Obama, Romney and Indians

Published: October 20, 2012

The writer is a columnist. He is also a former editor of the Mumbai-based English newspaper Mid Day and the Gujarati paper Divya Bhaskar [email protected]

It is with admiration and shame that we must watch the debates in America between Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat President Barack Obama.

Admiration because they operate in a society where debate decides the mind of voters. This aspect became more remarkable when we saw that the election turned after the first exchange between Romney and President Obama.

This means an intellectual engagement of America’s voters with their country’s politics. That they hold judgment on the candidate till they hear from him what his position is on the things that concern them, and then weigh it against the position of his opponent. This is unthinkable in India, where voting is done on the basis of tribal identity. Here is where Indians must feel a little shame. Here Patels vote as Patels, Dalits as Dalits, Muslims as Muslims and Lingayats as Lingayats.

All of India’s parties are actually coalitions of castes, even the ideological ones. The BJP is the party of Lingayats and upper castes in Karnataka, where I live. The Janata Dal here is the party of peasant Vokkaligas and Muslims. The majority in these communities votes for the corresponding parties. This is accepted and unremarked upon.

Policy, intellect, debate, principle — all of that is reduced to identity. Certainly, it is true that it is such tribal identity that has kept India democratic, since there is little to separate political parties in terms of policy. In the absence of such voting by identity, as we observe elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent, democracy wilts. But one wonders, when witnessing the manner of the American voter, when the Indian voter will move on from this.

The idea that someone might be undecided about voting Republican or Democratic till they hear the candidate’s policy positions is an entirely civilised one. We must recognise this in the American voter.

It is true, of course, that there are communal voters in America also. For instance, the blacks, called African-Americans there, vote en bloc for President Obama. So do the Mormons, a small religious community of Christians, for fellow Mormon Romney. To these two groups, the candidate’s tribal identity is more important than what he says or promises to do or, in President Obama’s case, what he has already done. In this sense, they vote like Indians do.

But for the majority of Americans, especially white Americans, it is the policies and character of the candidates that is the clinching factor. Not what their community or religious belief is, and not what their bloodline is.

This difference betweeen America and India is not because of the difference in candidates, mind you. India has some excellent speakers. Few leaders around the world have control over the details of policy as Manmohan Singh does. Few have his intellectual capacity to understand events and what they portend. It is inevitably rewarding to listen to him speak or to read his answers when he is interviewed by the foreign, especially financial, press. But because he lacks charisma, Indians think of him as meek and boring. Our preference is for either the charismatic speaker, like Narendra Modi, or the comic one, like Lalu Prasad Yadav. Pure policy is not stimulating to Indians and this is why leaders like Singh avoid engaging the public except when necessary. He avoids even the Indian media; in my opinion, a wise decision.

The difference between America and India, the reason India doesn’t have debates deciding elections, is in the Indian voter.

Tailpiece: I was taken aback by the number of writers in this paper who expressed outrage over the shooting of a girl. Is this what Pakistan has come to? That its writers must insist that shooting children is wrong? Was that not obvious to Pakistani readers?

Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2012.

Reader Comments (19)

  • Gratgy
    Oct 20, 2012 - 11:43PM

    It’s not charisma that Manmohan Singh lacks but the spine and authority which he lacks. The economic reforms in 1991 were mainly due to the iron will of Narasimha rao which made the space for Singh for his reforms. I was overjoyed when he was made the Prime Minister but unfortunately the congress has reduced him to a string puppet which neither speaks nor does anything by itself while his ministers fill their own pockets

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  • Indian Wisdom
    Oct 20, 2012 - 11:51PM

    “This means an intellectual engagement of America’s voters with their country’s politics. That they hold judgment on the candidate till they hear from him what his position is on the things that concern them, and then weigh it against the position of his opponent. This is unthinkable in India, where voting is done on the basis of tribal identity. “

    Beautifully said. However there has been certain changes during the recent decades where people have voted on the basis of developmental issues and not just tribal instincts. In case of Bihar, majority of Muslims, Yadavs and scheduled castes voted for BJP led alliance and not the party they have been traditionally associated with like RJD or LJP . Similar incidences have been repeated in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. But again exceptions prove the rule.

    I think the advanced stage you are aspiring for (when people will not vote for some one on the basis of tribe but on the basis of debates/what they stand for) will eventually come with education and awareness but will take at a few decades.Till that time experiments in the largest laboratory of democracy will continue, throwing strange results, sometimes making us proud at other times embarrassing us!!!!

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  • Raw is War
    Oct 20, 2012 - 11:56PM

    so?

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  • Python
    Oct 21, 2012 - 1:59AM

    Mr . Author i sometimes don’t understand your thinking.
    When Indians vote for Narendra Modi on the basis of development then you say that we are communal but where we don’t vote on issues of development you say we are dumb!

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  • Sajida
    Oct 21, 2012 - 5:27AM

    In one way India is better. it gives more room for political parties to context elections:
    https://www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/10/16-4
    Leaked Documents Reveal “Monopoly-Like” Control of Presidential Debates
    Two party agreement stultifies debates and encroaches on open democracy, say critics

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  • Maria
    Oct 21, 2012 - 8:34AM

    I really don’t know or care about how Indians vote and think in comparison to Americans. How is this discussion relevant to me as a Pakistani? Please ET, save us the talk about how voters in Sri Lanka or Zaire or Brazil or India compare to voters in India. It doesn’t relate to me.

