By the time this column appears in print, one of the most acrimonious election campaigns in the history of the free world would be over. Hopefully, it would also be behind us: that is, if it produces a clear winner.
The spirited contest between incumbent George W. Bush and challenger John Kerry was the third US presidential election that this columnist has covered ' the last two as a journalist, and the 1996 campaign which re-elected Bill Clinton, as an academic. After three campaigns, my overwhelming feeling is one of deep relief. Relief that despite all the shortcomings in Indian elections, they are nothing like elections in America.
On the final day of the campaign, I watched a member of the Bush cabinet, the agriculture secretary, Ann Veneman, engage in something that no politician in India would do on the campaign trail 24 hours before polling. She went to Ohio and handed out $1.5 million of American taxpayers' money to a family-owned lumber company as a loan guarantee. That was not all. In Ohio, she announced new projects costing about $100 million in 16 states. Ohio is a state that Bush was determined to win because no Republican has ever been elected to the White House without carrying Ohio. In 2000, Bush won in Ohio by merely 3.6 percentage points: but that was after his then opponent, Al Gore, abandoned the state prematurely, diverting money and staff to other states which were considered more competitive.
So the president sent Veneman to this major battleground of the 2004 election with a largesse that was an open bribe to Ohio voters. The agriculture secretary put on a pretence of engaging in her official duties and not politicking with public money. But the bottom fell out of that pretence when she made what was, in truth, a campaign speech praising Bush's commitment 'to assisting small businesses in rural America'.
On the eve of polling, the interior secretary, Gale Norton, was out too, openly offering inducements to voters. Bush legalized a new National Historical Park spread across the states of Washington and Oregon, which have both been tilting towards Kerry in opinion polls. He then sent Norton out to publicize it as voters in the two states were making up their minds for the final time on whom to vote for. Forget members of the cabinet. Twenty-four hours before voting, the White House even dispatched an official ' Mark Rey, an under-secretary for agriculture ' to New Hampshire with offers to fund conservation schemes. New Hampshire was psychologically important for Bush since it is in the New England area, the home turf of Kerry. On election eve, the state was leaning towards the Democrats, but it was the only New England state where Bush had a fighting chance.
For that matter, Bush himself has done what no Indian prime minister would be allowed to do bang in the middle of a re-election campaign because, unlike the United States of America, India has an independent Election Commission. Eleven days ago, Bush signed a law that allowed tax cuts worth $140 billion for big corporations. The signature was criticized even by a well-respected Republican senator, John McCain, as 'the worst example of the influence of special interests (on the administration) that I have ever seen'. Among other things, the bill included a $10 billion industry-financed buy-out for tobacco farmers, which further shored up the president's position in the election in North Carolina, a staunch Republican state. For Bush, the significance of North Carolina has been that it is the home state of Kerry's vice-presidential running mate, John Edwards. The Republicans wanted Kerry and Edwards to be trounced in the latter's home state.
The problem with American elections is that, as an instrument of democracy, it is anachronistic. The most anachronistic of all its by-products is a dinosaur known as the electoral college, made up of electors from each state where the winner takes all. The only exceptions are Maine and Nebraska.
It is often lost on the world that because of the electoral college, America's president is not even actually elected until long after the people have voted. Members of the electoral college are expected ' not required ' to vote for the candidate to whom they pledge their loyalty when they are appointed to the electoral college.
Four years ago, because Bush had only a bare majority in the electoral college, if one member of that electoral college had voted differently, the process by which Bush became president could have been derailed. Instead of Dick Cheney, the Democrat, Joseph Lieberman, would have been vice-president under Bush since the Senate would then have chosen the new vice-president. If two members of the electoral college had opted to vote differently, Gore ' instead of Bush ' would have been sworn in as president on January 20, 2000.
There was a time when the inability to easily change political institutions in America was the country's strength. It made those institutions tamper-proof. When India was an emerging democracy, it was easy to stand back and admire the strength and durability of such institutions in the US. But today, that very inability to change institutions in America has become the biggest liability of its body politic. Such immunity from change has caused the entire political system to corrode to a point where America's fa'ade of democracy is intact, but its foundations are shaky and its insides are cracked and mouldy.
There are conventions ' or legislation ' in America governing everything in politics. But increasingly, these are circumvented, if not breached. And this is by no means a Republican or a Bush malaise. Bill Clinton did as much during his campaign for re-election in 1996 and members of the Clinton cabinet were as guilty of acts of commission during Gore's presidential campaign four years ago as the Bush administration's incumbents are today. America's presidential election is actually an unequal battle between the incumbent and his challenger. There is nothing in US political conventions or laws that stops an incumbent from dispensing patronage or favours, let alone exploiting the trappings of his office while campaigning for re-election.
As late as last weekend, the Bush administration announced a largesse of $21 million for airports that suffered damage during recent hurricanes. The airports which would benefit from such additional funding were all in the battleground states of the presidential election, including Florida and Pennsylvania. Could this infusion of extra money not have waited another four days, until polling was over'
A president fighting for re-election campaigns all over the country like a president ' not as just another candidate. The aura that he brings to the campaign trail has no match: especially when he lands at airports all over America on Air Force One and holds rallies right at the airports. The challenger has his aircraft too, he holds airport rallies as well, but his landings and take-offs are a far cry from those of the president.
The challenger has Secret Service protection, but he does not have a two-dozen-odd-vehicle motorcade that brings him to the rally even if it is within the airport premises. The lectern from which he addresses voters does not have the presidential seal on it, nor is the Stars and Stripes Forever played when he walks away after a campaign meeting, unlike in the case of the president.
All of which may have been all right when politics was less corrupt and more principled in America. Or when war, xenophobia and bigotry did not play such a huge role in an electoral outcome. The lasting lesson of the 2004 presidential election in America is that when the country is so polarized and split half way down the middle, its political system is in need of urgent restructuring if it is to survive as a democracy in spirit and not just in name.