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DISTANT ONLOOKERS
- Shouldn’t Indians be benignly indifferent to the US elections?

Assumptions embellish folklore, or it could well be the other way round. Indians, that is, Indians lucky enough to belong to the upper strata, have long clung to a particular conviction: while British Tories are mostly abominable, the Labour Party is splendid, it has been consistently sympathetic toward our national aspirations. There was perhaps an element of truth in this belief in the pre-Independence era. The overlap of Fabian Socialists in the ranks of the Labour Party as well as the Indian League could hardly be ignored. In contrast, the Conservative Party, Indians loved to assume — and not altogether without reason — represented the whole lot of Colonel Blimps, rude, snobbish, racial-minded. Even the hamhandedness, or worse, displayed by the Labour government in settling the terms of Independence — including the country’s partitioning — did not quite sully the Labour image to the Indian middle-class: the Labourites were upright, generous, full of the milk of human kindness.

During a certain period, Nye Bevan, with his Welsh oratory, was a great hit with the Indian literati. It needed a Tony Blair and his devastating Margaret Thatcher philosophy of life to dissolve the illusion. The migrant community of Indians in Britain, belonging by and large to the working class, was earlier habituated to vote Labour. That is now changing; constituencies with a heavy concentration of Indians have begun to send to parliament, on and off, Conservatives too. The Labour monopoly over the Indian vote has ended.

A similar genre of idée fixe has marked the attitude of Indians towards the Democratic and the Republican parties in the United States of America. Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which led to the establishment of the League of Nations at the end of World War I, had brought cheer to the leadership of the Indian National Congress. A few decades later, they were similarly fired up by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s strident call for Four Freedoms and his letter to Winston Churchill at the height of World War II urging the immediate grant of independence to India. Indians have ever since tended to paint the Democratic Party in the most romantic colours. Democrats, the belief persisted, are more supportive than the Republicans of the anti-colonial movements that swept the middle decades of the 20th century. Eleanor Roosevelt’s many forays espousing diverse liberal causes strengthened the belief; few cared to enquire about the extent of influence the old lady had within the Democratic Party ranks. On the other hand, despite awareness of its Abraham Lincoln legacy, the Republican Party seems to have been generally regarded in Indian quarters as the epitome of both isolationism and social conservatism.

The party also acquired the reputation of being pro-big-business. A Wendell Wilkie would suddenly appear on the scene and set at disarray some of these pre-conceived notions. Even so, it is only in the relatively more recent decades straddling the Cold War, the Un-American Activities Committee, Korea, Vietnam, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and the rest, that Indians have come to realize that, in the contest of the US, party labels are greatly misleading. Generations of immigrants, who have reached American shores since the Sixties, have often hailed from the western and northern parts of India. Possessing a distinctly prosaic approach to life and living, they quickly imbibed the knowledge that it takes all sorts to make a political party in the US. Specific interest groups, for instance, are so powerful that party denominations hardly apply in their case. Not surprisingly, their assessment of political developments in India rarely conforms to a pattern either. It will be awesomely difficult to decide whether the Congress has greater rapport with the Democratic Party than the Bharatiya Janata Party has, or whether the Republicans would feel more comfortable with a BJP-led regime in New Delhi than one headed by the Congress.

Where international political and economic relations are concerned, scarcely any differentiation is possible between the contours of policy pursued by the two principal parties in the US. True, Condoleezza Rice happens to be secretary of state to a Republican president. But, with a slight change in idiom, she might have served, equally felicitously, a president belonging to the Democratic Party. The space the media in India are setting aside to report and comment on the primary contests for the choice of candidates of the two parties in the US presidential election later this year would therefore appear to be somewhat extravagant. It is partly a homage to fashion and partly an acknowledgement of the spiritual affinity the Indian elite have already discovered with the American nation.

Wishes are not horses. Many in India, having made up their mind that they have had enough of George W. Bush’s Iraq war, would this time like American citizens to choose a Democrat for the White House. Notwithstanding what they think, any significant shift in American foreign affairs is, however, improbable irrespective of the party affiliation of the new president. Campaign rhetoric is just that; withdrawal of troops from Iraq is not something that can be accomplished overnight even were the Democrats to win the poll. Constraints of logistics will not be easy to surmount. The new incumbent of the presidential seat will also be under a number of compulsions impossible to get rid of; after all, the head of the world’s mightiest power presides over an awesome imperium. On such issues as the Indo-US nuclear deal too, New Delhi might discover a Democratic regime as tough — or as malleable — as the Bush administration has been.

Or consider some of the more crucial aspects of trade and economic relationships. Despite the party’s liberal image in Indian minds, the presidential candidate representing the Democratic Party is likely to be under tremendous pressure from domestic lobbies, particularly lobbies looking after the interests of labour, to cut down drastically on business process outsourcing. As the poll date gets nearer, even the Republican candidate might feel the same pressure mounting on him. Whichever way the poll outcome goes, a sizeable reduction in BPO activities would therefore emerge as an inevitable consequence and, in turn, have a major impact on the GDP growth rate in India.

Should not a benign indifference towards the American presidential election then be the proper option for Indians? Whatever the political colour of the new administration, our own government would have to live with it. The Americans, too, on their part have to accept India as it is, and take into account the domestic realities, including the political realities, over here.

What is still bemusing is the near-certitude with which the Indian media are predicting a Democratic victory next November. This reportorial bias is no doubt heavily influenced by the goings-on in the American media. But one never knows. It now seems more than probable that the Republicans will have Senator John McCain as their presidential candidate. For the Democrats, the choice lies between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama; at this moment, it is, as the expression goes, too close to call. All that is obvious is that the person the Democrats are going to name will be either a white female or a black male.

Should this be the lay of the land, the odds of a Republican victory in the presidential poll for a third time running cannot be at all ruled out. Despite the mind-boggling economic and technological strides it has made in the course of the past century, overwhelming sections of the American nation continue to be intensely ‘provincial’-minded. Will they get reconciled to the reality of either a woman or a black as their head of State, or will it be simply too much for these millions and millions of honest, rustic folk?

It is safest to wait for that judgement day, more so for outsiders who are not the judges but only distant onlookers — onlookers whose destiny is bound to be the same whoever wins the US poll.

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