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  • Oct 21, 2012 - 8:51AM

    @Indian Wisdom:
    i just want to a small modification in your comment. In Bihar it is JD (U) Led allaince ( not led by BJP) which changed the myth that tribal identity work in election. It was the performance/ good governance that Yadavs did not vote Lalu or Muslims did not vote Lalu, / congress but preferred a coalition having BJP( perceived as anti Muslim) as the partner .
    It shows that give them a better choice and the illiterate voters prove their widsom.

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  • Apostate
    Oct 21, 2012 - 11:43AM

    Tailpiece: I was taken aback by the number of writers in this paper who expressed outrage over the shooting of a girl. Is this what Pakistan has come to? That its writers must insist that shooting children is wrong? Was that not obvious to Pakistani readers?

    Are you serious? Do you really follow events in Pakistan intently? It was obvious that many people thought Durand line is not the real boundary anymore and Jinnahs Pakistan is lost to Maududi and Talibans

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  • Rajeev Nidumolu
    Oct 21, 2012 - 1:06PM

    You missed a essential point of weakness of American Democracy. It is two party dictatorship tightly controlled by money interests.No challenger outside the two party system has any chance to meanigfully compete at the ballot.
    There are several presidential candidates on present ballot from various parties like Libertarian party, Independence party etc. You never hear of them in the media . They are not allowed to participate in election debates and in some cases the state laws prohibit them from being listed on the ballot . Example is the case of Ross Perot and Anderson who challenged the two party candidates in the past .
    Presidential debate is a side show for entertainment of public. Despite the rhetoric and debate both the candidates will adopt similiar policies when in power and are hostage to money bags.
    You are mistaken to think that white Americans vote on basis of informed choices after Presidential debate. Majority of white Americans are polarized into two equal party camps with a minority who are the swing vote.

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  • Oct 21, 2012 - 1:26PM

    I am happy to find another person who believes that Manmohan singh makes excellent points when he is asked questions.
    And I personally would like a debate between municipal councillers in bangalore on their short term and long term plans for garbage disposal.
    Thank you Pakistan, for putting up with us.And loved your comment on Malala – I was wonderstruck that the only question the tv moderators asked was should this not be condemned to speaker after speaker night after night. Not one of them quizzed the police on why the security lapse took place, who the suspects are -and where the investigation is going.

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  • Nitish
    Oct 21, 2012 - 4:02PM

    @Maria: Express tribune and Dawn.com r no more only pakistan’s property.Its a global world and these news paper need to cope up with the reader’s demand(predominantly indian). I admire express tribune for its transparency.

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  • pnpuri
    Oct 21, 2012 - 5:46PM

    except john f cennedy 1961 and barak obama 2009 all presidents of us of america have one qualification; white anglo saxon protestant.

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  • Sheheryar Khan
    Oct 21, 2012 - 7:12PM

    I never try to miss any article of yours or Khaled Ahmed. I simply love and enjoy reading you guys. One reason for me coming @ ET website on Sundays. But I would disagree here. One who does not engage public is not liable to be called a leader.

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  • Kallu Mama
    Oct 21, 2012 - 10:14PM

    @Maria:
    So dont read the article if it is not relevant to you – Express Tribune is as much dear to Indians as it is to Pakistanis – so what if it is owned by Pakistani or is base \d in india ??

    Kallu Mama

    Hy’bad, India

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  • karma
    Oct 21, 2012 - 10:42PM

    Akar Patel misses his targets so often, it is a wonder!

    Indian voter makes up his mind not by some debate – but he isn’t blinded to his overall interest. India has never voted on overwhelmingly religious or casteist lines as a whole. Portions of India at times have done so, but then same has happened in US and other countries.

    Overall Indian voter has been amazingly aware of his power, also aware of things that are of importance to him. The only sad part is – what is important to one set of voters isn’t for another set of voter.

    USA is overwhelmingly middle class country. India has about 5% rich, about 25% middle and 70% poor class. In poor sections, the votes are divided on the lines of narrower interests. But, in general middle class voters tend to be swayed by larger national interests.

    For example, Anti-corruption mood is more a midddle class phenomenon, for poorer classes price rise is a bigger issue.

    No amount of debate will change these priorities or what politicians do. It is the same in US or in India. Check history of US debates, and you’ll know that Voters rarely change their mind because of debates (though exceptions to this rule do exist).

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  • gp65
    Oct 22, 2012 - 6:13AM

    @pnpuri: “except john f cennedy 1961 and barak obama 2009 all presidents of us of america have one qualification; white anglo saxon protestant.”

    Yes and even including then all have the qualification male.

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  • Indian Wisdom
    Oct 22, 2012 - 9:19AM

    @p r sharma:
    Thanks. Yes you are absolutely correct!!!! My mistake.
    Thanks for the correction.

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  • Mawali
    Oct 22, 2012 - 4:13PM

    The tailpiece speaks volumes about the state of this god forsaken place! Thank you!

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  • Cautious
    Oct 22, 2012 - 5:44PM

    I was taken aback by the number of
    writers in this paper who expressed
    outrage over the shooting of a girl.
    Is this what Pakistan has come to?
    That its writers must insist that
    shooting children is wrong??

    Your not alone in this observation — .Recommend

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