better opportunity of winning. The same data shows that it takes 155 million Americans’ one year of work to make the 6 billion dollar spending. What was spent however resulted in no added income for American families. And if we must still believe that America is ok with it? It’s clearly not. According to a poll by Corporate Reform Coalition, more than 80% Americans agreed that there is way too much money in politics.
And what exactly does the purpose of election and politics in both countries solve? Everyone in India argues about politics only benefiting businessmen and not the mango people (aam junta). During this election season it became fashionable in India to believe that Obama was a messiah (for a country we have no understanding of). While I do not choose Romney over Obama, believing that only Obama has worked to change the country’s fortune would only be naïve. Former Democrat Mathew Stoller analyses data to conclude that “after the Obama inflection point, corporate profits recovered dramatically and surpassed previous highs, whereas home equity levels have remained static. That $5-7 trillion of lost savings did not come back, whereas financial assets and corporate profits did.”
I believe that the idea of democracy is all pervasive. It’s what empowers Davids against Goliaths. But the ideology of politics in two of the biggest democracies of the world is unfortunately manned by humans that I believe haven’t evolved into understanding the value of democracy. The purpose of politics, reasons why one joins politics is unfortunately to gain unhinged power, and that remains unchanged wherever you may go. American philosopher Robert Maynard Hutchins had said that “the death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment”. Hope we’re not almost there, for it’s really long ago that Hutchins said that.