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.